Full of ideas….this is a loooong post!
Last week I attended a workshop on Tactical Urbanism, held by the Warehouse District and Downtown Business Improvement Districts. I was there partly for work and partly for personal interest, and it was a fascinating session from both angles!
Very briefly, the whole ethos of Tactical Urbanism is creating vibrancy in urban areas and treating city spaces as places where you actually enjoy spending time in their own right, rather than just as areas you pass through on route to somewhere more interesting. There’s a difference between a street and a road: roads are for transport, streets are for people. It’s simple but also something that doesn’t seem to occur to many people – especially town planners!
Tactical urbanism can be installing small, cheap and temporary initiatives (constructed by anyone with an idea, all very grass-roots and ‘citizen-led’) that are publicly accessible and very visual, and if successful, creates a momentum that leads to permanent change. This can be anything from just putting up planters and getting flowers along the streets, chalk art on the sidewalks, to pop up art displays in empty buildings, painting alleys between buildings, to food trucks and pop-up outdoor shops and markets, or roping off a section and creating temporary bike lanes and holding a group ride or a walking tour of the area etc. (Guess which bit I was most keen on?). Anything that gets people out of ‘the commuter mindset’ and gets them walking/biking/hanging out on the streets.
We discussed Park(in) Days as a good example of this type of event. The Downtown BID tried this back in 2016 – they plugged the parking meters outside some businesses on 11th avenue downtown (my café being one of them) and got the business owners and interested groups to decorate their parking spot. We turned our cafe inside out: put some squashy armchairs on a rug on the road, a bookshelf, coffee table and made a comfy reading room outdoors,and then filled the front of the cafe with flowers and pot plants and a bike rack indoors. It was a pretty simple set up, and we even gave out free coffee, but even with the freebies it was by far the most lucrative day we ever had at the cafe. People attract people. Getting people to sit outside your business instead of just driving past can only ever be a good thing.
For the workshop, they’d printed a couple of huge banners with fake shop fronts. We marked out a rough intersection and then a bike lane along the store fronts and then designed our own Park(in) displays – loads of flowers in planters, someone got some Yoga mats out so you could do yoga on the street, deck chairs and some sand, and we made “pede-vision”- a sofa area with a huge frame where you could sit and watch the world go by (instead of sitting indoors, alone, watching TV). It totally transformed our imaginary street.
Inevitably, the conversations turned to cycling, and I was pleased to discover that the bike-activist contingent was not just me, Andrew (sorry, ‘Councillor Stevens’) and the guy from Bike Regina! There were a lot of people interested in making Regina more cycle-friendly, or at least, more ‘walkable’ too. Clearing the sidewalks of snow would help right now! I’ve always believed that if an area is made safer and more appealing to cycle through, then more people will cycle. This workshop actually had the stats to back that up. As Leasa from the Warehouse District BID pointed out, you can’t use today’s cyclist numbers (with no cycling infrastructure) to assume how many more people would actually use cycle paths *if they were there*.
I tried to prove a point about how unfriendly this area is to cyclists – by cycling up there. Pain points included bumping violently over the train tracks (pedestrian bridge over that would be nice!?), and drivers passing me with just inches to spare on Dewdney, despite the road being easily wide enough to accomodate a bike lane if only one could be built. To my surprise, there was actually a bike rack at the building when I arrived. But getting to it required heaving the trike up 3 steps, or trying to bend it round a too-narrow, cornered wheelchair ramp. Tactical Urbanism fail: infrastructure added thoughtlessly, with no real expectation that people will use it.
The workshop was held on the second floor of the enormous, empty old Sears warehouse. For the final part of the workshop, someone helped me get the trike into the freight elevator and bring it up to the workshop. So I spent my afternoon slowly pedalling around a home made street with a hand drawn bike lane, on the upper floor of a disused, slightly creepy building. Surreal experience!
The other main discussion was city design that incorporates the microclimate – as in, should Regina embrace itself as a Winter City? And how would any of these ideas work in winter? We sidestepped the shared frustrations about city hall not clearing snow off sidewalks (because of the unwavering belief that if you have a car, your journey must therefore be more important than the journeys of pedestrians). Sidewalk clearing is an activity we can all share in, even if most would prefer City Hall to do it. Most interestingly, we also talked about how a lot of building designers don’t take into account the fact that their buildings often create huge wind tunnels (the Victoria and Albert intersection springs to mind – Capital Pointe would make it a whole lot worse down there). Doesn’t matter if you are in a car, but it does if you are walking or waiting at bus stops. What could we do about that? (Wind turbines on the rooves, used to power heaters in the bus stops below, I thought!)
Tactical urbanism is about Doing, not just Talking though. So, we built things! There’s a marketing company called Sleek, and they’d designed some MDF furniture (patio tables and chairs, park benches, a bike rack etc) and cut it out using a CNC cutter, and we just had to slot it together. It was very easy and effective, and Judith pointed out how cheap it was: about 25 pieces of solid, useable and custom furniture made from MDF came to about $5000.
The next day got more involved: we made a bar out of old wooden pallets. Jessica (from work) and I got to play with power tools! We had a guy from a construction company supervising us, but seven people most of whom had never used an electric saw before ‘recycled’ a few old pallets into a bar in an hour and a half. It was really fun! The point of all this was just to show how easy and affordable it is to construct little, temporary things – patio seating on the plaza, large planters to go on the edge of a sidewalk, or a small bike rack etc – that make a big impact, making places more visually appealing and encouraging people to linger and actually spend time on the streets.
Anyway, in trying to relate this all to work and Science Centre projects, I guess my main take aways from this were:
- There is a great community of people out there who are willing and able to embark on ‘tactical urbanist’ projects – and the residents’ associations and Business districts will support them.
- Keep it simple and cheap to start with – it can always get more elaborate later.
- Building things isn’t actually as difficult as it first appears.
- People attract people – as soon as someone starts something, others will follow.
I have a ton of ideas for projects already, and I also met a load of like-minded, useful people from companies that would be excellent to collaborate with for our Ignite! science festival in October. On a personal note, I would love to keep in touch with this group of people and plan some projects together. The workshop was inspiring – and I know I wasn’t alone in discovering a new passion for making Regina a fun, safe, creative and more liveable city.