Emmett McKinney’20 G, Nashville Civic Design Center (Summer ’19)

Published October 28, 2019 by Emmett McKinney

Urban design and architecture can have the veneer of exclusivity. Dramatic renderings and spectacular proposals inspire people to expand their view of what is possible in the built environment. This inspiration serves a needed function, to realize the scale of transformation to tackle climate change and other social issues. However, good design also depends on […]

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Urban design and architecture can have the veneer of exclusivity. Dramatic renderings and spectacular proposals inspire people to expand their view of what is possible in the built environment. This inspiration serves a needed function, to realize the scale of transformation to tackle climate change and other social issues.

However, good design also depends on being accessible to the public. I learned this as a Design Fellow at the Nashville Civic Design Center this summer, where I focused on the Tactical Urbanism Organizers (TURBO) initiative.Tactical urbanism is an approach to urban design that deploys low-cost, temporary installations to reshape public spaces such as streets, parks, and plazas.

A local business may use astro-turf, planters, benches, and string lights to transform a parking spot into a miniature green space. Or, neighbors may use home-made sidewalk paint and plastic bollards to create a sidewalk “bulb out.” This shortens the distance pedestrians must cross, increases their visibility to drivers, and reclaims public space for art, bike racks, and countless other uses.

The beauty of tactical urbanism is its simplicity. Materials can be purchased at a hardware store, and installations set up in hours. People often object to government-led infrastructure projects on grounds that they will be disruptive, expensive, dangerous, or simply an eyesore. Tactical urbanism helps planners respond to these qualms by testing out a design. If a temporary project fails, planners can learn why and improve. If it succeeds, they can follow up with a more permanent structure. A good example of this is the traffic circle installed at 15th Ave and Elmwood in Nashville’s Hillsboro neighborhood.

On a more personal scale, tactical urbanism underscores the importance of delight, and simple joy in urban planning. Consider Park(ing) Day, an annual ritual in cities across the country, where businesses and residents redesign parking spots as miniature, 8 ft x 20 foot “parklets.” The joy people get from simply putting up a lawn chair where an empty car usually sits is astounding. Neighbors who rarely stop to chat get to know each other. Kids play in the street. People slow down, and start to say “Hey, this is fun. Why don’t we do this all year round?”

Data, studies, and long-term planning have a key role to play in transforming cities, without question. But the success of small interventions should remind planners that public space, in the end, belongs to people. Everyday citizens have the technical ability and resources to realize transformational infrastructure projects. The role of the planner is to help them imagine a different city, and spark large-scale interventions with small, tactical interventions.

Rethinking public space in Nashville was especially fulfilling important to me, given my interests in social justice and mobility. As DUSP professor Karilyn Crockett articulates in People Before Highways, the physical occupation of public space and one’s ability to move freely have been essential levers of power in the United States, and especially in the South.

Construction of highways during the urban renewal era decimated countless communities of color, Nashville’s Jefferson Street among them. Rosa Parks made history by occupying a different physical location on a bus in Montgomery. Civil rights protestors marched across a bridge in Selma to demand justice. The Freedom Riders crossed lines of segregation, at great personal risk, to register voters in Mississippi in the summer of 1968. Black Lives Matter protestors blocked highways to assert their right to life and to dignity. It is the ability to decide which physical space to occupy that has defined, and changed, the history of equality in this country. This context sheds new light on the famous spiritual “We shall not be moved.”

Against this backdrop, reclaiming road space for pedestrians was about more than just realizing a “sustainable” city. It was about realizing a just one. Road violence and car-related deaths disproportionately afflict poor neighborhoods and communities of color. This is especially true in Nashville, where 23 pedestrians have been killed this year alone.

One activist I spoke with observed how road deaths belie deeper, more systemic prejudice. Following crashes, drivers may note that pedestrians crossing the street at night wearing all black are less visible to drivers. The activist challenged me to consider why the victims are wearing all black. Often, they are servers in restaurants, or working low-wage, hourly jobs. Their uniforms are designed not to be seen. As the activist summarized, “black skin, black clothes – can’t see ‘em.”

I am conscious that the built environment is ultimately the medium through which society conveys its values. Transportation infrastructure shapes cities for decades, allocating economic and environmental costs and burdens unevenly across the city. That people of color tend to bear the costs of mobility is not a coincidence; rather, it is a symptom of systemic and intentional discrimination.

In some respects, redesigning intersections is about physical safety and aesthetics. If we look a bit closer, though, we see that street design is just one component of a much larger socio-economic system. Decisions about the space in a given intersection are likely to inform future decisions afterwards.

As planners therefore, we should strive to open up the decision making processes that allocate public space, and remember that each time we propose something new, we are engaging with a long, and often painful history of destructive planning decisions. It is our mandate to help right these wrongs, using the tools that we are given – but to always remember who the city belongs to: the people.

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