Tactical Urbanism Seizes The Day

Citizen-based, small-scale efforts can lead to more significant changes in the built environment, according to a new report.


Robert Steuteville

New Urban Network

In recent years, small-scale urbanism has evolved — much of it citizen-based — designed to improve the built environment without much money. The costs can often be measured in three, four, or five figures (sometimes including the cents). Examples can be unsanctioned — Guerilla Gardening, Parking Day — or at least subject to relatively little red tape — e.g., play streets, pavement to plazas, pop-up cafes, and food carts. There’s an anti-bureaucratic, anti-corporate undercurrent to these efforts, making it hard to see how they amount to much in a society driven by economics and bureaucracy.

A new report called Tactical Urbanism by members of NextGen (Next Generation of New Urbanists) brings these efforts together into a coherent whole — perhaps even a potential movement. Unfortunately, the report covers a lot of ground for only 15 pages of text and images, not including the cover, table of contents, and index. I believe it could be expanded into a book, with chapters on each of the players’ tactics, case studies, and profiles — many of whom must be entertaining characters. But, for now, this little paper makes an easy read.

The authors, Mike Lydon, Dan Bartman, Ronald Woudstra, and Aurash Khawarzad, theorize how tactical Urbanism interventions offer a “laboratory for experimentation.”

Improving the livability of our towns and cities commonly starts at the street, block, or building scale. While more considerable scale efforts have their place, incremental, small-scale improvements are increasingly seen as a way to make more substantial investments. This approach allows local actors to test new concepts before making important political and financial commitments. Sometimes sanctioned, sometimes not, these actions are commonly referred to as “guerilla urbanism,” “pop-up urbanism,” “city repair,” or “D.I.Y. urbanism.” For the moment, we like “Tactical Urbanism,” which is an approach that features the following five characteristics:

A deliberate, phased approach to instigating change;

The offering of local solutions for local planning challenges;

Short-term commitment and realistic expectations;

• Low risks, with a possibly a high reward; and

The development of social capital between citizens and the building of organizational capacity between citizens, public-private institutions, non-profits, and their constituents.

At a time when governments have little money, and few developers can get financing, this approach seems to fit. As the Tactical Urbanism authors say:

Indeed, there is real merit in a municipality spending $30,000 on temporary material changes before investing $3,000,000 in permanent ones. If the improvement doesn’t work as planned, the whole budget will not be shot, and future designs can continue to be calibrated to meet the needs of a particular dynamic context.

The Build, a Better Block program in Dallas exemplifies how a cheap, unsanctioned effort can influence official policy. It “was launched by local community activists in the Dallas neighborhood of Oak Cliff. Spearheaded by Go Oak Cliff, the organization relied upon cheap or donated materials and the work of many volunteers to transform a single underutilized urban block.” The project gained national attention and “led to the permanent use of formerly underutilized retail space, and garnered a commitment from the City of Dallas to implement street improvements in the area permanently. It has also spurred a new consultancy firm to advise other organizations and cities on how to conduct their such experiments to incite change.”

The roots of Tactical Urbanism go back to the early 1970s, with the “Guerilla Gardening” movement involving activists who would plant gardens in the dead of night on neglected, contested land. The first garden, produced on a vacant lot in New York City, became so loved that it has been maintained for four decades.

The connection between that effort and a far more recent and well-known one — the placement of cones, folding chairs, and tables in the street at Times Square — is revealed in this paper. As Michael Mehaffy said earlier this week, we live in an era of “a lot less Daniel Burnham and a lot more Jane Jacobs.” So perhaps Tactical Urbanism can have a vital role to play.

Posted by Robert Steuteville on 12 Apr 2011