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‘Tactical Urbanism’ Taking Hold in San Diego

Slowly but noticeably, “tactical urbanism” is playing out in San Diego and other large cities where young people are flocking to high-density core neighborhoods in search of their desired quality of life.

Instead of waiting for long-vacant lots to be taken over by the next developer, urban planners and designers are finding ways to turn those underutilized properties into attractive and useful neighborhood features, even if those elements prove temporary.

It can take the form of a “pocket park” — or a set of tables or benches surrounded with planters and trees with some public art — that gives a sense of place to a neighborhood. Construction is minimal, and the “pop-up” elements are easily moved when it’s time to clear the way for a developer’s permanent project.

“The community is investing in their own community, really,” said Jason Grauten, a partner in San Diego-based design group RADLab, during a recent gathering presented by the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute.

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Community Convincing Developers

The tactical urbanist movement is supported by various methods of crowdsourcing — which can be as simple as asking neighborhood residents to post input on a whiteboard as to what they’d like to see in a pocket park — and crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter that help translate theories and wishes into action in urban areas.

With the help of more than $60,000 raised from nearly 300 donors through Kickstarter, along with donations including a $300,000 contribution from local real estate firm Canter Cos., RADLab is putting together a project called Quartyard in a vacant East Village lot.

Making use of 14 surplus shipping containers, Quartyard — planned by Grauten and several fellow graduates of NewSchool of Architecture + Design — is a temporary public park that will also include a coffee shop, dog run and food trucks, using a 28,000-square-foot dirt lot owned by the city at Market Street and Park Boulevard.

Experts said the sense of community vitality generated by that type of project makes the case to developers that a site is viable for future development. Organizers of RADLab — with RAD standing for research, architecture and development — have said Civic San Diego is looking to eventually sell the city-owned site of Quartyard to a private developer.

Already in East Village, a temporary gathering hub called Silo, with live music, food and art events, has sprung up in an area that will eventually become the mixed-use Makers Quarter development.

Park Prototypes Speed Approval

Experts said the spot-urbanism movement has already taken root in Los

Angeles, San Francisco and Boston.

In the Los Angeles area, urban design firms such as Utopiad have devised numerous configurations of “pocket parks” that neighborhoods can adapt to bring attractive elements to neighborhoods with minimal disruptions. Having just a few standardized “prototypes” available — all factoring in aesthetic, safety and traffic issues — can speed the process of having the parks approved by city officials.

“The challenge of these parks is getting the city to review all of them,” Utopiad founder Daveed Kapoor said.

In some cases, as with a temporary urban feature that Utopiad established on a stretch of the Los Angeles River, Kapoor said enough community buzz is created to convince developers that something permanent could go there someday. The urban features also help make existing neighborhoods more attractive by creating inviting extensions to sidewalk areas.

Katie Rast — director of Fab Lab San Diego, a collaborative invention space in Kearny Mesa — said the pace of tactical urbanism will likely pick up in coming years, partly as a result of San Diego’s entrepreneurial history, continued growth of the “open source economy” and technologies like 3-D printing that enable small firms to innovate and shape their surroundings faster.

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