How Tactical Urbanism Can Help Build a #BetterMainStreet

Isaac Kremer/ August 7, 2014/ tactical urbanism/ 0 comments

Note: This story was originally published as the Main Street Story of the Week by the National Main Street Center and posted in two parts on August 7, 2014 and August 28, 2014.

So you want to transform your downtown but only have a shoestring budget. Or your volunteers are willing to help out but the last thing they want to do is sit through endless meetings to make ANOTHER plan that will never translate in to results. What is any self-respecting Main Street manager, public official, or volunteer to do?


The Emergence of Tactical Urbanism

Within the past few years a revolution has occurred in how people go about making places better. Planning practice for the past few decades has been defined by a top down approach with all knowing “experts” providing their guidance. Public participation was often limited to providing a smattering of input in hearings or town meetings after key elements of major projects had already been decided. What this resulted in were places that while logical and well planned, lacked the identity, attractiveness, and soul of places that people love.

The Great Recession threw a major wrench in these top-down projects. No longer did the public sector have millions of dollars of taxpayer money to spend on the next big fix, whether it be for another stadium, conference center, aquarium, or some other project of this type. The curtailment of commercial lending also seriously hampered the ability of the private sector to bring viable projects of any kind to market.

As Main Street practitioners have known for some time, in adversity and challenge is opportunity. Government at all levels has no money? No problem. Developers can’t get financing for that next big project downtown? No worries. A do-it-yourself movement has emerged to make changes to places on a shoestring budget. With social media and the Internet and the nearly ubiquitous smart phone with camera, citizen placemakers now have the tools needed to share their innovative ideas with people all over the planet instantaneously.

Today practitioners of tactical urbanism are transforming places all around for the better. This approach calls for low cost short-term interventions that plant the seeds for long-term change. In the Tactical Urbanism Manual, vol. 2, Mike Lydon of Street Plans Collaborative and his co-authors define tactical urbanism as having the following characteristics:

  1. A deliberate, phased approach to instigating change.
  2. An offering of local ideas for local planning challenges.
  3. Short-term commitment and realistic expectations.
  4. Low-risks, with a possibly high reward.
  5. The development of social capital between citizens, and the building of organizational capacity between public/private institutions, non-profit/NGOs, and their constituents.


These tactics range from the sanctioned to the unsanctioned and are carried out by a variety of actors from artists, activists, and community groups (such as Main Street programs); to non-profits, entrepreneurs, and developers; and even city agencies, business improvement districts, and mayors themselves.


A key ingredient in tactical urbanism is involving people who will most be effected by changes in the place making process. Building an Adirondack chair out of a shipping pallet makes more than just a chair. The process has educational value and demonstrates the ability and power that ordinary people have to bring about change and make places better. This in return builds a constituency and a strong movement to bring further change about.



Tactical Urbanism and Main Street


Now, if this sounds familiar, tactical urbanism is not all that different from the citizen-initiated and led Main Street Approach® that enlightened communities have been pursuing for more than thirty years. Main Street is an incremental approach that relies on the wisdom of grassroots volunteers to transform places for the better. Main Street emphasizes the need and importance of taking action to make improvements that transform the physical form of the downtown. As changes add up this transforms the perception folks have of the downtown and creates an environment more receptive for investment. An essential ingredient to the success of Main Street is a public private partnership that brings multiple people and entities together to support downtown revitalization goals. So, in a way, Main Streeters were tactical urbanists even before tactical urbanism ever existed.

Where tactical urbanism differs from the Main Street Approach® is by advocating for taking temporary action NOW to demonstrate what is possible a few steps down the road. Rather than spending countless months or years to prepare another plan, or trying to land that one big grant, tactical urbanism encourages us to go out and make our downtown a little bit better today.

The connection between tactical urbanism and preservation did not escape then Columbia University graduate student Fernanda Sotelo. In her thesis “Beyond Temporary: Preserving the Existing Built Environment with Temporary Urban Interventions,” Sotelo analyzes several examples of temporary interventions and suggests a hybrid approach where citizen-led transformations to the historic built environment can help to achieve long-term preservation goals.

