The Doable City Reader

Making Change: How small actions have big impact

Many of the best, most authentic and enduring destinations in a city, the places that keep locals and tourists coming back again and again and that anchor quality, local jobs, were born out of a series of incremental, locally-based improvements. One by one, these interventions built places that were more than the sum of their parts. — Project for Public Spaces

We know that major retrofits can change the face of a city for the better. We’ve seen highways torn out to reveal lush rivers that run beneath. Mega-parks built atop railway stations. Abandoned Walmarts turned into public libraries.

But these big wins can take decades to pull off. With our cities in crisis, change needs to happen sooner than that. And it can — literally overnight. By starting out with low cost, low risk, but high visibility initiatives, we can immediately begin to transform and improve our cities within days or even hours.

At 8 80 Cities, Gil Peñalosa dubbed these quick wins “impatiens” — after the colorful and resilient flowers that nearly anyone can maintain, and that immediately brighten a garden patch. “Orchids” on the other hand, refer to projects that take more time and effort to bring into bloom.

These bold impatiens projects help nurture the open and fertile environment that makes orchids easier to grow by generating credibility and empowerment amongst citizens that help fuel support.

Showing, not telling

Consider what happened in New York in 2009, when transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and her crew went out one day with some orange plastic traffic barrels and plastic lawn chairs and created, in a matter of hours, a temporary pedestrian plaza out of Broadway in Times Square — one of the busiest sections of roadway in the world.

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Times Square before Sadik-Khan’s pilot project. Image Credit: NYC DOT

Times Square after. Image Credit: NYC DOT

If Sadik-Khan had asked then-mayor Bloomberg or the residents of New York for their blessing to shut the street down for good, she’d have been deemed crazy. But instead, she just asked for six months to give it a go. She told Bloomberg: “If it worked better for traffic, if it was better for mobility, if it was safer, better for business, we could keep it. And if it didn’t, no harm, no foul, we could put it back, because these were temporary materials.”

And it worked. Pedestrian injuries in the area plummeted by 35 per cent. Traffic flow improved and taxis moved faster. Retail rents doubled and new flagship stores opened. But perhaps most important, people flocked to the space and reveled in the experience of it. Instead of telling New Yorkers what they should want, or why they should want it, Sadik-Khan gave them the chance to fall in love with the idea by experiencing it themselves.

“We were able to show how it worked,” Sadik-Khan said. “Instead of waiting through years of planning studies and computer models to get something done, we’ve done it with paint and temporary materials. And the proof is not in a computer model, it is in the real world performance of the street.”

The proof of Sadik-Khan’s strategy’s success is in the street too: pavers are currently being laid that will make the project a permanent fixture in the streets of New York once and for all. But instead of waiting five years for that plaza, New Yorkers have had it all along.

Video play buttonNew York streets video

Open streets, open minds

Even pilot projects lasting just a matter of hours can be enough to win the confidence of politicians and the hearts of citizens. An example lies in the hundreds of cities around the world that have begun opening their streets to pedestrians and cyclists for a day at a time through Ciclovía or Open Streets programs, giving people an opportunity to experience a new kind of ownership over their streets and imagine how streets could change.

“One of the most important things about Open Streets is that it reminds people that the streets are public spaces that belong to everybody and that it’s not a good use of that resource to only allow the use of cars to go from point A to point B twenty-four seven,” said Gil Peñalosa, who founded the Ciclovía movement in Bogotá in the early 2000s.“We can have different uses according to the time of the day, of the week, of the year.”

Video play buttonopen streets video

8 80 Cities Program Director Emily Munroe, who has advised cities around the world on developing Open Streets initiatives, points to Mexico City as a shining example. The seething metropolis is home to some of the world’s most snarling traffic congestion, but for the past several years has operated a Ciclovía program that makes 12 kilometres of roadway car-free and open to walkers, joggers, cyclists, yoga and jazzercise classes and everything else the residents can think of every Sunday of the year. Once a month the program expands to cover 32 kilometres.

