Tactical Urbanism seizes the day

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


Robert Steuteville

New Urban Network

In recent years there has evolved a kind of small-scale urbanism — much of it citizen-based — designed to improve the built environment without a lot of money. The costs can often be measured in three, four, or five figures (sometimes including the cents). They can be unsanctioned — examples are 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 — which makes 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. 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 tactics, case studies, and profiles of the players — many of whom must be entertaining characters. For now, this little paper makes an easy read.

The authors, Mike Lydon, Dan Bartman, Ronald Woudstra, and Aurash Khawarzad, theorize on howTactical 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 larger scale efforts do have their place, incremental, small-scale improvements are increasingly seen as a way to stage more substantial investments. This approach allows a host of local actors to test new concepts before making substantial 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 those that are permanent. 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, and dynamic context.

The Build a Better Block program in Dallas is a specific example of 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 permanently implement street improvements in the area. It has also spurred a new consultancy firm endeavoring to advise other organizations and cities on how to conduct their own such experiments as a way 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, planted on a vacant lot in New York City, became so loved that it has been maintained for going-on 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 phrased it earlier this week, we are living in an era of “a lot less Daniel Burnham and a lot more Jane Jacobs.” Perhaps Tactical Urbanism can have an important role to play.

Posted by Robert Steuteville on 12 Apr 2011