Living Preview: Pilots for Enhanced Public Engagement

Living Preview: Pilots for Enhanced Public Engagement

In a world of real-time digital voting and instant results, it can be a challenge for local governments to keep pace with changing community needs.

Cities across the country – from a giant metropolis like New York City to smaller towns like Livingston, California – are using temporary materials and inexpensive pilot initiatives to let community members experience new street designs and public spaces in real time.

Using paint and tape to see real-world performance in Richmond, CA.

Planning efforts often envision a time frame of a decade or more, making it difficult for local governments to keep community members engaged. Marking out temporary sidewalk extensions, crosswalks, traffic circles and bike lanes gives residents and drivers a chance to try out street improvements and experience what the new street design will feel like once they’re built. With this inexpensive approach – using a little chalk, tape and paint, a few plants, a pair of benches and some local art – people can actually make and see the changes in the real-world performance of the street.

This gives city planners, engineers and public-safety officials an opportunity to receive and incorporate real time feedback helping to implement change today and make adjustments while longer term projects work their way through the review, funding and construction process.

Richmond Revitalization

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Recently in Richmond, a one-block temporary installation on streets paralleling the newly opened Elm Park that was designed and built by residents, showed how communities can look at improving their streets and sidewalks with direct involvement from the youth and adults who live there.

Funded by a grant from Caltrans, the City of Richmond, the Local Government Commission and transportation experts from Fehr and Peers teamed up with the non-profit Pogo Park [] to bring its founding members’ vision of the “Yellow Brick Road” to life to create safe connections to Elm Park, schools and vital play areas in the heart of Richmond’s Iron Triangle neighborhood.

“It’s a new way of getting community feedback from people,” said Lina Velasco, a senior planner with the City of Richmond. “What we found is that the public finds two-dimensional drawings of construction-related plans hard to understand. This is a way people are able to experience it in 3-D.”

A full-scale mockup of potential street improvements, the “Living Preview” offered a live opportunity for drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists to interact with the new elements. And the planners got to fix the design on the spot, and re-measure and re-survey their proposal. As a result, the final design will reflect a plan that works for the community.

“Rather than going out into the community with a plan on paper, we’re actually building the proposed changes as a temporary installation and we can make changes on the spot,” said Toody Maher, Pogo Park’s executive director.

“There have been different kinds of design charrettes around the country where they close streets down and show what’s coming,” Maher added. ”This is the first we’ve heard of where we built it and then let the traffic flow through. It’s been fascinating to see what works and doesn’t work right away.”

These public-engagement pilots also fit into a larger convergence of community efforts to reshape street life that includes widening sidewalks for pedestrians and outdoor seating, carving out safe spaces for bike lanes, adding creative parklets in business districts, planting more trees, and renovating underutilized neighborhood parks and plazas.

“Moving traffic and creating public space don’t have to be conflicting objectives,” said Kate Meis, the LGC’s executive director. “The deeper lesson is that multipurpose streets that work for everyone are keystones for healthy communities and vibrant local economies.”

A New York Make-Over

City leaders and local merchants had tried unsuccessfully for years to fix Times Square, a dangerous and chaotic place for pedestrians, cars and businesses. A couple of years ago, the City initiated a six-month pilot to close five blocks of Broadway and create 2-1/2 acres of new pedestrian space using temporary materials in a bold effort to renovate the landmark district.

Times Square, New York City

“Streets are some of the most valuable assets a city has,” explains former New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. “You can remake your streets quickly, inexpensively. It can provide immediate benefits – and it can be quite popular. You just need to look at them a little differently.”

As part of the experiment, they used paint on the ground and put hundreds of lawn chairs in the street. People quickly flocked to the space, and city officials got the public buy-in they needed to make the street improvements permanent.

“The temporary materials are an important part of the program because you can show how it works,” Sadik-Khan said. “If it didn’t work, we could put it back the way it was.”

The results were overwhelming: Traffic moved better, it was much safer, five new flagship stores opened. With more than 350,000 people moving through the area each day, Time Square is now one of the top 10 retail locations on the planet. More people on foot has meant more business – and there are fewer pedestrian injuries.

Elsewhere, they used some paint, a few planters and temporary materials over a weekend to set the stage for a permanent makeover of several underutilized parking lots and blocks in Brooklyn.

Through similar efforts, more than 50 pedestrian plazas have been created across New York City, repurposing 26 acres of active car lanes into vibrant public spaces.

The context for these public-engagement demonstrations is broader than street improvements. “For the first time in history, most people live in cities,” Sadik-Khan said. “Over the next 40 years, the population is going to double on the planet. The design of cities is a key issue for our future.”

Learn more here.

What improvement can you pilot in your community?