Newspaper article

The Twin Cities Discover Tactical Urbanism -- and Create Improvisational Change

Newspaper article

The Twin Cities Discover Tactical Urbanism -- and Create Improvisational Change

Article excerpt

"I call it the Urban Flower Field," Amanda Lovelee told me. "It will someday become Pedro Park, but up until a month ago it was a gravel pit with a lot of weeds."

Amanda Lovelee is an artist in residence for the City of St. Paul, a program sponsored by Public Art Saint Paul that places artists inside the city's Public Works Department to collaborate and create public art projects. And Lovelee's latest project is the Urban Flower Field, a brand new "temporary park" at the site of the former Pedro's Luggage in Downtown St. Paul.

The idea for the park came from Lovelee's conversations with St. Paul Parks and Recreation. When Pedro's Luggage closed down, the owners donated the land for a city park. But that park is still two years away from construction, awaiting the demolition of the building next door. In the meantime, the site lay vacant, gathering dust and entropic litter.

"When these spaces lay dormant, it leads citizens to feel a bit hopeless," Lovelee explained. "I'm hoping this project is a good way to show that with a lot of great partners, big dreamers and a little bit of money, these spaces can be active and gather the community to come together."

Short-term 'tactical urbanism'

The Urban Flower Field is an example of tactical urbanism, a trend in urban design that emphasizes short-term, improvisational change in cities. Tactical urbanism offers a set of tricks or experiments that range from replacing on-street parking with pop-up patios to experiments with street design. (The most famous example is the pedestrianization of Broadway in New York City's Times Square; it began as a short-term experiment before becoming popular and permanent.)

The great benefit of tactical urbanism lies in its contrast to the often drawn-out planning and implementation procedures for most public projects. With most parks or developments, lengthy planning, funding, community engagement and implementation processes can last for years, trying the patience of even the most engaged citizen and city workers. Temporary tactical projects are typically planned and built in just a few weeks or months.

For example, Lovelee's park happened almost overnight. The city and an arts organization found $40,000 for a two-year park installation, and with some creative help from the University of St. Thomas and the local arts community, Lovelee's Urban Flower Field was born.

An overnight community garden in Prospect Park

In my explorations of short-term projects around the city, one common refrain kept rising to the surface. Because temporary parks happen so quickly, they often require collaborations. They bring people together to work on building something new.

A great example just appeared in Minneapolis' Prospect Park neighborhood, right next to its Green Line light rail station. Cornerstone Group, a local developer, had purchased an old industrial site, and has plans to build a mixed-use building next to the LRT station. But that development is two years away, and in the meantime they saw an opportunity to use the space for something positive. They contacted Saint Paul-based Springboard for the Arts, and after a late-winter meeting between an arts organizer, the local neighborhood group, a community garden, and the nearby Textile Center, the Prospect Park Community Garden was born.

Within a few months, the site has literally grown up. Today there are individual raised garden beds, a fire pit, artfully designed fences and tables (with railroad themes), a "dye garden" growing plants used for fabric colors, and a bee hive installed by the Beez Kneez (a local beekeeping educational group).

"From the start we knew that this is not a permanent space," explained Cedar Phillips, the office manager for the Textile Center. "We wanted to be up front about that because sometimes community gardens feel like they'll be there forever. We felt like two years was long enough to devote time to getting it going. …

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