Sunday, June 12, 2016

Tactical Urbanism: 26th & Olive

The 26th & Olive mural (my photo)
Something happened recently in south Eugene that I only became aware of through the power of social media. Thanks to Facebook, I learned a group of neighbors had created something truly special, a remarkable example of what has come to be termed “tactical urbanism.” Their handiwork—the 26th & Olive intersection mural—is an urban intervention, one enriched by the enthusiasm, imagination, and hands of a large group of like-minded people. Much to the delight of the neighbors who share the intersection, the street painting is not only big, bright, and one-of-a-kind, but has also become an instantaneous emblem of neighborhood unity, identity, and pride.

My wife and I visited the intersection mural last week, but finding it proved to be an adventure. Even though we live less than a mile away, we struggled to navigate the maze of dead end streets in the immediate vicinity of 26th & Olive. When we finally did reach the intersection, we learned we’d just missed the new art piece’s formal dedication ceremony earlier that afternoon. Regardless, we were cheerfully greeted by Erik Steiner, the principal organizer of the mural project, who graciously spent some time with us to describe how the project came about.

Erik said a principal impetus for the project was traffic and pedestrian safety. 26th & Olive is the only four-way intersection on College Hill without any traffic control signs at all. He and his neighbors begged the City of Eugene to install a strop sign, but the City's response to their pleas was "sorry, no." Disappointed, Erik remained determined to do something for the safety of the young children, including his own, who regularly traverse the intersection. But what could be done? What would slow motorists and enhance pedestrian safety? The 26th & Olive intersection mural would be the colorful answer, one really big sign in lieu of four smaller, post-mounted octagons.

The street painting isn’t the first of its type—there are many examples in Portland, for example—but it is a vivid illustration of the power of tactical urbanism and a quintessentially Eugene response to the problem. Tactical urbanism interventions are quickly executed, sometimes temporary projects whose aim is to ameliorate highly localized urban problems or to make a small part of a city more lively or enjoyable. These types of projects—ranging from creating vibrant plazas seemingly overnight to re-imagining parking spaces as neighborhood gathering places —have grown in popularity in recent years. They’re most often used by urban activists seeking to drive lasting improvements in their cities and beyond. Their hallmarks are quick implementation, creativity, and low cost. They offer a way to gain public and government support for investing in more permanent projects, inspiring residents and civic leaders to experience and shape urban spaces in a new way.

It turns out securing City of Eugene support for the project wasn’t an issue. It proved to be a willing partner, awarding a Neighborhood Matching Grant to help defray the cost of the painting. The Public Works/Engineering Department did its part, happily preparing the asphalt surface and sealing its cracks. The City also joined forces with the University of Oregon’s Planning, Public Policy, and Management (PPPM) program by commissioning five students to develop a guide to tactical urbanism and utilizing the 26th & Olive project as the basis for a service-learning exercise. The group’s project is a component of the 400-level PPPM course “Real World Eugene.” The class introduced the students to Eugene city officials and provided a real opportunity for professional teamwork. Bethany Steiner (Erik’s wife) happened to be the course co-instructor and is associate director of the PPPM Community Planning Workshop.

While enhancing pedestrian safety may have been the original motivation for the intersection mural, there’s no doubt Erik was also driven by a passion for community-building and place-making. More than 150 of his neighbors and friends would agree. They spent 8 hours together and emptied 28 gallons of paint to create a giant piece of delightful public art, all while enduring record high temperatures. The unique mural is already a landmark, a conversation-starter, and a symbol of the neighborhood’s vitality. The notion of neighborhood-ness is significant to Erik, particularly because he believes a thriving neighborhood is the ideal place to teach young children about healthy, local, connected living, and what it means to be rooted in place and part of a community. The 26th & Olive intersection mural will certainly be a wonderful teaching tool, hopefully for generations to come if the endowment intended to maintain it is adequately funded.

Video from Erik Steiner's YouTube Channel featuring images by Drone 1 Aerial Photography.

As my wife and I have learned over the years about the enclave we live in further to the south and east, each of Eugene’s diverse neighborhoods is not only a function of the people who live there; its unique physical characteristics also contribute significantly to making it feel like a distinct place. Erik definitely wanted his little slice of Eugene to become more distinctive. He also wanted his neighbors to come together and find shared satisfaction and inspiration by creating something special. He wanted them to abandon their comfort zone and instead mutually occupy a “connection zone.” By bringing them together to produce their iconic street mural, he hopes he has accomplished all this and more.

No comments: