Reflections on Islington Street Lab

by Emily Corbett

Islington Street Lab

After intently following a fluctuating weather forecast for weeks, I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw a clear, welcoming sunrise break over the trees behind my house. I groggily threw on my old work clothes and ventured out into the crisp, spring morning. When I arrived in front of White Heron cafe at 5 am, I was not the first one there. Led by Tactical Urbanism guru Mike Lydon, our crew of bleary-eyed but enthusiastic volunteers set out to reshape the block of the West End around the Islington St and Bartlett St intersection. We stepped into the street adorned in the required fluorescent orange and yellow reflective vests and started sweeping, taping, painting and building our way to a new crosswalk, a narrower vehicular street, more clearly defined sidewalk/ pedestrian paths, a new outdoor public seating area, and increased on-street car and bicycle parking.


The power of a line

It was unexpectedly empowering to lay down the sharp, white lines of a crosswalk. There are so many aspects of the city life that we interact with all the time but take very little notice of until there’s a problem. For most of us the infrastructure of the street feels like an imponderable that can only be determined by government directive and altered by municipal workers over long drawn out process. The simple act of placing of the white grip tape in the parallel bands across the street gave me the rush of instant gratification. The immediacy of the change was striking. Our crew worked hard until 9 am when we stepped back and looked at the transformation. 

There was a logic and comfort to the bright lines now calling out the pedestrian zone of the street, which is broken by the many sprawling curb cuts down the length of the block. Just having this visual indicator that reminded both drivers and pedestrians that this is somewhere for people to walk felt like a relief. The power of the crosswalk across Islington St was incredible. I have darted through traffic to cross the street in that location many times, but now felt the strength of the visual cue that the crosswalk provides as I instead waited for cars to stop for me and walked confidently across the street. 

A park-what?

The part of the installation I was the most excited about was the public, outdoor seating, which in Tactical Urbanism jargon is called a ‘parklet’. The concept of ‘parklets’ originated by converting on-street vehicular parking spaces to park space. The park space is free and open to the public but often includes seating with proximity to area businesses whose services can be enjoyed from the parklet. In this case, there were no existing on-street parking spaces just an extra wide street that the parklet helped to narrow, and as a result slowed down passing traffic. The cafe type seating that the parklet provided created the much needed visible street life and activity that shows the West End to be a lively and welcoming neighborhood. It says: this isn’t just a space to pass through; this is a space to stop, spend time and be social. It is analogous to the front porch on house -- a place to linger, chat with neighbors and welcome in newcomers.

Behind the scenes

While the four hours of installation on that spring morning felt like an instantaneous transformation, the behind the scenes planning that made this Tactical Urbanism event possible took many months of dogged persistence by a handful dedicated Portsmouth residents under the organizational title of PS21. This included securing Mike Lydon, an experienced, nationally recognized Tactical Urbanism practitioner, to travel from NYC to Portsmouth for a workshop session, to present a lecture, and to help direct the volunteers on the day of the installation. Lydon also took the information and suggestions gathered from the volunteer workshop session and drew up a plan for the event which he put in front he of the city to get their feedback ahead of the installation. PS21 volunteers also spoke to the city to garner their support, reached out to West End businesses and residents to get their input, support and feedback, and pursued the funding necessary to make the project happen.

What works and what doesn’t?

Tactical Urbanism is inherently a temporary transformation to determine in a quick and dirty way what works and what doesn’t. The ideas for the Islington Street Lab project were generated and filtered by the volunteer workshop session, so they came from the desires and concerns of people who use the space most and understand in an intimate way what the day-to-day problems are. Tactical Urbanism provided a means for testing these ideas to see if a few strategic changes would produce the desired outcomes. In this case, the goals included:

      slowing traffic to make walking and bike riding safer,

     making pedestrians more visible,

     creating a sense of place through more vegetation, pedestrian level signage, and art installations,

     and a more active street life.

As a method for testing what works and what doesn’t, getting feedback on the effects of the Tactical Urbanism installation was the most critical part of the project. While it’s gratifying to receive and hear all of the positive support, the criticisms are often just as important to the process. In fact, finding out what parts of the hypothesis did not support the intended outcomes is exactly why Tactical Urbanism should be an important tool for any municipality. Cities can avoid the thousands and millions of dollars that might otherwise be spent on making permanent, untested infrastructure that ultimately is not the right solution. As the name suggests, Tactical Urbanism should be carefully thought through and implemented in specific and controlled ways to understand and get the maximum effect.