Perhaps the area where tactical urbanism, historic preservation, and the Main Street Approach® overlap best is in the Build a Better Block project started by Jason Roberts in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, Texas in 2010. Better Block calls for enlisting volunteers to perform interventions on a single block over a 48 hour period.  Some of the tactics that might be used are temporary bike lanes, pop-up shops, and pop-up parks, just to name a few.


Tactical Urbanists Take to the Streets (and Sidewalks)

The public realm and our streets and sidewalks are one area where tactical urbanists have thrived. The Open Streets movement has closed off streets to cars and made them available for a variety of activities like walking, bicycling, and skating. The Play Streets movement is a similar tactic to close streets off and make them available for people of all ages to play.


Park(ing) Day is an annual event where parking spaces are transformed in to park-like spaces for the enjoyment of the public. Sod is laid down on the asphalt then benches, picnic tables, planters, and other amenities are added. This event has been considered as a precursor for the pavement to plazas and parklet movements.


Pavement to plazas converts asphalt that is not being fully utilized in to public space. For the cost of paint and a few barriers usable public space is made. New York City’s Times Square is perhaps one of the most successful applications of this tactic. The Pavement to Parks program or “parklets” transform street parking spaces to provide new amenities and public space. A platform rests on the street and sits flush with the sidewalk. Then a variety of activities may take place in a space where there was just parking before.


From Tactical Urbanism to Tactical Economy

By now you might be thinking, well, all of this sounds good, but how is it going to help build a strong and resilient local economy? Fortunately, tactical urbanists have an answer for that too. Take the parklet, for example. With the addition of tables, seating, and a vendor serving coffee, voila, you now have a pop-up café in your downtown for just a few hundred dollars.

Have a business that is thinking about starting up downtown, but not sure if they can afford the costs? The pop-up shop is your answer. Ask a building owner if they’d be willing to give a space for three to six months for an aspiring business to start out. Then spend the bare minimum of money to get the space open and determine if there is market demand for the product or service offered. If successful over this trial period the pop-up shops can become permanent addition to your downtown.

The ability of sidewalks and public spaces to support entrepreneurial activity should not be overlooked. Mobile vendors only need a few square feet to provide needed services, bring activity to underutilized public spaces, and give vendors an opportunity to build wealth for themselves.  Food carts are another tactic that brings new businesses in and tests out the market demand in an area for their offerings. Food attracts people and has the ancillary benefit of increasing spending for nearby businesses.

Cincinnati-based author Della Rucker, author of The Local Economy Revolution has speculated on how we may move from tactical urbanism to a concept she calls “tactical economy.” Instead of putting our increasingly limited resources in to another streetscape project that brings stamped pavement and pretty lights, though that fails to live up to their promised economic impact, perhaps we need to take the limited resources we have and build a tactical economy.

Sounds like a good idea but not sure how this works out? All you have to do is look to communities where this approach has been applied successfully. Next week we’ll feature two Main Street communities that have both utilized tactical urbanism to great advantage. We’ll then speculate on the power of tactical urbanism has to help Main Street programs get results all over the country.

Part 2 of 2

In our previous article we provided an overview of tactical urbanism and how this is transforming the way people go about adapting and transforming places that matter most to them. In this article we will provide examples of how these ideas have been implemented and what has resulted in two very different places. Oyster Bay, New York on Long Island was one of the first communities to ever carry out a Better Block project in 2010. Middlesboro, Kentucky, has taken these tactical urbanism ideas to a whole new level making them a centerpiece of a program to promote entrepreneurship and job creation in one of the most economically distressed areas in the United States.  After sharing these examples we will speculate on the potential of tactical urbanism to increase the ability of Main Street programs to get results.