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Mexico City Ciclovía. Image credit: 8 80 Cities

Launching such a program in a place like Mexico City would be considered a feat in and of itself, but Munroe points out that the ripple effect is even more notable. Since the Ciclovía program started in 2007, the shift in the city’s ability to push through cycling and pedestrian-friendly improvements is impossible to ignore. They’ve launched a bicycle share and a 15-year-long green plan to promote cycling and increase the number of cyclists in the streets. They laid down a 17-kilometre segregated bike lane that splices right through the heart of the city on its main avenue, Paseo de la Reforma, and have plans for more.

“The only place that they have a separated cycling track in Mexico City right now is on Reforma which is the exact route that the ciclovía goes down. That’s not a coincidence,” says Munroe.

From citizen to city maker

It’s not just city-led initiatives that can have this effect. Behind some of the most successful impatiens — projects that started small yet had a major impact on the permanent livability of cities — are citizens.

Consider the example of a simple art installation. In 2005, a group of artists from the San Francisco design studio Rebar plunked a pocket-full of change into a parking meter, unfurled a roll of grass and plopped down a potted tree and a bench. They invited passersby to join them as they hung out for a couple hours in their temporary park (pun intended) while the meter ran down, then packed up and went home.

Rebar’s original installation that lead to the global PARK(ing) Day phenomenon

When an image of the park circulated the internet, Rebar got so many requests for replica installations that they created an open-source manual to enable people to do it themselves. The idea spread as people rallied around it. A movement was born — every year on the third Friday of September people around the world create similar installations, an event now known as PARK(ing) Day.

The impact of the movement went beyond the temporary parks themselves. Rebar was approached by the San Francisco planning department to help them develop a pilot project prototyping “parklets” — miniature public space modules that included public seating, tables and bike racks, and could slot into street-front parking spots and extend out from the sidewalk to create extra public space. After Rebar helped the department successfully install more than 20 of these temporary units in 2010, the city rolled out its official parklet permit program in 2011, which enables any private resident or business owner to create a permanent parklet. The program has since been replicated in dozens of cities worldwide.

The Rebar group didn’t need to wade through the process of creating a full-fledged permanent park to reclaim a small piece of public space. And what they created was something even more powerful: proof that even simple action can have a profound effect.

This chapter is available as a PDF: Download a copy.

Lede image credit: 8 80 Cities

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Walk [Your City]: the guerilla wayfinding project helping towns take quick steps toward walkability
Video play buttonWalk Your City video

Image courtesy of Walk [Your City]

Many surveys have shown that one of the key barriers stopping people from walking more often is distance. The amenities they want to reach, they report, are simply too far.

Or so they think. While North American cities are ever more dispersed and distance is a genuine barrier some of the time, in many cases the distance may actually be a false perception. Studies show that city dwellers frequently overestimate the distance or time it would take to walk to where they want to go. So while improving walkability is, in most cases, something that must be fixed through design, other times all it takes is helping people understand that “it’s not too far.”

That’s why that phrase has become the tagline of Walk [Your City], an initiative that is dedicated to helping citizens understand the walkability of their communities more accurately. WYC is an online platform that enables any community to quickly and cheaply produce accurate wayfinding signs that can be temporarily installed to show residents and visitors how quickly they can walk to various locations in their neighbourhood.

It is an example of how a small, informal and temporary project can not only spark profound change in the mindset of a city’s residents, but also have a deeper impact within the formal city structure and policy.

WYC started as a DIY or guerilla intervention in Raleigh, North Carolina when landscape architecture and urban planning graduate Matt Tomasulo and his friends polled people in the city about why they don’t walk more often. Many of the people they spoke to felt that things were “too far to walk to,” but Matt knew this wasn’t true — he and his friends walked places all the time. So they went out one night and strapped 27 corrugated plastic signs to lampposts downtown. The signs stated the walking distance, in minutes, to various destinations — such as the rose garden, or a good cup of coffee.

