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A Shortcut to Better Downtown Redevelopment

Cities thrive with ‘Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper’ projects

March 31, 2011 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Project for Public Spaces
  Pier 1 at Brooklyn Bridge Park was a temporary park that employed low-cost, revenue producing uses before implementing a more expensive design.

Editor’s note: Fred Kent is a leader in making cities more attractive. So the Michigan Land Use Institute and the Michigan Municipal League brought Mr. Kent to Traverse City for the recent Grand Vision Regional Placemaking Summit coordinated by the Northwest Michigan Michigan Council of Governments.

About 300 local officials showed up for Mr. Kent’s keynote, which described innovative ways to improve public spaces based on ideas he and his Project for Public Spaces colleagues popularize. His slide show of images from around the world of some very attractive new public space inspired the audience.

“What we do is common sense,” Mr. Kent told the crowd.

One of his recent blogs outlines the subject of his talk, something he calls the Lighter, Cheaper, Quicker model. Here, by permission, is a lightly edited version of that piece. The video, below, is courtesy of the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments staff, which recorded it at the Placemaking Summit.]

As people everywhere struggle to do more with less and cry out for places of meaning and beauty, we have to find fast, creative, profitable ways to capitalize on local ingenuity and turn public spaces into treasured community places.

Interestingly, many of the best, most authentic, and enduring destinations in a city—the places that keep locals and tourists coming back and that anchor quality, local jobs—were born out of incremental, locally-based improvements. One by one, these improvements built places that exceeded the sum of their parts.

The time is right to rethink how we do development, using "Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper" (LQC). This approach uses incremental steps, low-cost experiments, and taps into the talents of local citizens, entrepreneurs, developers, and city staff. These smaller-scale projects are now used in a variety of environments, including on streets, squares, waterfronts, and even parking lots.

While visiting Traverse City for the Placemaking Summit, Fred Kent explained why a simpler approach to revitalizing cities works so well.


LQC projects quickly transform a community's vision into reality and keep momentum moving. Ideas can be efficiently implemented, assessed, then tweaked and customized based upon a community's response. It is a creative, locally powered alternative to capital-heavy, top-down planning.

Essentially, LQC projects unlock the human and economic potential of a place. A good project:

  • Transforms underused spaces into exciting laboratoriesthat citizens can see and use right away, learning that change can happen.
  • Leverages local partnershipsthat result in more authentic places.
  • Encourages experiments that evolve a community's vision before launching into major construction.
  • Employs a place-by-place strategy that eventually transforms an entire city.


Right for this Moment
Planners are in the midst of an unprecedented moment. Although signs of hardship are all around, we see a powerful, networked, creative movement of people demonstrating that incremental, place-based change is still possible.

A prime example is Buffalo, N.Y., where highly motivated people are building a creative vision that moves away from big, "look-at-me" designs toward lower-cost, creative interventions that immediately improve their underused waterfront. The incredible energy of this citizen-led effort signals a shift away from traditional master planning towards a new, place-based agenda.

Our non-profit, Projects for Public Spaces, says process "turns everything upside-down," but people in Buffalo say it's actually turning things "right-side up."

In this video about Buffalo's new vision for its waterfront, Tom Dee, president of Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation said this year is about implementation: Many of the plans "will be done before summer. You'll see energy, you'll see activities, you'll see events, and you'll see people."

Awareness is also growing that cities succeed or fail at the scale of place. Leaders know they must react more quickly to a city's diverse population and changing conditions than ever before. That requires adaptability, agility, and the means to repair damage and remake derelict spaces of every scale.

This can't come from the top down. It has to emerge incrementally, driven by people who know what they need.

Cities of the Future
LQC can create profound, positive change in cities around the world. By changing our thinking to include small scale, incremental projects, we can immediately affect local economies, transportation, architecture—and how destinations are created. Here are examples of different kinds of approaches.

Public Markets and Local Economies

Markets are the foundation of strong local economies and one of the best examples of LQC. The phrase "Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper" (LQC) was coined and used by Eric Reynolds, founding director of Urban Space Management (USM) more than 40 years ago in his work revitalizing urban spaces. A London- and New York-based organization, USM produced projects like Gabriel's Wharf in London, which shows how a multi-use public destination can emerge from small-scale, inexpensive improvements, encourage entrepreneurial activity, and bring out the best of a community's creativity.

Gabriel's Wharf was just another parking lot until USM decided to use existing buildings (in this case, concrete garages), employ a set-design company to create colorful facades on the garages, and work with local artisans and craftsmen to transform them into studios for display and sale of their work. Most of what’s for sale there is made by the person who sells it to you.

USM says its LQC development practices that guide their projects are like “coral reefs.”

