Taking back the streets: Tactical Urbanism brings change

It was all part of a plan by Conservative Premier Mike Harris 15 years ago: overwhelm the left-wing city governments by merging them with the suburbs, all in the name of efficiency.That's how Toronto got Rob Ford, and everybody got the so-called war on the car, where downtown cycling and pedestrian elites fight with suburbanites who just want to drive through downtown as fast as they can.

In Hamilton, a small city 45 minutes west of Toronto, almost every street downtown is a one way speedway; some are five lanes wide, all for a town of half a million people. The sidewalks are almost vestigial to make more room for cars, and it is not a safe place for pedestrians. Earlier this year Mike Lydon, author of Tactical Urbanism, came to town and fired up the activists. Ryan McGreal explains:

Tactical urbanism is the principle that citizens can undertake direct low-cost, high-reward actions that immediately improve some aspect of a community's public life and demonstrate to city leaders that there are opportunities for easy, successful changes to the status quo.

Lydon emphasized that the essence of tactical urbanism is to take short-term action that precipitates long-term change and are informed by vision, local context, agility, value, and community engagement. He noted that most cities welcome tactical urbanism and are inspired by demonstrations of change to invest in more permanent transformations informed by the lessons learned.

Google maps/Screen capture

The tactical urbanists then went to work, doing an "intersection repair" at a corner that you can see, has an odd condition where the streets don't exactly align and the radii of two of the for corners are extremely large. Emily Talen, in her book City Rules, has noted how important curb radii are in affecting the relationship between pedestrians and cars. "As curve radii go from five feet to fifty, you get a completely different pattern and scale." This intersection has two different conditions; one which forces cars to slow down to actually turn, and another with large radii that let the cars just swoosh around, and removes the corner where the pedestrian actually has some control.

© Raise the Hammer

The tactical urbanists fixed this, with their "Guerrilla bumpouts."

© Matt Jelly

The city fathers were not amused; Public Works General Manager Gerry Davis wrote in a memo:

These changes to City streets are illegal, potentially unsafe and adding to the City's costs of maintenance and repair. The City can consider this as vandalism, with the potential for serious health and safety consequences for citizens, particularly pedestrians. There is potential liability and risk management claims to both the City and the individuals involved.

Can a city change?

© Jason Leach

But wait, there's more: after this guerrilla intervention, tempers cooled and the City actually started talking to citizens. Backing down from their original position, the city has permitted a pilot project where the curve radii are reduced (still only with paint right now, bollards to come). It has "the effect of shortening the crossing distance, placing pedestrians in a more visible location at the corner and reducing the turning radius available to cars which reduces the speed at which the corner can be navigated." Graham McNally wrote in Raise the Hammer:

We learned that the City will be making the short term action a permanent installation complete with bump-outs on Herkimer on both sides of Locke and 'ladder' style crosswalks. The project will be a kind of pilot project for the Traffic Calming Master Plan that City staff are currently working on and intend to take to council in the next few months.

I have written despairingly of Hamilton, noting that "the only concern of the politicians is how fast can they get back to their home in the suburbs. Until they fix this, Hamilton will remain forever on the cusp."

Can this finally be changing? Ryan McGreal, editor of Raise the Hammer, writes:

Of course, time will tell whether the commitment is sustained or merely an attempt to mollify the tactical urbanists, but the noises coming out of City Hall suggest a real culture shift is finally underway.

I hope he is right.

Tags: Canada | Urban Life | Urban Planning

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