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Community-Led Demonstration Projects: A Cost Effective Way to Engage Citizens and Implement Plans

A few months back I highlighted the technique of “tactical urbanism” as a small-scale, inexpensive way to test out innovative planning strategies to advance long-term quality of life goals. Using cheap materials such as spray chalk, hay bales, traffic cones, and potted plants, municipalities across the country have been able to experiment with all kinds of temporary demonstration projects, including new public gathering spaces, bike lanes, and traffic calming features, without making the investments required with more traditional public works projects.

Another benefit of tactical urbanism projects is that they can be designed and implemented not just by a municipality itself, but by community groups as well. You wouldn’t want a bunch of citizen volunteers to lay concrete and restripe roadways to put in a new public plaza, but it’s certainly reasonable to have them put out a few traffic cones and hay bales to create a neighborhood parklet to hang out in during a hot summer evening. In fact, encouraging citizen groups to take on tactical urbanism projects is an excellent way to leverage limited city staff resources and engage communities in creating the types of improvements they want in their neighborhoods.

Still, getting citizens more involved in what is traditionally the role of public works (if the projects were not temporary, demonstration ones), is much easier said than done. Even with simple materials and temporary timeframes, there are a number of safety and mobility concerns to think about. We don’t want citizens going guerrilla-style and cordoning off parklets or striping their own crosswalks wherever they choose; there needs to be some municipal management and oversight.

That’s why I got excited when I saw Burlington, Vermont’s newly created Community-Led Demonstration Project Policy + Guide. This wonderful document outlines a clear framework for how a community can take the lead in developing tactical urbanism projects in coordination with city departments. As a policy, it establishes clear requirements, responsibilities, and limitations on these types of projects. As a guide, it offers citizens direction and advice on how to make their own neighborhood improvements, albeit temporary ones. Overall, having a policy in place like this one can be a really great way to give your enthusiastic citizen activists a clear avenue for taking action.

Here are some of the key aspects of the policy that I think provide some great guidance for other jurisdictions looking to develop something similar:

  • Without being overly prescriptive, the policy establishes some useful boundaries for where and how communities can undertake these projects. It outlines particular street types where these projects can and cannot take place, clearly states the requirements for maintaining safety and utility access, and also identifies the duration of such projects, which are limited to between one and seven days.
  • Another requirement of the policy is for community groups to meet a threshold for community buy-in before implementation. In Burlington, project leaders must demonstrate 75% support from property owners and businesses around the project. This is a wise policy indeed as it helps ensure the projects truly are community-driven, and keeps the city from instigating any neighborhood controversy.
  • The policy includes a really well-laid out process flowchart and project timeline. Community activists can see exactly what they need to do to make their demonstration project a reality, and about how long they should expect for it to take (2-5 months as suggested by the Burlington Public Works Department, reasonably quick compared to the typical community project implementation timeline).
  • The policy is complemented with tons of great guidance for how to organize, fund, and implement such projects. For example, the policy includes location, design, and even material considerations for various types of demonstrations. It also includes lists of funding organizations and engineering partners that have shown interest in participating in projects like these.
  • The policy puts a high emphasis on collecting useful data about the project impacts and offers a helpful overview of various data collection methods that project leaders can use to capture both qualitative and quantitative information, such as vehicle and pedestrian counts, working with nearby businesses to track any sales volume changes, and setting up idea boards for people to add their thoughts as they experience the demonstration project. This helps ensure that the city will have useful analytics from these demonstration projects to inform future capital spending that could turn some of these demonstrations into permanent improvements.

Letting citizens experiment with neighborhood project improvements without getting bogged down in the traditional processes, is a great way to engage and empower communities. Following the lead of Burlington, establishing a comprehensive policy to define how and what these projects could look like, along with guidance on making such projects happen, can ensure an effective balance of community autonomy and jurisdictional control. And don’t forget - this approach also allows a local government to cost-effectively test out how well an infrastructure improvement will work before committing to an expensive, permanent solution.


Image courtesy of Streets Plan Collaborative.

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About Josh Mahar

Josh served as a Communications and Outreach Coordinator for MRSC and wrote about social media, government performance, and other local government topics. He no longer works for MRSC.