pop-ups to placemaking: how temporary efforts can have lasting effects

Tactical urbanism. Placemaking. Pop-ups. These buzzwords have been floating through the urban planning and city development community for years, but are experiencing their time in the limelight as cities prioritize revitalization efforts. But what do they really mean, and what kind of effect can they have on lasting innovation and change in a community?

Tactical urbanism is a broad term that is used to define one or several low-cost, temporary changes to the built environment. Used with the intent of enlivening an area – generally a downtown retail neighborhood in a city – these changes can last anywhere from an hour to multiple months. They can be as small as a neighborhood weekend flower-planting initiative to widespread community education programs. Often, they are used in conjunction with placemaking projects, which take an otherwise overlooked or unoccupied space and bring people to that location through exciting events or one-day “pop-ups.” A farmer’s market, craft fair, or chorus festival all fall into this category. These events gather people together, as a community in one shared space, to activate a new or undiscovered location and help people become aware of how special or unique that area is.

Tactical urbanism goes beyond interesting temporary events, though. They enable people to perceive a community in an entirely different way. For one, they allow residents, or non-residents, to see a place as safe. When people gather together in a central location, it creates a sense of safety. Remember that old adage, “safety in numbers”? Turns out it’s true. Somewhere in our psyche, we are drawn to places where other people are visible, particularly in joyful and vibrant situations, because they create a sense of safety. The safe step of the Vibrant Streets toolkit explains that “perception of safety” is what is important, and is cultivated when visitors feel a sense of security and comfort in an area. Pop-up events encourage this interaction, with the potential to paint a neighborhood in a new light.

However, it’s not as simple as inviting some local farmers to a neighborhood square and declaring that the street is activated, revitalized, and safe. Understanding the unique fabric of a community, including its needs and particular features, is critical when designing these temporary events. It will feel like forced placemaking – or making an area something it is not – to insert a program that does not belong. For example, in Missoula, Montana, the Downtown Business Improvement District and the University of Montana Keyboard Society created a completely unique, original program called “Play It Missoula!” The collaborative effort brought upright pianos to parklets and underutilized downtown areas, encouraging people to interact with the community in a new way and see it in a different light. This, however, could only work in a town that prizes music and “contributes to Missoula’s unique feel,” as the Missoulian reported. Does your city have a passion for science and technology? Perhaps an outdoor, pop-up, kid-friendly science museum would highlight that. Pop-up events that highlight a community’s strengths are bound to be much more effective.

The long-term effects are not even just activation or bringing people to a new space. Congregating people will also encourage them to spend money, boosting local sales. Turns out people can have fun, encourage revitalization, and support the economy: it’s a win-win-win.

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