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Connecting People & Places: The Power of Tactical Urbanism & Placemaking

Connecting People & Places: The Power of Tactical Urbanism & Placemaking

On a mild, misty afternoon, cyclists, pedestrians, kids, and adults embark on a journey through their neighborhoods. However, these neighborhoods have a “special” feel. I often find it difficult to describe to visitors, but I always welcome them to experience this resounding aura in Portland, Oregon.

What is City Repair?

City Repair is a community-organized group based in Portland that instills knowledge, inspiration, and creativity in individuals and communities in an effort to transform their neighborhoods (City Repair). This group began with the idea that local values of culture, economy, and decision-making promote sustainability and establish community-oriented places. During each year, City Repair takes part in several largely volunteer-driven projects, including natural building, permaculture, and public art. Its largest project occurs over a period of 10 days (this year it’s slated for May 23 to June 1, 2014) called the Village Building Convergence.

A design workshop is underway from City Repair Cleveland. More than 40 cities have embraced the concept | credit: City Repair

A design workshop is underway from City Repair Cleveland. More than 40 cities have embraced the concept | credit: City Repair

In its 14th year, the Village Building Convergence has empowered local residents, visitors, natural builders, and activists to create neighborhood amenities. With nearly 40 sites throughout the city, participants develop planters, benches, gardens, street paintings, and tile mosaics, among many other exciting projects. A prime example of tactical urbanism is the Loveleigh neighborhood street painting. Located in North Portland, this neighborhood has experienced its share of troubles, from illegal dumping to theft (Village Builder 21). However, with significant effort from its residents, this North Portland neighborhood has seen a revival, thanks in large part to tactical urbanism and placemaking.

What is Tactical Urbanism?

Tactical urbanism is defined as small-scale improvements in an effort to effect large-scale, long-term change. This concept allows the design to be tested before allocating substantial political and financial commitments (Tactical Urbanism Volume II 1). In addition, tactical urbanism serves as a vehicle for generating public interest and facilitating creative solutions to immediate small-scale problems. The growth of tactical urbanism is credited to the recession, shifting demographics, and the use of the Internet as a tool for building the civic economy (Tactical Urbanism II 2-3). Strategic interventions known as city repair can also be referred to as tactical urbanism. While the term tactical urbanism is still in its infancy stages, it’s important to mention that it’s gaining traction.

What is Placemaking?

Similarly, placemaking is defined by City Repair as “a multi-layered process within which citizens foster active, engaged relationships to the spaces which they inhabit, the landscapes of their lives, and shape those spaces in a way which creates a sense of communal stewardship and lived connection” (Village Builder 4).

Newer intersection repair at NE Rodney & Tillamook honoring the identity of Portland as “The City of Roses” | credit: City Repair

Intersection repair at NE Rodney & Tillamook honoring the identity of Portland as “The City of Roses” | credit: City Repair

We as a society construct an overabundance of large projects, but fail to engage people and ultimately build community. Subsequently, Co-founder of City Repair, Mark Lakeman, has a different approach. He notes, “We see design and creating place as a means to build community (with the making of stuff as a vehicle for engaging what is really HUGE and lasting—people), we are able to engender a HUGE impact through making even small things.” Fundamentally, small-scale projects have the ability to engage a strong body of people and, connect them to the creative process, while fostering significant change.

A Strong Case for Community Engagement

The Loveleigh neighborhood is a strong case in point. Due to newly planted trees, bike lanes, and a growing engaged community, it has seen a spark of new families, homes, and ideas. To further its growing civic involvement, street art designed as a rose has been proposed for this year’s Village Building Convergence and is intended to serve as a compass. Complementary to the neighborhood’s previous projects, this art will be a constant reminder that the community is getting stronger each day.

Installing 6th & Going in Portland | credit: Greg Raisman

Installing 6th & Going in Portland at VBC 2013 | credit: Greg Raisman

Portland has been recognized for its public transportation network, environmentally friendly initiatives, microbreweries, food carts, and vibrant bicycle culture. Yet, I believe its strong, well-connected neighborhoods serve as the foundation for Portland’s residents and growing creative class. Next time you are visiting the Pacific Northwest, I hope you have time to pay Portland a visit. Then you will have the opportunity to experience that “special” neighborhood feel, the feel that so many Portlanders have grown to love amidst the drippy weather. A special thank you to Mark Lakeman (Co-founder of City Repair) for his time in contributing to this article. Article written by Brett Lezon

This article was originally submitted to Landscape Architects Network

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