This piece originally appeared in the December issue of the Biscayne Times.
Think Big. It’s a mantra preached by entrepreneurs, politicians, business people, motivational speakers, and coaches. But is that motto really the key to releasing the potential of downtown Miami?
The “think big” catchphrase has played out quite extravagantly before our eyes in Miami over the past 15 years or so. Grandiose projects like the Adrienne Arsht Center, American Airlines Arena, Marlins Park, and mega-condos galore come to mind. The Miami Art Museum and Miami Science Museum are both under construction, and a downtown resort casino could be on the horizon. These projects represent tremendous investments geared toward turning downtown Miami into a cultural and entertainment hub on a par with those of other leading world cities.
When measured individually, the new cultural and entertainment destinations can boast varying degrees of success. But big, expensive projects are not a foolproof formula for urban revitalization. The vitality of a city isn’t measured by the annual revenue or number of visitors to a particular attraction. A city’s dynamism is greater than the sum of its parts, and it’s often the smaller, finer grains of the urban experience that enhance the quality of a place and foster affection toward it.
There are a series of questions we should be asking about life in downtown Miami that are emphatically about the small and simple things: Are the sidewalks clean and inviting, or are they caked with old chewing gum and poorly lit? Are there public maps to guide people around? Is the transit system easily navigable? Are there attractive public spaces with places to congregate? Is bicycle parking readily available? Are there places for children? Pets? Adequate crosswalks and crossing times? Does walking feel safe and inviting?
If the answer to some of these questions is no, the solutions are usually simple, relatively inexpensive, and can offer a high return on investment. Their importance must not be dismissed, though it sometimes feels like these basic livability issues are hardly being addressed.
I spend a lot of time downtown and often imagine myself in the shoes of a first-time visitor. What is their experience like? One place new visitors frequently wind up is the Metromover, Miami’s elevated transit system. For a free service with a seemingly simple route network (three “loops,” as they are called), the Metromover can be fraught with potential misadventures. While the maps on the station platforms identify the three loops using distinct colors (blue, pink, and orange), the maps onboard the actual cars inexplicably abandon those colors, instead using three different shades of bluish-gray to demarcate the same exact routes. Confused yet?
As the train approaches, you need to make sure you’re boarding the right loop. A digital display on the platform is supposed to tell you this information, but when the screens are frequently unintelligible or not operational, this poses a real problem. A recurring sight is a confused rider sticking his or her head inside a momentarily stopped train to ask other riders which loop the train is on. The typical reaction is a lot of shoulder shrugging.
If you are fortunate enough to arrive at your destination without boarding the wrong train, many of the stations lack crosswalks at their exit points to the street. Roaring traffic is hardly an inviting welcome in an unfamiliar place.
Even as a self-identified transit buff, I find navigating the Metromover system maddeningly frustrating. Why must it be so difficult? The negative impression this experience has on visitors must not be underestimated.
Presently, popular destinations like the Arsht Center and American Airlines Arena sit on islands lacking any integration with their surroundings. Are people leaving the Arsht Center or the arena likely to visit the restaurants or shops downtown? Will they walk there? The answer is probably not, if the walking conditions are as uninviting as they currently are.
In 2009, Miami’s Downtown Development Authority drafted a master plan for downtown titled, “The Epicenter of the Americas.” It outlines a number of projects intended to “enhance our position as a business and cultural epicenter.” To the DDA’s credit, the plan addresses many of the smaller details that would elevate the downtown experience: improved pedestrian conditions, public art installations, more ways to get around (like trolleys and pedicabs), and enriched public spaces, among others. While the plan is well intentioned, progress has not exactly been transpiring at warp speed.
That is where ordinary citizens like Scott Douglass have stepped in. Douglass is a Miami resident and founder of the Miami Improvement Alliance, a group of Miamians eager to speed up the revitalization of downtown by executing low-cost but impactful projects on their own. Their mission statement is powerful: “We will be the manifestation of positive force downtown. Using both sanctioned and unsanctioned tactics, we will work to improve the safety, beauty, and prosperity of Miami’s core districts. The city must endure and thrive if it is to have a future; we are the agents of that success. Where bureaucracy fails, we will prevail.”
The group’s first project was the creation of “urban wayfinding signs” to encourage visitors to the recent Red Bull Flugtag event at Bayfront Park to venture across Biscayne Boulevard and explore what downtown Miami has to offer. While unsanctioned by any local authorities, the initiative had the blessing of many local business owners. The 11 wayfinding signs featured simple walking directions to things like public transportation stops, ATMs, cultural destinations, local businesses, and also featured a Twitter hashtag (#WalkMIA) so people could interact with the project.
“People tend to overestimate the amount of time it takes to walk somewhere,” says Douglass. “These signs showed people just how close things actually are.”
These types of interventions — quick, cheap, often temporary projects that aim to make a small part of a city more lively or enjoyable — have a new name: tactical urbanism. Guerrilla gardening, converting parking lots into temporary parks, pop-up retail shopping, weed bombing (painting brightly colored “weeds” on forlorn lots) are all examples of tactical urbanism projects that ordinary citizens have recently executed in Miami.
While it’s easy to be seduced by the flashy mega-projects, they are not a cure-all for absent urban vitality. To truly unlock the potential of downtown Miami, collectively we need to take a closer look at the human-scale experience — how we interact with downtown on a daily, street-level basis — and perhaps follow the lead of Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, who declared, “We invested in high-quality sidewalks, pedestrian streets, parks, bicycle paths, libraries; we got rid of thousands of cluttering commercial signs and planted trees. All our efforts have one objective: happiness.”
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