The Power of the Pop-Up: How Citizens Are Transforming Public Places through Tactical Urbanism

Have you ever been walking down a street and thought, “Wow, this place is incredible?” Now, what was it about that place that was so incredible? Was it the unfinished sidewalks and cacophony of cars and trucks speeding down the road? I’m guessing, probably not. It was more likely the pedestrian-scale buildings and amenities, ADA accessible sidewalks, protected bike lanes, diversity of shops, and safe pedestrian/bicycle crossings at each intersection.

The Cons of Car-Centric

The comparison I am painting here is the difference between people-centered design and car-centric design. For decades, we have been planning our streets and neighborhoods with cars as the #1 priority, with pedestrians and active transportation modes (e.g bicycles, scooters, skateboards) somewhere down the totem pole. As intended, this car-centric framework of planning and design created a landscape complete with wide-lane roads, ample parking, and high-speed roads or highways that should shorten our car commute.

Unfortunately, unintended consequences of these car-centric designs include urban sprawl decreasing neighborhood walkability, higher carbon-emissions increasing ozone, and higher incidences of vehicle crashes affecting not only the drivers and passengers but also pedestrians and bicyclists. In 2017, Fort Collins registered 14 deaths due to fatal motor vehicle –related crashes: 7 drivers, 4 motorcyclists, and 3 pedestrians. 2017 was the deadliest year in Fort Collins history for motor-vehicle related deaths almost doubling from 2016. It saddens me to report that this upward trend does not stop in Fort Collins, all of Colorado is experiencing an upward trend of fatal crashes by 24% since 2014 with pedestrians making up almost 14% of the recorded fatalities and serious injuries in Colorado.

Urban Planning Solutions

Urban planning was born to remedy unhealthy city conditions that have existed since the 1800’s, and this field continues to have great influence on large-scale positive change with safer design strategies. The shift from car-only commuting to multi-modal travel has made it apparent that our landscape is extremely difficult and unsafe to navigate in any other mode but a car.

Fortunately, planners and every day citizens have started to learn about safer, people-centered design frameworks and policies such as Complete Streets. Complete Streets are streets designed to accommodate all users including pedestrians, people with disabilities, bicycles, transit riders, and motorists. This policy guides transportation planners and engineers “to routinely design and operate the entire right of way to enable safe access for all users, regardless of age, ability, or mode of transportation”.

In addition to creating a safe, multi-modal traffic network, the benefits to implementing Complete Streets is improved equity, public health, and decreased carbon emissions.

Tactical Urbanism

In addition to planners, everyday citizens are learning people-centered design strategies. In cities where planning or transportation projects or leadership have not adopted these safer design strategies or have been too slow to implement them, tactical urbanism has appeared.

Tactical urbanism is a citizen-led approach, sometimes in collaboration with municipalities or organizations, to build improved neighborhood infrastructure or amenities using short-term, low cost, and scalable interventions. These demonstration projects often draw attention to perceived shortcomings in policy or physical design, engage community members in the de

sign process, deepen understanding of our built environment, and most importantly inspire action!

The Power of the Pop-Up

Some cities have even experienced forms of guerrilla tactical urbanism. In Wichita, a bicyclist installed rows of toilet plungers to act as bike lane delineators at an intersection. You have to give him points for ingenuity.

Nonetheless, people have taken city planning into their own hands using cheap and readily available materials to create some incredible spaces that cater to pedestrians and bicyclists in ways that our car-centric frameworks never allowed. For example, people have extended sidewalks, painted curb bulb outs, and activated former parking spaces to create safer and more welcoming gathering spaces and paths for pedestrians. Communities have installed their own versions of a roundabout on a residential street complete with planted trees and freshly chalked lanes and graphics.

There are a handful of small pop-up projects that can be seen in our very own Fort Collins, like mini library stands, a pantry pop-up, fences with yarn designs, and our annual Open Streets event. Community members have stepped up all over the country to design their own neighborhood spaces because they know their streets better than anyone else and they’ve identified strategies they can implement to better meet their unique health and safety needs.

The best part about all these community-driven demonstration projects is that municipalities have responded in positive ways. Some cities have viewed these tactical urbanism projects as pilot projects that were reviewed and refined for eventual permanent implementation. For example, in Burlington, a successfully implemented pop-up project led to the creation of Vermont’s Quick Build Program which uses tactical urbanism to test new design approaches and uses these demonstration project to update their street design standards.

It’s important to share that not every pop-up makes it to the permanent implementation phase. A successful pop-up is one that achieves the original goal whether that be safety, reconfiguring space to meet current needs, and/or increased community engagement. If the project implementers are able to measure and report on new found value in the formerly underutilized or outdated designed space with metrics showing improved safety and/or greater attraction of community members there is greater chance of the project influencing policy, projects, or programs.

Engaging Youth to Create Places

The reason I have led you down the path of becoming a tactical urbanist is to remind you that the spaces we live, work, learn, play, travel, and eat at can be designed (or redesigned) in ways to make our experiences safer, more enjoyable, and more vibrant! A lot of us have forgotten just how creative and resourceful we can be so who better than youth to remind us how to do it.

In response to this growing need for new perspective, IBE along with Urban Lab, The Artery, Create Places, FC Bikes, Safe Routes to School, and Bike Fort Collins have developed a free youth program this summer called Youth Creating Places. Our top goals are to 1) help engage Fort Collins decision-makers in the community pop-up demonstration process, 2) increase community knowledge and awareness about methods of tactical urbanism, and 3) enhance our sense of place and connection to one another.

The program aims to teach youth (ages 12+) about tactical urbanism or creative, temporary placemaking with the goal of activating their own neighborhood spaces. The team will offer a 3-week, half day program for 2 youth cohorts in June and July 2018 that teach public art and design and help guide youth to vision, design, and build pop-up activity hubs for their communities.

For the 1st cohort (June), we will activate Soft Gold Park in north Fort Collins and for the 2nd cohort (July), we will work to activate an undeveloped greenspace at Salud Family Health Centers in northwest Fort Collins. The pop-up ideas and designs will be entirely youth-driven so we may be painting murals, chalking crosswalks, designing interactive games on walking paths, or building furniture for gathering spaces. We will feature both youth pop-up projects at the Fort Collins Open Streets Event in mid-September so you can have a chance to see them in person. If you would like to learn more or would like your child to apply for our Youth Creating Places program in July, please contact me at

Happy tactical urbanizing!