Planning October 2015


Keeping tactical urbanism from becoming a fad

Martin Zimmerman's piece ("We Own This City," July) posed the question, "Is tactical urbanism here to stay, or just a passing fad?" Mike Lydon's answer [in that article] hits the nail on the head. Incremental urbanism that turns our cities into laboratories for urban innovation is critical for finding short- and long-term solutions to everyday issues and to achieve results quickly.

However, three things are needed to make sure that tactical urbanism is a lasting strategy — and that public and private funds are allocated responsibly: clear identification of user groups, implementation education, and innovative policy frameworks. Those three factors will help these projects be truly catalytic.

Tactical urbanism is an organic, typically grassroots effort focused on a hyper-specific issue or opportunity. This can lead to a truncated process where people outside of the circle may be marginalized. Citizen advocacy groups, local governments, and design-planning teams must hit the streets and engage with the community in creative and nontraditional forums to identify user groups and build support to overcome barriers.

Frequently those who drive the process will ultimately be responsible for implementation, management, and long-term maintenance of these spaces. Some level of design and implementation education is needed to prepare and empower groups to succeed — because short-term solutions with no long-term plans can deteriorate quickly. Initiatives like Million Trees NYC are creating insightful, simple how-to documents that go a long way to empowering citizens. But professional design and construction support can also be an important part of the mix.

Innovative policy frameworks such as "People St," developed by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, can help citizens and organizations with placemaking. These frameworks establish clear rules that address issues of design quality, safety, and intent. In Louisville, Kentucky, an initiative called #RSquared (ReUse & Revitalize) is developing sustainable methods to reduce blight and vacancy in the city's neighborhoods through tactical and long-term solutions.

Communities can be empowered through informed, supported, and long-lasting means, even as public funding dissipates.

— Louis Johnson, LEED GA, ASLA
Gresham, Smith & Partners
Louisville, Kentucky


Parks today and tomorrow

I agree with Rutherford Platt and Peter Harnik ("New-Age Central Parks," July) that we are no longer building new parks on the scale of New York's Central Park (with few exceptions) and that we must look at alternative or nontraditional locations like landfills and above freeways. The parks discussed in the article are wonderful and inspiring; I hope to visit some of them soon, especially Chicago's 606.

Here in Los Angeles, my department is currently working on a number of exciting new park projects, such as the Puente Hills Landfill Park Master Plan and the Earvin 'Magic' Johnson Recreation Area Master Plan. The former involves the transformation of a portion of a 1,365-acre former landfill site into a regional park, while the latter is the redesign and redevelopment of a 104-acre county park aimed at addressing the community's growing and diverse recreational needs more comprehensively.

We are also in the process of conducting a countywide parks and recreation needs assessment ( to document and better understand the recreational needs of county residents as well as the quantity and quality of the county's park infrastructure. One result will be a list of priority park projects (with cost estimates) for each study area plus a list of land opportunities for the creation of new parks. The assessment may be used to guide the potential development of future funding mechanisms (like bond measures) and to leverage federal and state funding resources for parks and recreational facilities.

— Clement Lau, AICP
Departmental Facilities Planner II
Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation


Is there bias here?

In "New Future for the Meadowlands?" (July 2015), author Tara Nurin writes, "Some critics suspect Gov. Chris Christie of quietly pushing the law to pave the way for looser regulations." The law in question is the Hackensack Meadowlands Agency Consolidation Act, which was sponsored by New Jersey Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and Deputy Senate Majority Leader Paul Sarlo, both Democrats. Indeed, Democrats control both houses of the state legislature by significant majorities, so with the majority's leadership behind that bill they really wouldn't have needed a "push" from a Republican governor like Christie.

Yet Nurin chooses not even to name the bill's sponsors or identify their political affiliation, and instead cites mere speculation by unnamed "critics" of the well-known, conservative governor to hint that he was somehow the mastermind behind this law, which is likely to be unpopular with the many "progressive" readers of Planning.

I'm left to wonder if this is just more of Planning's biased reporting, careless editing, the legacy of Paul Farmer, or all of the above.

