Pop-Up Planning: Toronto, New York, & Vancouver

"Pop-Up Planning", temporary experimental transformations of urban space, gets a good profile in today's Globe and Mail.

"Pop-up" projects let cities try out new ideas without the expense - or the risk - of making permanent changes to infrastructure.  The most famous recent example is the pedestrianization of Times Square in NYC by Janette Sadik-Khan. The Globe traces the practice of using pilot projects to test out unconventional planning ideas back to Copenhagen in the 1950s (back when cars still ruled it the cities streets and before it had become the global darling of pedestrian and bike friendly cities).

If you read the Globe article, I'd recommend also reading this post that came out in the New York Times last month (I've put an excerpt below). It gives a grittier view of the way pilot projects have been used in NYC.

Mayor Bloomberg has been accused of using pilot projects to skirt red-tape and public consultation. While in the end the Times Square experiment may have won over the skeptics, the same quick and dirty approach to issues like education are more problematic and have some communities fighting back against the city.

One obvious answer, it seems to me, is to use pilots in collaboration with local residents and businesses, not to impose them from above. One civil liberties lawyer interviewed by the NYT talks about "good-faith" pilots, and I think that term is key. Communities - as much or more so than the Mayor - have good ideas that get blocked by red-tape and bureaucratic inertia. Collaborative "Pop-up" planning could be a great way to empower people to make their community visions a reality.

Is any of this really new? In general, I think the answer is "no." "Pop-up" is a trendy label for something that has been happening for a long long time. For many cities, like Montreal where I'm now living, festivals, markets and other activities have temporarily converted streets from one function to another depending on the seasons. And people have been bending rules for as long as we have had them. As one NY City Council member summarized her thirty years in politics: “The way things get done in New York City is figuring out a way to get around the rules.”

But how and why those temporary transformations take place changes from one era to the next. What is new currently is the more targeted use that cities seem to be making of "pilots" to break the dominance of cars on city streets.

This can be a difficult transition.

Pilots give cities and communities the flexibility to find arrangements that are good for cyclists, pedestrians, and businesses. But even more important, they give large areas of public space back to the people who live and work there, and show all of us that positive rapid change is possible.

From:‘Pilot’ Label Lets Mayor’s Projects Skip City Review

The Bloomberg administration has taken a tack that could be called “do it first, answer questions later.” And the key to the strategy is to start small, and to use the word “pilot.”

The pilot has emerged as the mayor’s signature policy weapon. Admirers see an innovative way around red tape. Critics see a blunt tool that undermines democracy by minimizing the public’s role in scrutinizing the ideas of government.

“If they announce the program as permanent, and with all the pizazz and hoopla, they’re going to get strong negative reactions,” said Norman Siegel, the civil liberties lawyer and a frequent Bloomberg critic. A good-faith pilot, Mr. Siegel said, can allay critics’ fears.

“It’s masterful,” he said.

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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