In urban environments, physical change often takes a long time. Throughout the “Somerville by Design” neighborhood planning efforts, our residents have been interested in ideas for on-the-ground improvements that don’t necessarily need massive budgets and multi-year design and construction schedules.
Enter Tactical Urbanism (TU). Around the world, communities are using TU as a quick, inexpensive way to test changes in streets and public spaces to see if they work – before making a large investment. Ideas for improvement projects are generated directly from neighborhood residents, and in many cases, even the construction or installation becomes a community-based task. Data is collected before the intervention and afterward to measure success: Does automobile traffic slow down? Are people gathering here? Are local businesses experiencing increased sales?
In East Somerville, our neighborhood planning process identified a need for these types of projects. Specific project sites were suggested by local residents, including the highway underpasses at Sullivan Square, Stop & Shop and Gilman Street; movable street furniture on Broadway; and even pavement painting at the intersection of Cross Street and Pearl Street.
It was fortuitous that East Somerville Main Streets (ESMS), an active community partner, and the City’s Arts Council were awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant for a series of programs and cultural events. One component of this work on the corner of Broadway and Cross Streets as a way to bring people into East Cross Street to define it as a cultural corridor. This set the stage for a TU intervention that leveraged involovement from many of the groups and community members in the neighborhood.
The event began with a brainstorming meeting on the evening of Wednesday, May 28th facilitated by Mike Lydon, an urban planner from the Streets Plans Collaborative, a Brooklyn-based firm. Mike reviewed the Somerville by Design work and inspired residents with examples of tactical urbanism in other communities. He then broke up the approximately 40 residents into groups and they discussed their creative vision for improving the intersection of Cross Street East and Broadway. Among the ideas that were put forth was some way for the Seniors who use the building on the corner to have more interaction with the teenagers who also occupy the building. Residents suggested creating gathering spaces and providing opportunities for gardening together. They also discussed a mural or community art board and some way to draw people from Broadway into the new park and to Cross Street East.
On Thursday and Friday, the two-day work sessions got residents rolling up their sleeves to clean up, hang lights, paint and build planters. Of course, as they were doing these things they were also getting to know each other. The Teen Empowerment youth provided great energy as they cleaned up, painted a bench and installed the words “This is East” in the fence. In addition to the text, residents wrote their names on name badges attached to the fence to let people know who lived in the neighborhood. The fence installation would be seen by all attending the upcoming SomerStreets event “Carnival,” and the area inside was also enhanced with a planting table and seating. The teens were enthusiastic about holding their meetings there in the future.
In the space between the Park’s community garden and the senior center building, pallet planters were built and installed to allow opportunities for gardening for the teens and the seniors and to create more space for them to sit.