Building a coral reef starts with dropping a few old tires and cinder blocks into the water. USM mimics this: Instead of heavy spending on infrastructure, it uses creative, low-cost ways to set up basic structures that meet tenants' needs, get them producing income, and keep rents down.

Because set designers built Gabriel Wharf’s infrastructure, everything was in place within three months. Like a coral reef, its color and vibrancy came from its new tenants—like "tropical fish" drawn to tires because of food or other fish. 

And, like a deep-sea ecosystem, the diversity of activities and users grows over time. Fish attract fish; people attract people: As more vendors set up, the place becomes even more vibrant. The right mix of "old tires" attracts local restaurateurs and retailers and creates a welcoming, human-scaled space. A critical mass of vendors attracts crowds, which attract other vendors.

By avoiding high (i.e., expensive) design, USM activates a site immediately, laying the foundation for the many valuable and interconnected interactions and exchanges that make up a healthy “reef”—a great, multi-use destination.

Building Communities through Transportation

"Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper" is particularly effective for improving streets. It helps a municipality solve a problem quickly by eliminating lengthy bureaucratic processes.

New York City might be the last place to expect the phrase "lighter, quicker, cheaper" to work. But, in 2005, PPS and Transportation Alternatives founded the Streets Renaissance Campaign to change the city's streets and sidewalks and better balance motor vehicles, pedestrians, bicycles, and transit.

A first change was at Times Square, which severely lacked pedestrian space. Sponsored by Times Square Alliance, PPS evaluated pedestrian and vehicle patterns, surveyed pedestrians, researched benchmarks from around the world, and produced an experiment to improve Times Square as a "public place." It closed some vehicle lanes on Broadway and converted them to pedestrian use, with places for people to sit or mingle.

The experiment succeeded, so the New York City DOT extended the changes from 31st Street north to Columbus Circle at 59th Street. DOT used paint, barriers, and furniture to slow traffic; removed vehicle lanes; closed streets; and developed inviting areas for pedestrians and cyclists with chairs, tables, umbrellas, and other amenities.  

These low-cost tactics not only enhanced pedestrian experience, they made the area much safer for pedestrians and improved vehicle efficiency. According to The New York Times, the changes " vastly improved safety in the area”—a 35 percent decline in pedestrian injuries and a 63 percent reduction in injuries to drivers and passengers.

“Foot traffic grew by 11 percent in Times Square,” the paper reported, “and a survey of local businesses found that more than two-thirds of the area's retailers wanted the project to become permanent." 

As a Times Square Alliance official said, "It's shifted the paradigm for what a street and sidewalk experience is supposed to be like in New York City."  

Building Multi-Use Destinations

Granville Island, in Vancouver, British Columbia, demonstrates how 35 years of LQC produced incremental changes that make it the province’s most visited destination and, nationally, second only to Niagara Falls.

Granville Islandgot its start in the 1970s when the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) decided to develop a 35-acre island across from downtown Vancouver that was home to many marine-related uses, a concrete plant, and dilapidated corrugated metal sheds. CMHC described the island as "a semi-industrial slum." 

CMHC wanted the island to provide social and recreational services, highlight local arts and culture, and feature other services and uses that would make it economically self sustainable.

The Canadian government provided a $25 million grant, with no guarantee of additional funding. Even at that time, this was not a lot of money, given the large scale of the development. So CMHC got creative. 

Instead of using the money to redevelop the island all at once, the team used "incremental redevelopment." Instead of buying out the leases of the remaining industrial tenants, which would have consumed most of the funding, CMHC allowed tenants to stay for the duration of their leases. The team used the grant money to make small-scale improvements. 

So the island’s character continually evolved.

Dilapidated buildings were stabilized, painted, and linked together with colorful pipes, awnings, and signage. Some buildings were added, creating the feeling of an industrial area coming back to life, with many things for people to do.

Today, Granville Island is growing as a destination for tourists and locals. The marine-related uses are preserved, and a variety of arts, culture, and community-related uses exist along side the concrete plant—a good, if unlikely development partner. Granville Island also hosts a vibrant public market and other uses that ensure the island's economic viability. It is entirely self-sustaining and needs no additional government support.

Now Is the Time
Many great plans get bogged down because they are too big, too expensive, and take too long. Meanwhile the high cost of missed opportunities for economic development—and public life—add up.

LQC projects provide a powerful means to translate a community's unique vision into physical reality. Whether spearheaded by local government, developers, or community activists, LQC interventions nurture and are powered by a community's social capital and ingenuity. The "action planning" process behind LQC can help to build a new, shared understanding of place that transcends any one project to engage unlikely partners for the broader, ongoing betterment of their community.

Fred Kent is president of Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit organization based in Manhattan. The original version of this article contains pictures of the projects he’s mentioned here.

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