Eventually the city took the signs down because they hadn’t been pre-approved. Recognizing their value, however, they were later reintroduced through a city-initiated pilot project where staff installed and maintained the signs themselves. The city has since written Walk [Raleigh] into their official pedestrian plan with a recommendation to expand the program to other neighbourhoods.

Matt and his pals have now launched a website that enables anyone, from a single citizen to a government agency or community group, to take on a similar initiative. On the Walk [Your City] website, groups can plan and design their signs and have them printed and mailed with all the necessary pieces for installation, including straightforward directions, materials, and tips to make the process smoother.

Video play buttonWalk Mount Hope video

Cities have used these for various reasons. Mount Hope, a community in West Virginia, wanted to encourage walking on their main street for health purposes, but had limited financial resources to do so. A Walk [Your City] campaign was an affordable start. The North Hills neighbourhood of Raleigh used to be large shopping mall, and is currently transitioning to become a more walkable neighbourhood with mixed retail and residential development, offices and more. However, due to its transitionary nature, the community core is disconnected from other areas of the new development, which created a mental barrier to pedestrians. The real estate company used a WYC campaign to try and break these perceptions. And it worked. Many residents of the community reported that they were surprised by how close destinations on different sides of the development were, and had begun to walk more often. One retired couple even reported that they had never realized the cinema was close enough to walk to from the grocery store — even though they were across the street from each other.

During the North Hills campaign an executive from the insurance agency Blue Cross Blue Shield walked from one big box store to another only because she learned for the first time via the WYC signage that it would take just ten minutes. That inspired Blue Cross Blue Shield to partner with WYC to expand the project’s technology and bring it to other communities in North Carolina.

Hear Matt speaking candidly with us at the Doable City Forum in Chicago, June 2014, about the process of going from staging a guerrilla intervention to getting Walk [Your City] officially recognized by the city in the video above, and learn more about how to produce a Walk [Your City] campaign on their website.

No such thing as too small: the icy northern town of 5,000 that launched a public bike share
Video play buttonCochrane Ontario bike share video
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Anyone who thinks her town is too small, too closed-minded or too cash-strapped to create programs that will kick start change might want to check out Cochrane, northern Ontario. This town of about 5000 people, located far enough in Canada’s north that tourists go there to see polar bears, opened a public bike share in the summer of 2014. It’s not quite as fancy as Paris’s Velib or as shiny as New York’s Citibikes, but it’s there, it’s free of charge, it’s popular and it’s getting Cochranites moving around the city and rediscovering cycling in a brand new way.

The total cost to implement the system? About $100.

Launched as part of the Doable Neighbourhood Project the bike share was spearheaded by Cochrane deputy-clerk J.P. Oulette. He had been impressed and excited by bike share systems in Toronto and Chicago, but knew that in order to do it in Cochrane, they had to find a way to make it free. So he worked with the Ontario Provincial Police, who agreed to donate some of the confiscated stolen bicycles they would normally sell at auction.

Youth from the community came together and painted the bikes bright colors (the paint is where most of the $100 went). They fixed signs explaining the program to existing bike racks along the town’s main drag and attached liability waivers to the bicycles. The town’s two staff mechanics agreed to perform regular maintenance on them, and they even painted the town’s first bike lane down the main strip. Then, they left the bikes unlocked in the rack for people to use at their leisure for running errands, or enjoying a recreational ride around the lake.

It probably goes without saying that the system has had its kinks so far. With an initial flurry of use when the program launched, the bikes, which were already old and used, quickly fell into disrepair.. They put newer ones onto the road, and of the 40, about 20 of them are still in use. So far, Cochrane’s experience reflects, to a certain extent, that of other cities that have attempted free bike share programs: bikes are being stolen, often by children who know that if they put the bike back in the rack it likely won’t be there for them the next day.

