“Erase the fear of permanency” , Krista Nightengale, The Better Block Foundation, DallasThe Mt Royal "Mid-Town" Streetscape Project took at least nine years of discussion before the first shovel went into the ground. The City presented a phase 1 concept in March of 2009 and briefed on construction in October 2017. Construction was initially expected for 2010. The delays were caused by disagreements about the design, inertia and lots of review, yet what is being constructed now is essentially the original design. Other plans to redesign the public realm are not faring much better. What is built today often reflects the thinking from a decade ago, much does never get built at all, in spite of years of discussion, research and expectations, for example the conversion of the St Paul and Calvert Street pair of one-way streets also in Midtown, or the closure of lanes around the McKeldin Plaza downtown.
|Street transformation by Better Block in Kansas City
Baltimore is not unique in being in the grip analysis-paralysis. No wonder then, that here and elsewhere people are yearning for other ways to move forward. The desire to see something happen in short order brought about direct action, pop-up installations and "tactical urbanism". Originally a grass-roots movement, the new approach of "just do it and see what happens" has increasingly become mainstream. New York's then Transportation Commissioner Sadik Khan famously employed it on Times Square where a temporary installation for pedestrians proved so successful that it became permanent, improving the experience of pedestrians and drivers alike. However, in Baltimore no such spontaneity has found its way into the City DOT yet.
|Temporary streetscape by Better Block
To help the residents and communities in cities and small towns everywhere there are now specialized non-profits and conferences to plan the popular pop-up approach. One of them is the The Better Block Foundation who spread their influence starting in one desolate block of Dallas, TX to an installation at Southwest by Southwest in Austin and all the way to a presentation at the prestigious Baltimore AIA architecture spring lecture series.
Vacant lots. Empty storefronts. Run down buildings, and scantly used parking lots. Overly wide streets for driving. This is a disheartening scene that can be found in almost every American city. And while many urban neighborhoods are thriving, too many others have not recovered from a half-century of systemic disinvestment. from Tactical Urbanism: Short-Term Action for Long-Term Change, Island PressAt the MICA Brown Center Krista Nightendale, the Managing Director of the Better Block Foundation demonstrated with slides and videos how larger and smaller cities enjoy the satisfaction of real action, hands on construction and usable real time transformation of an actual space, even if only for a day, a week, or a month. The power of showing what is possible when people come together, dream a bit and the realize the dream with their own hands is transformative and lasts way beyond the actual installation.
|Jardin Gamelin, Montreal
Private consultants have gotten into the act, too. The Copenhagen architect Jan Gehl ("Planning by Doing"), who started his career with a 1965 grant to observe people in public spaces in Italy, has built an internationally renowned enterprise around "making cities for people". His firm trained Baltimore's Neighborhood Design Center (NDC) to use his methods on the Y-Not Lot in Station North, one of Baltimore's own pop-up spaces.
The Neighborhood Design Center (NDC) offers free design and planning services to help community partners achieve their visions. We were thrilled to work with them as they measured the impact of programming at Ynot Lot in Baltimore’s Station North Arts District. Initially, NDC’s research question focused on social mixing among different groups in the Lot. (The Gehl Institute).This year the NDC will move Baltimore into the center of discussion by hosting Reverberations — Roots and Relevance of Community Design, the Association for Community Design’s 2018 Conference, an annual event that brings together community, academia, architecture, design and planning firms, nonprofit organizations, and local governments invested in community-engaged design. The event will take place June 8-9 2018.
|Times Square conversion: Gehl & Sadik Khan
Meanwhile this week AIA Baltimore trained aspiring young civic leaders as part of their annual CivicLab. Cristina Murphy, an Assistant Professor at Morgan, presented community-based pop-up installations which she has helped organize in the Netherlands, Italy, the US and South America. She is a co-founder and associate of XCOOP, a Dutch organization devoted in part to those "just do it" rebel installations.
xcoop® is an alliance that conducts research and engages in advocacy in areas such as education, design, construction, social policy and strategy, economics and technology issues. Through its flexible and permeable approach, analysis of contemporary living it expresses various creative solutions within a wide range of professions.At CivicLab ideas took flight connecting the Netherlands via the Baltimore-Rotterdam city partnership and getting XCOOP and the financial institution IMG Rebel into a project here. This constellation would elevate pop up urbanism to the level of design for equity and social change. As it turns out, the dream is anchored in reality since IMG Rebel is seeking out places like Baltimore to demonstrate how community-based design can have an impact. Community Architect learned that Jeff George from IMG Rebel's DC office has been in discussions with Baltimore-Rotterdam Sister City Committee and with Cristina Murphy to consider bringing the Social Impact By Design concept to Baltimore. The “by Design” concept in involves a series of design challenges to develop innovative solutions with community-based participation. The concept was first tested in Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy, when in 2012, Rebuild by Design arose out of a US-Dutch partnership. Since then IMG Rebel has actively been growing the “by design” concept, and is now expanding it to the sphere of social impact. They are starting a pilot in the Bospolder Tussendijken neighborhood of Rotterdam (known as “BoTu”) which has experienced significant social stress.
Baltimore has seen its own academic institutions sharpen their equity and social impact lens as well, MICA with its program for Social Design and Johns Hopkins with its Bloomberg School which supports the Pugh administration and also with the Johns Hopkins Center for Livable Future at Bloomberg. Even MIT is reaching out to Baltimore through its collaboration with various Impact Hubs like the one in Station North.A vehicle for (positive) disruptive change which creates a strong community-based platform for innovative new and impactful business proposals that significantly contribute to the overall needs of the community and the goals of the sponsor(s)
|Design Conversation #90, 4/4/18, 5:30pm, Motor House
All this bodes well for Baltimore. There is plenty of energy to make a difference, and it may not always be necessary to wait for the government to take the necessary action but instead start a grassroots effort with the support from non-profits, academia and the private sector.
For a broader discussion of impactful design, come to D center's next Design Conversation, Wednesday 4/4/ at 5:30pm at the Motor House.
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Tactical urbanism in Santiago de Chile
Related articles on this blog:
McKeldin Square: Ideas what could be next (Jan 2018)
Complete Streets 2.0 (March 2017)
Complete Streets: The DNA of a New Urban Mobility Culture (Jan 2014)
Montreal Pop Up Park Jardin Gamelin (8/17)