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Tactical Urbanism's DIY Impact in Denver

A bright display of alley art off of Lincoln Avenue and Ellsworth Avenue.

A guerrilla bike lane installed overnight for Bike to Work Day.

One of the Little Free Libraries stands at 605 S. Logan St. in West Wash Park.

The Before I Die... installation.

The Flower Garden Fence by the Ladies Fancywork Society livens up a construction area.

Think downtown Denver needs more protected bike lanes? Or that Broadway could use more patio space? Some Denverites aren't waiting for change -- they're planning it and doing it themselves.
Perhaps you've taken an evening stroll along North Raleigh Street near 40th Avenue, and noticed the little red-and-white wooden structure sitting in one of the front yards. It's not the most elaborate setup, but if you're looking for something new to read, bring your old paperback copy of The Shining and trade it for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo -- or whatever else is available that particular night. 
Or maybe you participated in Bike to Work Day on June 26, and were pleasantly surprised when you arrived downtown and discovered a protected bicycle lane that had seemingly been installed overnight between 15th and 16th streets on Wynkoop. (Surprise: It was installed overnight!)
The leave-one-take-one community library and instant pedal-friendly byway are two examples of a relatively new pro-city-living, pro-get-the-community-involved movement known as tactical urbanism.One of the Little Free Libraries stands at 605 S. Logan St. in West Wash Park.
"Some of these things challenge us to rethink our street design," explains Steven Chester, Denver urbanist and co-manager of the website tacticalurbanismhere.com, which highlights and maps these sorts of undertakings around the city. "While others are all about simply making our neighborhoods more pleasant and enjoyable." 
"Those two projects are on a much different scale and for a different purpose, but there's a certain immediate impact," Chester continues. "They get people talking, and maybe make the city think a little differently. And in the case of the bike lane, it shows that the community isn't okay with what's going on right there."
Based on a 2012 Westword report, what's going on right there are the fifth most bicycle-vehicle crashes in Denver, even with the existing painted bike lane. In fact, according to the installation's organizers, a joint effort between BikeDenver and the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. the evening prior to Bike to Work Day some 366 automobiles hijacked road space, either while rolling through or to park, in what is supposed to be a path reserved for bicyclists.
Between the hours of 2 a.m. and 11 p.m. on Bike to Work Day, with 15 traffic delineators in place, five gallons of bright green paint to help make the current lane more noticeable and a host of informative signs, exactly zero cars or trucks violated the same space.
"This is feedback from the community in a very different form," Chester says. "It's not letter writing; it's not calling 311. It's, 'I want to demonstrate my concerns.' And it's not that we're saying 'no cars allowed,' but there needs to be a balance between moving traffic and the bikes."
Positive impact
It's also crucial to note that these types of projects aren't misbegotten protests or rash acts of vandalism. "The 'tactical' part in the name is because these things are well thought out and well planned," adds Chester. "These people are doing it out of a love for their community, and we want it to be a positive experience for everybody."
Believe it or not, even the City and County of Denver has a generally positive experience with the vast majority of these overnight urbanism missions. A sanctioned -- and permanent -- protected bike lane on 15th Street, from Cleveland Place to Larimer Street, is in the works for 2014, and following this latest venture, city staffers even offered to help with clean up by washing off the green road paint.
"City officials have been great," Chester adds. "These sort of interventions have legitimacy behind them. They're organized; they have a purpose. The city always wants to be sure everybody is safe, but they're very open to this sort of stuff."
Eventually, they might even be open to citizens taking on genuine civic-minded projects and responsibilities -- at their own cost. "Chicago and a couple other cities have programs that allow for people to actually apply for this type of stuff," explains Chester. "Say you want to put in a bike corral for on-street bike parking that takes up one vehicle space in Chicago … you can apply, you can pay for it and you can maintain it."A guerilla bike lane installed overnight for Bike to Work Day.
"Essentially, they saw the public doing these types of interventions and legitimized them by creating opportunities that allow people to do it on a long-term basis. Citizens are spending real money to put this stuff in. That's the model. The government's not getting richer. So we have to find ways to let our public help improve our spaces beyond the traditional outlets."
Small packages
Better Block and PARK(ing) Day are two other national movements with tactical urbanism roots. For example, during the most recent PARK(ing) Day in Sept. 2012, a local group of urbanists took over three parking spaces along Broadway (paying the meter, mind you!) and transformed them into more people-friendly domains: cafe seating, an AstroTurf common area and a bike corral. 
"That was a great project," Chester remembers. "Broadway has no sidewalk patio space so this allows you to see if it's even a need for this part of the community. It's cheap, it's easy, it's quick and you can see the results immediately. We had 20 bikes parked in the corral all day; the nearby businesses loved it."
As successful as the protected bike lane and impromptu park endeavors have been, Chester admits that sometimes the experiments he loves most are the little ones. 
"One of the goals of our website is to capture that small, more temporary stuff," he says. "The pop-up library, and there's one where somebody put a small door over a hole in a tree and when you open it, it plays music. Those might not be addressing some big urban issue, but they do bring a certain humanism back to everyday life."
"And they're still a great way for a citizen or a community to engage with their city and be part of a positive process for betterment, which is what tactical urbanism is all about."

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by JB Bissell.

Based in Denver, JB writes about local happenings and far-flung places often getting sidetracked at various points between. He can be reached here.
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