But Oulette doesn’t necessarily see that as negative. “Our perspective is at the end of the day it’s cost us nothing and if we’ve put kids on bikes, well that’s not a bad thing,” he said. The city is also applying for funding to not only improve the quantity and quality of the bikes in the system, but also to simply give bikes to children who want and need them.

Oulette says that, at the end of the day, they never had any illusions that it would be perfect or easy. But they did it. And how many other towns of 5,000 do you know that have a public bike share?

“You have to jump right in and try and be creative. Certainly that’s always been our key in not having a lot of the resources a city might have. As a small town you’re always looking to creative concepts to try and implement any type of program.” Hear Oulette tell us more about the process of getting the Cochrane bike share up and going in the video above.

Building a Better Block—overnight
Video play buttonBulid a better block video
Better block 1

Temporary street art, landscaping, and bike lanes at a Build a Better Block even in Norfolk, VA. Image credit: Build a Better Block

Better block 3 Dallas

DIY landscaping, traffic calming and pop-up shops and cafes at Build a Better Block’s second intervention in Dallas. Image credit: Build a Better Block

The Build a Better Block project was started by Jason Roberts in 2010, when he decided he wanted to revitalize a dead commercial block in his hollowed-out Dallas neighbourhood—overnight. After discovering dozens of city ordnances that made illegal or prohibitively expensive almost anything that would make the block lively, such as café patios, fruit stands, or flower boxes, he and a team of community advocates decided to temporarily break all the rules and make the block what they thought it should be, which also included adding landscaping, temporary bike lanes, crosswalks and more.

After Roberts and his friends staged several similar interventions throughout the neighbourhood, the city of Dallas agreed to change many of the zoning laws and rules that they had been challenging. The city has also implemented some of the changes the project piloted, such as traffic calming, permanently.

Since then, dozens of cities throughout the United States have taken Roberts’ approach to rapid revitalization either on their own, with the help of the open source Better Block guide or Roberts’ consulting firm, Team Better Block, which offers workshops and helps cities implement Better Block interventions with the purpose of helping cities and communities discover and generate ideas for themselves about how to build on their assets to improve public space.

Watch Roberts tell the story of how the Better Block project came about in the video above. The Better Block website hosts a number of awe-inspiring stories of communities that have used the Better Block approach to kick start change in their community. The story of Norfolk, Virginia, where several major permanent changes resulted from the process, is a great example, described in detail in this report, as well as in DUSP MIT’s Places in the Making (page 21).

Strength in numbers: how a fun group bike ride is helping a city get back to the bicycle
Video play buttonNight bike rides video
Plaza Midnight Tuesday Night Ride

Image courtesy of Plaza Midnight Tuesday Night Ride.

Plaza Midnight Tuesday Night Ride

Bethanie Johnson (behind) and her daughter (front) at the Plaza Midnight Tuesday Night Ride.

There’s a catch-22 that often arises when it comes to creating a more bike-friendly city: one of the most important first steps is simply having more cyclists in the first place. Without a solid cycling population, politicians may feel hard-pressed to justify spending money on bike infrastructure. Yet nearly every study out there tells us that good infrastructure is required in order for average people to feel comfortable enough to get onto the streets on their bikes.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, a local community group dubbed the Charlotte Spokespeople has tackled this problem head-on by creating an alternative route to getting people out and comfortable on their bikes. They call it the Plaza Midwood Tuesday Night Ride (PMTNR): a simple, fun and free weekly group bike ride that happens every Tuesday night, rain, shine or snow, in the Plaza Midwood neighbourhood. Each week, up to 150 people come out for the 10 to 15 mile ride, which lasts about 2.5 hours including stops at local businesses. A social ride (versus a performance-oriented, or competitive ride), the PMTNR is open and fun for cyclists of all abilities and, most important, it is geared toward creating a supportive environment that allows people who are new to cycling or hesitant to ride in traffic get used to doing so. The Spokespeople also host even slower rides on Sunday afternoons with the same goal.

