Is this tactical urbanism?


Sign at Fifth & Hope streets, Providence. (Photo by David Brussat)

Here is a street sign that seems to epitomize the fatuousness, and perhaps the corruption, of municipal bureaucracy. Warning signs just like this have been popping up in the middle of streets in Providence for the past year or so. They are worse than useless. First, you have to avoid them. Second, to avoid them you must pay attention to them. Third, paying attention to the sign distracts from the attention you should be paying to pedestrians themselves. Are any about to cross the street? You might not notice if you are looking at or, worse, trying to interpret a sign in the middle of the road that says “State Law: Yield to pedestrian within crosswalk.”

Well, duh! Isn’t that what the crosswalk conveys? Watch out for pedestrians crossing!

You can imagine some mayoral order proceeding down the ranks of the local city bureaucracy after a pedestrian is hit by a car. “Solve this problem, or at least do something that lets voters think I am solving this problem!” A committee of incompetents is named to address the problem, and eventually the idea of a redundant sign directing driver attention to crosswalks emerges, proceeds back up the ranks of the local city bureaucracy, where it is approved by the mayor, adding yet another line item in the municipal budget, to be paid for by taxpayers.

The result: an unnecessary sign, a sign implementation contract, a new job in the sign maintenance department, and a new city PR official to argue that the sign is not redundant (if anyone asks). Or worse, maybe the real impetus for the sign is a sign manufacturing company owner who has a friend on the city council. Or … well, the possibilities are endlessly predictable.

So where does “tactical urbanism” come in? Tactical urbanism is when locals go around the bureaucracy to solve problems or to implement intelligent ideas on their own. The greatest example is the tables and chairs that were deployed in Times Square, Madison Square and other busy but overly broad Manhattan intersections. This idea was so beloved by the public that it was immediately shanghaied by the local traffic and park authorities of New York City. (The mayor recently tried to take the tables and chairs away from Times Square but angry public response forced him to back down.)

Well, that pedestrian warning sign has been, as I say, popping up all over Providence. But recently they have been disappearing from Hope Street (and possibly other streets as well). I would like to think that this is an instance of tactical urbanism deployed to solve a problem caused by the city. Just take away the signs!

This is an example of why H.L. Mencken said he’d rather be ruled by citizens selected at random from the phone book than by the people voters elect. Local government is where the rubber of democracy meets the road, so obviously it’s too important to leave to elected officials and their chums.

[This post goes onto my blog but not out to my blog send list recipients until my email server quits intercepting my bulk posts under the suspicion that they are spam. I am sorry to say that for the time being those who want to read my posts will have to visit my blog, or get them on social media. I will see if I can send to TradArch and Pro-Urb lists without punishment. – David Brussat]


About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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14 Responses to Is this tactical urbanism?

  1. Andy Nosal says:

    The only actual ingredient in your “recipe for disaster” is your car and how fast you are driving it. If you can not react smoothly and safely to the simultaneous presence of an object on the centerline and someone exiting a parked car, you are driving too fast for a place like Hope St.

    If a sign has failed to inform you that this is not a place to be swerving blithely along, a steel post may be in order.


  2. ericritter65 says:

    I love your last paragraph, spot on!


  3. David I think you are way off the mark on this issue. I find that these signs make a big difference in my ability to cross the streets – depending on the street design. But it should be a transitional measure – if the street is properly designed then such signs are not needed. In those locations where you have an good or an ok street these signs can help a lot to make life easier for the pedestrians (places where the expected speeds are 25 to 35 or 40 mph). In locations where the speeds are much higher, then these signs I think are downright dangerous as they can give a false sense of security.


    • I have no way to assess how well those signs work. When they work well they don’t make news. When they fail, they will make news. Maybe they will not fail. Maybe they already have and I don’t know about it. When I wrote this piece earlier today, I had already come too close for comfort a couple of times, and later today it happened again, another time with someone emerging from a car parked too close to one of these obstructions. They block the option of gently swerving out of the way. I am just reporting my observations about the possible dangers posed by these signs. I do not deny that they also slow cars down and help pedestrians. But is the increased safety worth the increased risk?


  4. David,
    You have bitten into a succulent issue here. As our culture swings back toward walkable cities and away from its obsession with the automobile, the rules of the road are changing, too. It may seem obvious to you, but to many behind the wheel the notion that a pedestrian between those white lines has the right of way is a foreign concept. And, until recently, no one challenged the primacy of the auto bound.

    As planners and landscape architects design streets seek to tilt the balance and as more pedestrians assert their right to that little piece of pavement there are inevitable consequences. The signs you complain of are merely evidence that the majority of drivers simply do not know that the law requires them to yield. (Or, I am sure in many cases, they simply refuse to obey the law knowing that their 2-ton machine assures them of winning the argument)

    I agree the signs are unsightly, but until everyone gets the message they are a necessary part of urban living.


    • Maybe, Bill. I’m only arguing that a sign in the middle of the road is probably as hazardous as the problem it is designed (looking at the brighter side) to solve.


      • Beauty is your thing, and you definitely deserve props for pointing out yet another visual insult cluttering up the street.


        • I am not for beauty at the cost of safety, of course. I am against these signs not because of their clutter but because they are unsafe. Police ticketing speeders is probably a safer and a more effective way to address the problem of truckers speeding through crosswalks.


  5. Anonymous says:

    I live in Warren and we have those signs along Main Street which is very busy. When the signs are up people, especially those driving large vehicles, have to be careful not to hit the signs which slows them down. Although locals are good about stopping for pedestrians, when the signs are not up I have personally seen many trucks from out of town not stop at crosswalks. You may not like them, but I consider them an inexpensive way to keep traffic in check.


    • On Hope Street, a car parked close enough to an intersection with one of these signs forces its attention on drivers, and if someone happens to be getting out of the parked car, which normally would cause the driver to swerve slightly to the left, cannot to so because of the sign in the way. That is a recipe for disaster, and it has happened already to me (as a driver; I was going slowly enough to slow down for the person getting out of the parked car). That is just one type of instance where, though it might work most of the time, one time it might not and could cause injury.


      • Anonymous says:

        We live in old towns that were created before the automobile. Solving the inherent conflicts between cars and pedestrians may be possible if we start from scratch, but I want my town to remain its quirky self. Everyone needs to keep an eye whatever role they are playing.


  6. On the other hand, the Providence DPW could be taking them out before snowfall so they don’t get plowed under.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Susie says:

    So in agreement! I had a professor in grad school who always said “if you have to put in a sign, you designed it wrong.” This is a good example!


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