Local News / February 18, 2014

Talking “Tactical Urbanism” At Big Car Service Center

Andrea Muraskin
Talking “Tactical Urbanism” At Big Car Service Center

Big Car, a nonprofit that works on building community through art and design, is presenting a series of lunchtime workshops in partnership with Trade School Indianapolis, a barter-based learning co-op.

Last week’s workshop focused on community art-making as well as something called “Tactical Urbanism”: a method of addressing urban issues in a low cost, temporary way.

Big Car founder Jim Walker summed up the Tactical Urbanism approach in three words: lighter, quicker, cheaper.

“You do projects that are movable, and that’s the lighter part, things that you can implement right away and there's not a lot of talking about it forever, and that aren't so expensive that it's just a pipe dream,” Walker said during the talk.

A feature of the discussion was the “better block” events that Big Car has helped organize in three Indianapolis neighborhoods. A better block is an event that transforms a heavily trafficked or underdeveloped block using temporary means. The concept originated in Dallas, Texas in 2010.

Last fall, Big Car and neighbors in the Garfield Park neighborhood staged a better block at the corner of Shelby and Raymond streets, a busy intersection without a crosswalk west of the I-65 Raymond Street exit. They started by getting a block party permit from the city. 

Slowing the speed of traffic was key to the event. “We had a city bus come out and block a lane,” Walker explains.  “So it was going from four lanes to two; putting it on a road diet is what they call it. Further down the line we used pylons and barricades, so you saw it narrow down. So you start to ease people into two lanes, and then they see all this activity and people on the street so they kind of slow down naturally, most people did. Then we put turf down the middle which is the crosswalk.”

At an intersection where cars usually go about 35 miles per hour, traffic slowed to 15, and drivers stopped to look at what was going on. There were artists, musicians, food trucks, even a farmers’ market. Improvised bike lanes went in either direction on Shelby Street.

Lisa Boyles, a participant at the workshop last week, attended the better block at East Washington and Rural Streets in June 2013, an area that normally sees little pedestrian traffic. She enjoyed the event, but was concerned about safety. On that day, her three year old niece was playing on the turf that had been put down on the street a few feet from the curb.

“The boundaries were not as clear as they usually are when you have to hold somebody's hand when you're crossing the street,” Boyles remembers. “So she almost walked out into traffic…. Some of the cars did not want to slow down.”

There was no stop sign nor light to alert cars to slow down at the improvised crosswalk, and no one directing traffic, Boyles said. 

However, there was a community present that day, she pointed out. A woman who Boyles and her family had just met that day was the one to pull the young child back from the street.

Jim Walker told the group that better blocks, and Tactical Urbanism in general, are not solutions to neighborhood problems. Rather, they are like live test kitchens, opportunities to see which changes might work and which might not.

At the East Washington Street better block, the Englewood Neighborhood Association had visitors fill out surveys to find out what permanent changes they’d like to see in the area. Walker says that the Garfield Park better block helped spur real change in that neighborhood.

“Out of it has come a business development group, and the neighborhood has become its own non-profit,” Walker said. “So they're working very hard to keep that stuff going, like getting businesses in those vacant buildings… the hardware store that's right down there fixed up its facade. So there's been a lot of continued interest and momentum that happened after that event.”

Lunch time workshops at Big Car Service Center, 3819 Lafayette Road, continue on Wednesdays through the end of March.