Bethanie Johnson’s story is an example of the type of change such a simple initiative can spark. A 45-year-old single mother, Johnson rode her bike frequently as a teen and into her early adulthood. Once she had her daughter, she found herself chauffeuring around between work and school and more or less stopped riding regularly. One evening, she was invited to take part in the PMTNR. She arrived to discover that her friends had backed out of their commitment to meet her there. But it looked so fun that she decided to go anyway. On that ride, her brakes broke and were immediately fixed by two men who had brought their tools in case someone needed help along the route.

“They weren’t hitting on me or anything. They just wanted to help. It just gave me this feeling of ‘this is a place I want to come back to where people help each other,’ and it’s been like that ever since. Sometimes I go to church and people aren’t very friendly or social sometimes. But on these rides, people care,” Johnson said. She began going to the rides regularly, and inviting her friends and colleagues along. Johnson’s daughter, a 17-year-old who hadn’t previously shown much interest in anything active, borrowed a bike from a friend and started coming along. Both Johnson and her daughter got bike baskets and panniers, and started going grocery shopping and running errands on their bikes together. Johnson even started noticing that her neighbours had seen them doing so, and began riding their bikes too.

This summer, Johnson took a huge step and committed to riding her bike to work — a 26-mile round trip — every day. The Tuesday rides, she said, had given her a new confidence. “I’d met so many people at the ride who commuted. These were people who weren’t just commuting close distances but were actually committing to going a lot further. Plus, riding with other people on the street you learn the tricks of riding, kind of, and it gives you more confidence to ride in traffic with people and not feel so intimidated by that,” she said.

Since she started riding, Johnson’s lost about 10 pounds — though she admits that neither she nor her daughter were really overweight or needed to slim down. But she did notice something else. As a teacher and a single mom, money sometimes gets a little tight in the summer when school is out and she’s not earning as much. “This year, I noticed that there weren’t any times that I was absolutely strapped for money, because I only drove my car twice this summer — I didn’t ever have to buy gas.”

Want to inspire others like Bethanie to get out on their wheels? There are rides like the PMTNR all over the world. Listen to PMTNR founder Pam Murray speak about her experience of starting the ride in the video at the top. For another example with a fun twist, check out how folks in San Jose have accomplished the same goal with bike parties in the next window.

Creating public places for health and cohesion by opening streets for everyone

Open Streets Toronto. Image: 8 80 Cities

Less than a decade ago, the idea of a city closing its streets to vehicles and opening them for the public to enjoy car-free every Sunday was considered radical. In 2007, only about 10 North American cities dared to have such programs—known as Open Streets in North America, or Ciclovías in Latin America—that temporarily turn streets into paved parks where people can run, walk, cycle or participate in exercise programs. Today, there are over 100 on the continent, from megacities like New York and LA to small towns. And each year the number grows.

Open Streets Toronto. Image: 8 80 Cities

Helping cities get Open Streets programs off the ground is a big part of what 8 80 Cities does, because it is something that any city can do immediately. Executive Director Gil Peñalosa, who founded the Open Streets movement in Bogota in the early 2000s, says that he originally took his inspiration from Frederick Law Olmsted, who created New York’s Central Park for the purpose of bringing communities together—a principle that Peñalosa continues to see at the heart of Open Streets programs.

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Open Streets Thunder Bay. Image: 8 80 Cities

“160 years ago he was writing how in New York, everybody hated everybody. The rich and the poor and the immigrants and the blacks and the whites, and he said: ‘Look, people don’t know each other! They don’t live in the same buildings; their children don’t go to the same schools; they get sick they don’t go to the same doctor! We need to find a place where people can meet each other as equals.’ One of the things I find so exciting about the Ciclovía is that it’s like an exercise in social integration. It’s like a Central Park, except that it’s something that every city around the world can have,” he said.

