Measuring the Impact of Tactical Intervention: Lessons from Four Place Activation Efforts in Washington State
By Mike Powe, Ph.D., Director of Research at Main Street America
Over the course of the last two years, strange words like “parklet” and “streatery” have entered our popular vocabulary. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant many things to many people, but among the very few pleasant aspects of this difficult time has been the creative formation of temporary outdoor gathering spaces that support public life and small business success in Main Street districts.
In the summer of 2021, the Washington State Main Street Program and Main Street America teamed up with Samantha Lorenz from Terra Soma to support four “place activation projects” organized by Main Street programs in the State of Washington. Washington Main Street (WMS) administered grant funding for the projects, Samantha Lorenz spearheaded planning efforts, and Main Street America consulted local leads on impact assessment. The four communities—Centralia, Colville, Kennewick, and Prosser—each formulated a vision, took action, and gathered data on the project impacts.
Anyone who has been to a Main Street knows what a difference the design of public spaces can make. To quote the Place Activation Resource Guide developed by Samantha Lorenz:
Streets can be attractive, inviting, and safe, or they can be unattractive, unappealing, or uncomfortable.
Streets can encourage a variety of transportation options, including bicycling and walking, or they can limit choices.
And streets can foster public life exchange of goods, culture, and knowledge, or they can contribute to social isolation and economic decline.
Whereas the design of public spaces can often feel permanent and immovable, place activation projects leverage creative, short-term, incremental, movable, and adaptive solutions. The airborne transmission of COVID-19 meant gathering outdoors would be safer and better for public health, so WMS Director Breanne Durham, WMS Main Street Specialist Jonelle McCoy, Samantha, and I joined forces with Main Street managers to give the four Washington downtowns a little levity and a little love. You can see more about the fantastic work that took place in Centralia, Colville, Kennewick, and Prosser in our complete report:
Photo credit: Jason Baker (photo of Pine Street Plaza, downtown Centralia)
Simple Steps to Show Impact
Of course, to put the time, effort, and resources to a temporary space, one will inevitably have to answer the question of Why? City officials may need to issue a permit for an intervention, or, as in Prosser, may need to update their regulations to accommodate temporary use of parking spaces for an outdoor gathering area. Business owners may similarly ask pointed questions about the merits of a place activation effort relative to its costs.
Happily, it takes no expertise at all to set out to show a place activation project’s worth. Here are three quick tips for collecting and leveraging data in your own projects:
- It comes down to basics. You don’t have to be an expert or a wonk to gather and leverage good data that shows the impact of place activation projects. It comes down to basics: You need to have a plan and stick to it, and you need to be proactive and think ahead about what information would indisputably show that your project was a success. In general, the kind of data gathering you do to assess a place activation project is very simple, straightforward, and social. If you’re comfortable with a clipboard and a pencil, you likely have most of what you need.
- Embrace *some* structure and rigor. It is important to begin building an impact assessment plan of a place activation project as early as possible — certainly well before any physical work on the activation site begins. Without having an impact assessment plan, data gathering may take place and shape only as it’s convenient, if at all, and if data gathering efforts lack structure or rigor, the results may be easily disputed or disregarded. (“Structure and rigor,” by the way, really boil down to doing what you say you are going to do, at the times and places when and where you said you would do it.) It is best to have a lead person focused on project assessment throughout the planning process and activation project, if at all possible. Just don’t embrace so much structure and rigor that you don’t have fun and be creative with it!
- Bring business owners in early. Place activation projects can be incredibly powerful for many different stakeholders. While they can and often do succeed in bringing people together and enlivening downtowns, they also can and often do lead to boosted sales figures for nearby businesses. If you want your place activation project to be rightfully seen as a legitimate economic development program, it’s important to bring business owners on as partners and collaborators early in the process. If you can show business owners and elected officials that your place activation led to better revenues, naysayers will have nothing to say when you bring your next new idea downtown.
There’s no need to feel lost as resources for impact assessment abound online and all around us. Main Street America and Washington Main Street have a growing body of resources and tools on their websites. If you’re looking for something very quick and simple, one of my favorite sources is the Gehl Institute’s “Public Life” toolkit.
Have fun and happy activating!
About Main Street
Main Street is a nationwide movement with a 40-year history of providing a useful framework and network for local community builders. The Main Street Approach encourages partners to come together to enhance a historic downtown district through a focus on Design, Economic Vitality, Outreach, and Promotions. In Washington State, local Main Street organizations are supported by the Washington State Main Street Program, a program of the Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation managed by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. Learn more at www.preservewa.org/mainstreet.