California Forum

Want to build a better Sacramento? Break the law, just a little bit

Chicago artist Jim Bachor fills potholes with tile mosaics as an act of “tactical urbanism.” It’s technically illegal but his pieces are wildly popular.
Chicago artist Jim Bachor fills potholes with tile mosaics as an act of “tactical urbanism.” It’s technically illegal but his pieces are wildly popular. Photo courtesy of JN Bachor/Sactown Magazine

It’s funny how time works. Not long ago, if a young person was caught with a can of spray paint marking a downtown building, they would’ve been arrested. Today, some of those onetime anarchists are acclaimed artists, credited with helping to revive our central city. The same goes with street musicians who, once shunned, are now embraced by city leaders.

Over the past decade, a trend known as “tactical urbanism” has blossomed. The idea is that individuals can make big difference in their cities with small gestures, even if it means skirting the law a bit.

In many cities, individuals are taking matters into their own hands on this front, often with extraordinary results.

Here in Sacramento, we need far more acts of creative and constructive civic defiance to keep pushing our city forward – making it safer, beautifying it, or just creating a better place to live. And yes, sometimes that means getting our hands dirty by ignoring the need for permits and permission.

One good way to get your hands dirty is with guerrilla gardening which has become one of the most popular forms of do-it-yourself urbanism, spawning TED Talks and inspiring citizens the world over to plant flowers or even produce on public property.

In Sacramento, if you see dirt surrounding a tree on the sidewalk, the city forbids you from planting there. The city “does not allow the public to plant on city-owned assets due to liability.”

You heard that right – liability. For planting flowers.

So, my plea to you: Do it anyway. Do it this weekend. I understand English daisies are quite nice this time of year. Find some dirt near you and plant flowers in a simultaneous act of civic beautification and disobedience. Don’t worry, there’s no fine in Sacramento for gardening on city property unless “it is determined that it is some form of vandalism or trespassing.”

If you’re artistically inclined, you can fill potholes with mosaic works of art, just like Jim Bachor of Chicago has been doing for years. Is it legal? Well, no. But frankly, the city appreciates the help, and his pieces are now wildly popular.

In 2012, Matt Tomasulo wanted to create a wayfinding system for downtown Raleigh, N.C. He thought if people knew how close a grocery store, museum or park was, they’d be more likely to walk there. So he created signs showing the walking distance, in minutes, to local sites, and affixed them to telephone poles. It was illegal, the city told him, but once officials saw the signs, they praised Tomasulo, and he has since created Walk [Your City], a website where anyone can create their own signs.

Feeling a little bolder? Consider tackling a critical transportation issue facing the city.

Earlier this year, I reported that Sacramento lags almost every major city when it comes to protected bike lanes. Those are lanes with physical barriers – poles, planters, etc. – to protect cyclists and encourage more cycling by making people feel safer.

In many cities, individuals are taking matters into their own hands on this front, often with extraordinary results.

In 2013, a guerrilla road safety group called Reasonably Polite Seattleites was frustrated by its city’s pace of implementing a long-term master plan to build protected bike lanes. So its members spent $350 on some plastic posts and created a protected lane in 10 minutes.

They then sent a reasonably polite note to the city the next day: “We wish we didn’t have to spend our own money on common-sense, unobtrusive traffic-calming treatments, and risk arrest installing them, in order to feel safe riding in this city.”

Seattle’s traffic engineer responded immediately, thanking the group. Within three months, the city placed permanent posts on the very same spot.

Over in Providence, R.I., Jeffrey Leary was frustrated that he didn’t feel safe taking his 9-year-old daughter out biking because of the lack of protected lanes. So in May, he bought 72 toilet plungers for $72 and wrapped their handles in reflective tape.

He placed them along the painted stripe of a 1,000-foot designated bike lane that cars often violated. The response? Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza left the plungers in place until the city could figure out a solution. A month later, the city placed permanent posts along the same stretch. The cost: only $2,000.

Long before the term “tactical urbanism” was coined, Irish writer George Bernard Shaw penned this line: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

In other words, if you’re looking to make positive change in your neighborhood or in this city, it’s up to you. Yes, work with authorities when possible. But don’t wait, even if it means being “unreasonable.”

Rob Turner is co-editor of Sactown Magazine. A longer version of this article appears at sactownmag.com. Contact Turner at rob@sactownmag.com.

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