Tactical Urbanism and Brownfields, National Brownfields Conference, Chicago, Illinois (September 2015)

Isaac Kremer

Speakers: Sharon Yazowski, Della Rucker

Our session was among the 158 educational sessions at the National Brownfields Conference in Chicago. It was particularly fortunate to be one of ten sessions immediately following the Opening Plenary that featured Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

As it was explained during the Plenary, prior to emergence of the Brownfield program sites were simply cleared and fences put up around them to limit legal risks of people accessing the site. The Brownfield program emerged as a response. Millions of dollars of grants have been provided for assessment, technical assistance, and cleanup to help cleanup contamination and put sites to better use benefiting local communities.

During the Opening Plenary EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy spoke to the importance of clean air, clean water, and clean land, but also in healthy stable communities with a healthy environment.

Over the past twenty years the total number of properties assessed with EPA grant funds is 24,000. Grant funds have directly accomplished over 1,200 cleanups. And since 2006 to State and Tribal environmental programs have seen over 117,000 cleanup and 1 million acres made ready for use.

A pop-up park in Middlesboro, Kentucky, demonstrating how citizen initiated change can create vitality for little cost.

While much has been written on the topic, Tactical Urbanism by design are low-cost citizen led actions that help to demonstrate the potential for change. Rather than waiting for multi-year and million dollar projects to make a change, residents have the power now to make things better. The official description of our session from the conference program follows:

Tactical urbanism, economic gardening, creative placemaking, no matter what you call it, these low cost high impact approaches are being used in neighborhoods and communities around the United States. Participate in this roundtable with leading experts on creative placemaking and share your ideas for activating vacant buildings, lots and parks with pop-up shops and cafes, pallet chairs, and other low cost interventions. http://www.brownfieldsconference.org/en/Session/2213?returnurl=%2fen%2feducation%2feducational_sessions

We discussed how creative placemaking, economic gardening, and of course tactical urbanism might help make #BetterPlaces. Participants were encouraged to use this hashtag on social media to share examples of what they do once they get back home. Co-presenters Sharon Yazowski with Levitt Pavilions and Della Rucker with Wise Economy Workshop provided great context and helpful insights for participants.

After some introductory comments we broke the audience up in to three groups to discuss concepts in more depth. We asked to define three questions that we’d then pose to the larger group. The purpose was to facilitate an open and collaborative discussion about what can be done to make better places.

Attendees of the session told amazing stories of people taking action to make their communities better. One woman described an art gallery put in a used gas station, the Mayor of Yazoo City, MS told of how a simple community garden led to a cycle of improvement touching on neighboring properties and that ultimately resulted in a commercial kitchen to help train youth in the culinary arts.

What became apparent after more than an hour of discussion was that innovation can happen in the unlikeliest of places and lead to great positive benefits and untold social good.

Perhaps what was most exciting to us was to hear from an EPA official in the room of how tactical urbanism can be a qualifying expenditure for brownfield grants. Combining the strengths of a well-established program such as brownfields, with the innovations of tactical urbanism has the potential to unlock untold potential in communities throughout our country. Both the Brownfields program and Tactical Urbanism are savvy at using small initial resources as a catalyst for change. Combining the strengths of these two movements together has potential to be a powerful engine for change in communities throughout the U.S.

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