Oyster Bay – 2010

Mike Lydon of Street Plans Collaborative and a team of urban planning and placemaking professionals approached us in 2010 and asked if they could help transform a block of our downtown in 48 hours for $1,000 or less. When we first heard those words they made absolutely no sense to us and required clarification. After some further thought the answer was a resounding “Yes!” What followed was an intensive three week process by which we brought stakeholders and the local government together. In that short time we managed to find a block, coordinate all the logistics, and carry out what we believe to have been only the third Better Block project ever held.


What transpired over the two days was impressive. Just as the event started none other than Billy Joel came riding up Audrey Avenue on his motorcycle. He sat down in front of the pop-up shop and stayed there the full two days. Joining him were over a hundred local business owners and residents who were curious to see what was happening downtown.

A number of interventions were carried out including making a pop-up park in a parking lot where we laid down 300 feet of sod and created a playspace on top of that. A water feature and sandbox were installed nearby. We even piloted a farmers’ market.


Six months later Billy Joel opened his 20th Century Cycles in the pop-up shop. The farmers’ market got fully established and continued going strong, and today Audrey Avenue is one of the most attractive streets in downtown Oyster Bay. What we found through this event is that change IS possible, and that Better Block is a great way to speed up the process of taking good ideas people already had and to put them in to action.


The Main Street program, public officials, and community leaders were emboldened by their ability to get results and went on to restore several more buildings, install new streetlights along Audrey Ave and throughout the downtown, and encourage several new businesses to get started including several with an arts and crafts focus. That initial $1,000 investment that the Main Street program made more than paid off.


Middlesboro, Kentucky – 2013

Fast forward a few years later to Southeast Kentucky. While creating a strategic plan to guide our work for our Main Street program, tactical urbanism was included as a priority area. An opportunity came about in August 2013 to put this plan in to action through the Successful Communities Contest held by CommunityMatters® and the Orton Family Foundation. Several dozen communities nationally participated in a listening session with Ed McMahon from the Urban Land Institute and learned more about asset-based approaches to community and economic development. They were then asked to go out and propose one easy to implement idea that might transform our community for the better.


By that time we had already been working with the Brushy Fork Institute at Berea College and were planning to hold a Better Block event in October and to bring Mike Lydon to Kentucky. So naturally the idea we submitted for the contest was our Better Block event, not fully knowing what shape that event might ultimately take. What we submitted must have been good enough, because after two weeks of daily online voting Middlesboro received the highest number of votes in the contest. Even our Congressman Hal Rogers got in to the act, encouraging folks to vote on Twitter. We not only won the contest, but we were one of four communities nationally selected to receive a $500 prize.


With that money in hand we went out and attracted over $25,000 more. Crowdfunding was one of the tools we used. Fund for the Arts out of Louisville and their platform gave a huge boost to our fundraising efforts.


Then the day of the event arrived. It was freezing cold outside. Early that morning we were worried that no one would show up. Sure enough though, one by one, over 100 volunteers from 18 different states came out to take part in the event. What was most amazing is that people who had previously not had any contact with our program were taking hands on action to make our downtown better.


The Park Theater that had been closed for 30 years was reopened. We hung a large tarp to make a screen, put in temporary lighting and chairs, and cleaned the floors and painted the walls. That same night we screened “It’s A Wonderful Life” before about 50 people. Just down the block a vacant storefront was transformed in to the Exploration Center for creative play and learning. Today the center is still operating and we’re working with the owner to facilitate a more than $1 million rehabilitation of the theater.


Documentation of activities as they are happening and sharing the results has become an important part of Better Block events no matter where they have been held. We were fortunate to have some students from the University of Kentucky prepare a post-event video that can be seen here.


Parklets, a pop-up park, sharrows, and guerilla wayfinding created during the event were a great success. Several of these continue to be in place and are still enhancing the vitality and image of the downtown in the minds of people several months later.


Better Block Middlesboro Part II  – 2014

Having brought Better Block to Middlesboro once and been successful doing that, the second time was a much easier sell. Volunteers turned out again in record numbers. A series of planning meetings and pre-builds were held in the two months leading up to the event.


