Downtown leaders use ‘tactical urbanism’ techniques to spice up streetscape

Share this:
August 18, 2014
By: Steve Cramer
Steve Cramer

There was added zest downtown this summer resulting from a collaboration among the University of Minnesota’s College of Design and the Downtown Improvement District (DID). To quote the College of Design’s newsletter:

“Streetscape Lab 2014, a pilot project fostering design engagement within an urban setting, took two courses off-campus this summer to build and test prototypes for pop-up spaces and street furnishings in downtown Minneapolis. After refining them with feedback from DID and their partners, the students used the city streets as a lab to test their designs.”

A wide variety of ideas were implemented.

Many items for daily use were installed, including movable chairs, a chest level narrow table for lunch hour diners near food truck row on Marquette, and a whiffle ball diamond in Peavey Plaza.

While it hasn’t been especially hot, a moist cooling breeze is always welcome during summer downtown and one could be found on south Nicollet Mall.

Way finding is a challenge in many places, so student designed directional signs appeared through the core to help point the way to notable destinations.

And a personal favorite were around 80 stencils sketched during All-Star Game week outside downtown buildings which were LEED certified, on the National Register of Historic Places, housed Fortune 500 companies or James Beard award winning restaurants, or were bicycle friendly. I saw several visitors noticing the symbols during that time, thereby learning something about what makes Minneapolis special (and fielded only one building owner complaint.)

From DID’s perspective, this work fit nicely within an on-going tactical urbanism initiative. A team composed of partners from a variety of stakeholder organizations evaluate hotspots for concerns about safety — both real and perceived — and oversee quick, low-cost, tactical environmental changes in order to positively influence behavior, perception and economic outcomes. The impact of these changes is evaluated and the results guide more permanent actions. In a similar way what was learned from the student projects this summer will help inform the approach to significant public realm improvements throughout downtown; Nicollet Mall, street reconstructions, new and existing parks, parklets and other potential activations.

This burst of energy and creativity is welcome. Many things make a city engaging, including being surprised and delighted by the unexpected “find” walking down the street or turning a corner. When such features surprise and delight and contribute to a feeling of security and connectedness, so much the better.

The results of this collaboration also support two goals of the Downtown Council’s Intersections 2025 Plan; creating a consistently compelling experience downtown, and strengthening ties to the University of Minnesota.

A special thanks must go to the team at Shorenstein for making a huge first floor space at City Center available for the College of Design classes. At a closing reception marking the end of summer term I overheard an instructor tell a student no matter how prominent you may become as a designer, you will never have work space like this again in your career!

Initiatives like this don’t rival for attention or impact the mega-development projects we are seeing, or the national scope events coming to our city. But they contribute in an important way to our quality of life, and help make being downtown a distinctive and positive experience. Kudos to all who made this summer in Minneapolis a little more interesting.

Steve Cramer is the CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council/Downtown Improvement District.