Through an interesting confluence, I recently came across three different instances of the same question: what is the “minimum viable product” for urban renewal? Last Monday, I visited the O’Reilly Media office in the old Pfizer building in Brooklyn, and was struck by how unfinished space was side by side with finished, how the remnants of the old laboratory had not been removed but rather just incorporated into the existing space. It is a kind of urban office-steading, pioneering a gritty frontier, as opposed to a more standard style of development in which the building is stripped, upgraded, and then opened to tenants, perhaps with a bit more character than an all-new building but with substantially the same sanitized promise. I posted photos and some reflections on Google+.
The next day, I sat in on a webinar with Carol Coletta of the Knight Foundation and Andres Duany of the Project for Lean Urbanism. Duany’s idea is for “pink zones,” where, for purposes of exploratory redevelopment, red tape might be thinned out. The goal is to find what regulations really matter — and which don’t — and to start fresh to see if we can achieve urban renewal at lower cost.
When I told Jen Pahlka about the webinar, she pointed me to a TEDx talk by Jason Roberts on “tactical urbanism.” While Duany is engaged in trying to work with cities to create lighter weight regulatory regimes for redevelopment, Jason and his compatriots just do it. They flout regulations and then invite city officials in to see the difference it makes. The whole talk is great, but if it’s too long, watch from about seven minutes in, for an account of how Jason and crew reconstructed a block with popup shops, plants, and outdoor seating, to show what it could become. Particularly striking is the schedule of fees the city of Dallas charges for improvements that, if anything, the city should be paying to people who are willing to improve the neighborhood.
The exploration of what the startup community has come to call “lean” is critical for our rethinking of government as well. It breaks the stalemate between “government is too big and intrusive” and “but look at how many market failures there are — government must intervene,” and instead asks both government and citizens to perform experiments, to learn what works, and to make it easier to do the things that do work for us as a society.
I’d love to see “Lean Urbanism” spread in the same way as Lean Startup has spread!