QUICK, VISIBLE, REMOVABLE: Improving City Life By Unleashing Citizen Creativity Through Government Initiative

In addition to opposing the destructive imposition of highways and other mega projects serving regional needs into urban neighborhoods, Jane Jacobs also advocated for urban revitalization through small-scale citizen initiatives such as the housing program she helped start in New York’s Greenwich Village.   But it’s always easier to say “no” than to find a better solution; her program had only limited success.

Still, there is a lot of creative energy floating around in citizenland.  Unleashing that volunteer labor could lead to important, even if usually small, improvements not only in our built environment but also in our social connections.  Action creates its own tailwind – neighbors emerge from the caves of their private lives when given the opportunity to work together on something of self-evident local value.

A recent publication describes this approach as “Tactical Urbanism” and praises its local basis, modest scale, quick turn-around, inspirational ripple effect, and development of social capital.  Some of the tactics are unofficial guerilla actions, perhaps even illegal.  Some are top-down, government programs that create possibilities for public activities.  But the most important are those that grow through an interaction between citizen initiative and government facilitation – empowering democratic creativity and bureaucratic reform while also making concrete improvements in daily life.



Some actions grow like wild seeds wind-blown across a field.  “Park(ing) Day” demonstrations have spread across the world, a bit of street theater that forces people to think about what else could be done with all that paved space currently dedicated to cars.  Somerville has a “depaving” movement where homeowners remove some of the previous generation’s concrete lawns.  A Seattle neighborhood painted a mural on their intersection to both beautify the area and encourage car drivers to slow down.   There is anarchist delightfulness to these kinds of grass-roots projects.  They seem to “just happen” – a group of advocates, activists, or friends sees a need and does something without permission or even in violation of “the rules.”  (In reality, nothing is really spontaneous – behind every action there is someone who spent time and energy and had the knowledge and experience to make it happen.  Just because something is unofficial doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a history.)  Of course, there is the danger that one group’s improvement is another group’s obstruction and that amateur efforts end up with construction disasters!  But these actions are celebrations of direct democracy!

Some actions are unleashed from above.    New York City is huge, but it has found ways to hang quick-action programs off the side of its very large bureaucracy.  Creating “instant plazas” by shutting down lanes or roads opens space that the public quickly flows into and makes its own. Calling something “temporary” or “pilot” or “a test” or “an experiment” allows innovative cities to evaluate ideas using low-cost, small-scale, and non-standard processes and materials – and then claim credit for brilliance if it works or quietly shut it down if it doesn’t.  Of course, cities are deep-pocket liability targets should anything go wrong, and it is hard for big agencies to allow for “exceptions” without undermining their ability to manage the chaos of urban life.


But the most important efforts are not those that come exclusively from the bottom-up or from the top-down, but those that come to life through the interaction of the two.  The most significant strategies are those that create a mutually-reinforcing interaction between citizen actions and government programs, that foster citizen initiative in a way that improves public sector performance.  In Seattle, after opposing the unauthorized intersection murals, city government swung around and created a program allowing other neighborhoods to apply to do the same thing and then providing the supplies.  In New York the expanding “Play Street” program lets community-patrolling police work with civic groups to create temporary playgrounds.

It’s easy to make citizen activism scarce.  The Soviet system embodied the enervating idea that the state was the only legitimate embodiment of public will, so any action outside official channels was automatically repressed.  However, the kind of all-against-all profit-seeking society championed by market fundamentalists and Ann Rynd libertarians is equally unlikely to encourage anyone to move very far beyond the pursuit of personal (or perhaps family) advantage, despite the innate human capacity for empathy that spawns hope and help even in the most brutal economies.  (For a glimpse of what a real free-market society looks like, see the documentary book Behind The Beautiful Forevers.)

A society capable of realizing values other than self-aggrandizement requires institutions built around the reality that we’re all in this together, whose mission reflects our highest democratic and humanitarian ideals, and whose operations foster cooperation, communication, respect, and community.  Government is one of the few institutions based in democratic values and at least potentially able to be held at least partially responsible for the well-being of the worst-off as well as the privileged.  Government is an essential focus for and facilitator of citizen empowerment, which requires (at least) four types of activity.


First, government needs to create a climate that welcomes new ideas and local efforts.  This requires public acceptance that along with all the good ideas will come some really bad ones; and that those failures can be dealt with.

Second, government needs to provide support for citizen projects – but not too much!  It is important that neighbors be able to develop their own ideas without being told that it won’t work or requires three dozen impossible-to-get permits.  On the other hand, just as Venture Capitalists now sponsor Enterprise Forums where would-be entrepreneur pitch their ideas to investors, and set up new business incubators where start-ups get helped with technical details, cities can set up occasional “citizen initiative forums’ where neighborhoods can pitch ideas to city agencies, or “innovation charrettes” where local groups can get technical assistance – and perhaps even a small budget – for implementing an idea.  But the idea, and the risk, has to remain with the proposers rather than the city so that elected officials can still have plausible deniability.

Third, cities need to monitor these experiments and adopt the best for city-wide implementation.  Just as states (and cities) are the laboratories of democracy for the national government, citizen initiatives can be seen as a testing ground of ideas for city (and town) government.   However, the best strategy is not simply to take an idea and repeat it – the best approach is to spread the idea and offer to support other neighborhoods or groups that wish to adopt (and adapt) it as their own.

Finally, cities need to build experimentation into their regular programs, reserving some percentage of every budget for tests, trials, pilots, and other temporary projects – the best of which create some kind of physical, political or cultural space for the public to use for its own purposes.   New ideas provoke a greater fear of the unknown than a small scale physical reality, so these temporary installations are a good way to work through the NIMBY horrors – although it still doesn’t solve the “great idea, but not here” problem.


Small scale experimentalism – cheap, quick, visible, removable – is a powerful strategy for both community and government revitalization.   Its strength is that it is incremental, evolutionary, and flexible.  But it is not the answer to every problem.  Small may be beautiful, but it is not enough.  Sustaining our cities requires upgrading our infrastructure with better transit, water/sewer systems, mixed-use housing/business developments.  And most people recognize that these won’t happen without collective, meaning government, action of various kinds.  (The Big Dig illustrates the folly of entrusting oversight of major projects to firms whose only interest is self-benefit and profit.)  As Jane Jacobs’ critics point out, it is easier and more common for citizens to unite against a big project than in favor of a better one.  Still, we’re going to have to make that leap if we are to deal with the destructiveness of rising sea levels, the difficulty of driving around our increasingly congested roads, or the complications of creating housing markets compatible with our income-differentiated workforce.

The right wing has spent several decades persuading people, and creating the conditions that make their predictions come true, that “government is the problem.”  But the destruction of our only common ground, the only institutional structure that we (potentially) control and whose mission is our collective wellbeing, leads to disaster.  Perhaps small scale democratic action is a way to begin rebuilding our future.


Other relevant posts:

>MODELING POSITIVE CITY-CONSTITUENCY RELATIONS: How Boston’s Transportation Department is Working with the Bicycling Community – and Creating Better Roads

THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT AND ADVOCACY: Movement Building, Institutional Reform, and Organizational Development (Part I)

AVOIDING “NIMBY” – Navigating Between Fear and Greed

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