— Robert H. Wilson, AICP
Bellingham, Washington


There's more to say about resilience

I was surprised to see your special issue on resilience (August/September 2015). As a member of APA and a practicing planner for many decades, I have been researching, brainstorming, and writing about essentially the same idea for the past 10 or more years. I even submitted my ideas and samples of my 45,000-word manuscript on the subject, under the name of "Structural Adaptivity," to APA for your possible critique and/or use several years ago.

Even though I have no name recognition or high-level academic credentials, I thought I could contribute something to my profession. The response I received was that planners would not be interested in it.

I finally received an invitation to publish some of my writings online at the U.S. Resilience System site (, and they are now available under the Built Environment Group. My writings contain a full narrative on how resilience/adaptivity can and should be applied at both the city and regional scale and some ideas on implementation. My writings are focused on how to make planning more relevant in a world of rapid, unpredictable change. They cover all the major elements of physical planning, including regional growth, urban form, land use, transportation, open space, and infrastructure.

I am quite disappointed that my work has not been used or referenced in your special issue.

— William Schnaufer, AICP
Columbus, Ohio


Look at the bigger picture

Isn't it remarkable that after only two million years on Earth, mankind has begun to discover the advantages of preparation, planning, and recovery for and from natural disasters?

While Jim Schwab's "A Rising Tide of Engagement" (August/September) was important, it fell into the same myopic state of analysis that FEMA is prone to, and that almost every state and city in the continental U.S. is prone to — by failing to look for existing answers beyond the borders of the "lower 48."

More than 40 years ago the U.S. Territory of Guam (which lies on both the Ring of Fire and Typhoon Alley) made the difficult political decision to significantly raise the cost of construction by amending the uniform building code to require that buildings withstand sustained winds of 155 mph and earthquakes of 4.5 magnitude. Guam has already built resilience into municipal codes and plans, but it has been ignored by every other jurisdiction that suffers from frequent hurricanes or typhoons.

In the initial years this change almost required using concrete block (with one opening filled with concrete and rebar) for single-family homes. The same protection can be accomplished today using a variety of building materials and methods. The result: Since 1975, Guam has suffered only one death as a direct result of typhoon damage.

Further, recovery from typhoons on Guam (even category 5 storms) is quicker and cheaper for FEMA, the local government, and individuals. Insurance rates are lower for individuals whose buildings meet the standards (as opposed to stateside cases where those who have done due diligence must subsidize those who do not). On Guam insurers have also reduced rates to those who install steel shutter systems that can quickly accommodate steel panels, protecting windows from damage and preventing water damage to the interior.

It is past time for the East Coast states to get serious about protecting lives and property and reducing insurance and response costs and time lost by adopting similar, stringent requirements on all new construction within zones that can reasonably expect hurricane damage, and to require all existing structures to comply within five years. (Retrofitting is typically cheaper than replacement.)

If Guam fails at all, it is in failing to stop illegal construction by indigent families out of a misplaced sense of "human understanding." There are other, less risky, ways to deal with the housing needs of the poor.

It was my great pleasure to live and raise my family on Guam, and to work as the administrator of the Guam Coastal Management Program for more than 15 years. Later, as a private consultant, I helped draft a response plan to address environmental damage caused by natural disasters. This plan spells out how to organize a community response in advance; it also notes which issues require immediate attention (debris on the shallow reefs, denuded hillsides, etc.) This is a proactive plan that meshes with existing plans for recovery of the human environment; it's needed because FEMA couldn't care less about environmental damage.

— Michael L. Ham
Matthews Township Planning Board Member
Matthews, North Carolina


A sharp-eyed reader has noted an error in the caption on page 45 of our August/September issue. It should read this way: Blue tape on the door of Palmetto Hammock in Charleston, South Carolina, indicates where the sea level may be in 2100.

Letters may be edited before publication. Address them to Sylvia Lewis, Editor, Planning, 205 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1200, Chicago, IL 60601; e-mail: Include your name, title, affiliation, address, and daytime phone.