We realized that encouraging entrepreneurship and business creation as one of the major needs of our area. Once again the Brushy Fork Institute supported us in this effort with a Flex-E-Grant from the Kentucky Department of Local Government and Appalachian Regional Commission. We transformed a vacant storefront in to a pop-up shop called the Makers Market to feature the work of area artists, crafters, and food producers. Lo and behold people came in droves. Today the market represents nearly two-dozen artists and has had over 1,000 visitors in the first three months. Several of the makers have had great success finding a market for their work and are enthusiastically partnering with Discover Downtown Middlesboro to create a co-working space here with broadband internet access, coffee, and pie (a hat tip to the PieLab in Greensboro, Alabama).


Just down the block we took a vacant alley and made a pop-up park. A mural of the Tree of Life based on a design from Rookwood Pottery Company out of Cincinnati was painted on the pavement by a dozen Episcopalian priests. Adirondack chairs were made from shipping pallets and painted vibrant colors. And the walls were lined with large-format photographs describing important periods in the history of the town. Rhododendron were hung upside down from a steel beam in a hat tip to the Suspended Trees exhibit at MassMOCA in North Adams.


Another focus of the event was cleaning up and clearing out the Elks Home. This 27,000 sqft building was donated to our organization in 2012 and we’ve been working to restore it ever since. Our volunteers went in with full protective gear and cleared out a dumpster full of debris. The front of the building including Carrera glass tiles on a storefront were cleaned up, and pop-up exhibits put on display in each storefront. Assisting us in these efforts were three officials from the Kentucky Heritage Council from Frankfort and our project architect with GRW out of Lexington – all who came out to volunteer for the event.


Our friend Della Rucker with the Wise Economy Workshop participated in this and our earlier Better Block event. She created a great video summarizing Better Block that can be seen here. Now she’s working on a feasibility study for a trail system that will connect Middlesboro with other regional and national trails being developed and that will one day pass through our area.


While nearly three months have passed, this Better Block has been recognized as a major success. Middlesboro has further cemented our reputation as an innovator combining tactical urbanism with historic preservation, and in achieving economic development objectives for our downtown on a shoestring budget.  We were honored to be named “Ones to Watch” by the National Main Street Center in May 2013.


Call to Action

Want to see what is happening in Middlesboro first hand? Come out to our Cumberland Mountain Fall Festival on October 3 and 4. This annual event puts on display some of the best music, arts, and crafts that our Appalachian region has to offer. We’re no more than an eight hour drive for over 150 million people, and there’s a good chance that includes you. (For our west coast friends Knoxville is the closest airport just over an hour away and we’d be happy to have someone pick you up.)


Can’t make it to Middlesboro but want to test out your tactical intervention chops? We’re challenging Main Street programs from throughout the country to perform at least one tactical intervention the first weekend of October and then to share the results on Twitter using the hashtag #BetterMainStreet. All of the responses we get through Monday, October 6 will be reviewed by our panel of expert judges, and the winner given a $500 prize. Your work will also be shared in subsequent publications, blogs, and maybe even at the next National Main Streets Conference in Atlanta in 2015.


To close, there is no reason why Main Street leaders should not be at the forefront of the planning innovation represented by tactical urbanism. So let’s go out and not just create a Better Block, but also a #BetterMainStreet!







Isaac D. Kremer is Executive Director of Discover Downtown Middlesboro. He organized one of the first Better Block projects in the country while with the Oyster Bay Main Street Association in 2010. Since then he’s gone on to become a leading proponent of utilizing tactical interventions to achieve downtown revitalization and historic preservation goals. He lives in Middlesboro with his wife Chrissy and two boys Edward and Thomas in a 1920s bungalow that they’re lovingly restoring.

Note: Isaac continued to serve as Executive Director of Discover Downtown Middlesboro through September 2016 before taking a new position in Metuchen, New Jersey.

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About Isaac Kremer

Isaac Kremer is a transformational leader with a track record of success revitalizing downtowns in the United States. He has written and spoken extensively. He's always on the lookout for new and innovative ideas to unlock the potential of downtown areas.

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