In part, Open Streets are a means to an end: a way to help people envision their cities and streets differently, to take ownership of them as public places and experience their cities differently. But there’s more to it than that. Many cities pursue Open Streets for the sake of other goals, most notably public health. And, studies show, they have good reason. As 8 80 Cities Program Director Emily Monroe points out, in cities where Open Streets happen regularly, they can be a goal in and of themselves for this purpose.

“I would challenge anybody to show us a recreational program that has the level of participation like the Ciclovías in Bogota and Guadalajara. Every single Sunday you have people out being physically active for between one and two hours. That’s a million people every Sunday participating in an exercise class. There’s nothing I can think of that works like that. I think that once they reach a certain point, a certain frequency, a certain length, a certain amount of participation that they do act as an end in themselves.”

As written in C3’s recent meta-review, “The Benefits of Regular Walking for Health”:

“A review of 38 ciclovías found that they have real potential for positive public‐health outcomes, summarising the evidence to date – which is limited, but encouraging. For example, one study found an estimated 41 per cent of Ciclovía participants in Bogota took part for more than three hours (including about a third walking or running, and about half the participants cycling). A study of health‐related quality of life measures found that adults participating in at least one day of the Ciclovía each month scored higher than those who did not participate (even after adjusting for sociodemographic and other factors), and one study showed that levels of particulate matter along a section of Bogota’s Ciclovía street was 13 times higher on a weekday than on Sunday (the day of the Ciclovía). The health benefits of the Ciclovías have recently been evaluated – with the cost–benefit ratio for health benefit from physical activity estimated at 3.23–4.26 for Bogotá, 1.83 for Medellín (also in Colombia), 1.02– 1.23 for Guadalajara (Mexico) and 2.32 for San Francisco.”

Just because any city can have an Open Streets program, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy. Like with any change, Munroe says, getting the political will and support of the business community can be tough, and the logistics of implementation daunting. But, she notes, it’s been proven again and again to be possible, pointing out that Open Streets Toronto—a program administered in part by 8 80 Cities—happened under the city’s most blatently unsupportive and right wing Mayor, Rob Ford, thanks in large part to the extreme support of several Business Improvement Asssociations.

Video play buttonOpen Streets Toronto video

Peñalosa says that many the programs that currently exist could still stand to be improved. “Too many people see it as an event. It’s not an event it’s really a program. It’s not something you do once a year like if it was Canada Day or the Fourth of July in the States, but it’s something you should be doing every Sunday,” he said. But the resources are increasingly available for cities to make this happen.

In 2012 the Open Streets Project produced a report on Open Streets projects throughout North America, which provides case studies and background to the Open Streets movement in North America, and this spring 8 80 Cities will release a comprehensive toolkit that will help communities implement programs in their own cities.

Bringing the street to life by making innovation easier
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Whispering Dishes Living Innovation Zone installation. Image credit: Living Innovation Zones

San Francisco’s Market Street connects the city from water to hills, through residential neighbourhoods and business districts alike. But for decades now, the street has been little more than a thoroughfare—a way to get from A to B but not to stop in between. But a recent initiative by the city seeks to change that by doing away with its former regulations, and turning city-owned land into flexible spaces called Living Innovation Zones for artistic exploration dedicated to connecting people.

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Musical bench activated by hand holding at the first Living Innovation Zone. Image Credit: Living Innovation Zones

A partnership between the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, the city’s department of planning and Public Works, the Living Innovation Zones are places for community groups to come in and install temporary installations that enliven the streets without having to go through the same cumbersome permitting process that would typically halt any type of major installations, especially by smaller local groups. “We’re really asking people to push us. With permitting you often get this culture of no. We’re asking them to push our limits,” said manager and planner Steve Gennrich.

The first LIZ installations included a pair of “whispering dishes,” that enabled people to whisper to each other from across the plaza, a musical bench activated by hand-holding and a pedal-powered cell phone charging station.