A Tactical Urbanism Primer

The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is … one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.
—David Harvey

Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?
—Henry David Thoreau

Tactical Urbanism (hereafter TU) is the term that Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia, principals of the Miami- and Brooklyn-based Street Plans Collaborative, use to describe an innovative and effective method of urban improvement. In their new book Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2015) they describe a sometimes rogue approach to “complete streets” advocacy and design—sometimes called “action planning” or “planning by doing”— that emerged out of frustration with broken regimes of civic administration. tu_cover In the preface to this remarkably readable and well-illustrated volume Garcia recalls his efforts, as editor of the early blog Transit Miami, to support the progressive Miami 21 zoning code in 2006-2009. The revised code, which aimed to overturn an archaic and fatal system of segregating the urban fabric according to rigidly-defined land-use categories (commercial, residential, institutional, industrial) was ultimately implemented to wide acclaim. But as Garcia explains, the process of approving these sensible revisions was excruciatingly time-and-resource intensive. He recalls that

a large percentage of people were against the code (to say nothing of the percentage who didn’t even understand it), leading to delays and changes. Taken together with the dozens of land use attorneys, developers, and lobbyists, the approved meetings were a dizzying circus of opposition. I kept wondering, how can we ensure a sincere and thorough public process, and reform large-scale zoning systems, without having it turn into this?

This question of how to reverse the legacy of top-down planning resulting in low-density cities connected by rapid-flow auto sewers is a hot topic among progressive planners and advocates. As the Miami campaign shows, it is clear what people-friendly planning and zoning looks like (broadly, this and this) but how on earth does one get there?

As Garcia and Lydon helpfully explain, most municipalities have gradually developed an array of regulatory patches to the outdated codes that still constrict the planning process. Unfortunately, such band-aid solutions tend to create further operational delays and roadblocks by piling bureaucracy upon bureaucracy, with the result that even the most shrewdly-wrought plans too often run aground. In the minds of Lydon and Garcia, the best response to the Gordian knot of bureaucratic dysfunction is to exploit loopholes and, where loopholes don’t exist, to circumvent regulations in innovative, constructive and often playful ways. Tactical urbanists play along the boundaries of permissibility, always with serious intent.

As a rule, TU interventions are small-scale, provisional efforts to reclaim city streets as safe and engaging places for people moving through them under their own steam. In this 2012 Street Plans diagram, eighteen such initiatives are distributed along a spectrum ranging from the sanctioned to the unsanctioned. tu_tactical_spectrum Lydon and Garcia include a version of this diagram in the new book, and they explain the conditions under which it is advisable to request official permission before making one’s move. When asking permission, the authors explain, it is always best to word it in a way that minimizes expense and maximizes freedom. In a typical piece of tactical advice, the authors recommend

being as vague as possible in describing your project during the application process, designing projects to come in just under the threshold of restrictive or prohibitive costs, and finding loopholes to help you deliver the project on budget and within a reasonable timeline.

Lydon and Garcia limit their definition of TU to projects that “instigate long-term change, such as revising outdated policy or responding to a deficiency of infrastructure.” This emphasis on the bigger fix distinguishes TU proper from inherently ephemeral or cosmetic forms of DIY urbanism such as yarn bombing or graffiti.

Although there are many claims about game-changing social media and open data in this book, new technologies are not presented as panaceas. In their embrace of tactical methods the authors eschew “one-size-fits-all solutions” in favour of “intentional and flexible responses” whose results can then be tested in real time [italics mine]. In place of top-down solutions that last (and often take) forever, we are presented with a vision of the city as laboratory; as playground; as a dynamic, ever-changing, adaptable and hackable space that actually belongs to the people who live there.

Who exactly makes such a space? As indicated by the diagram below, TU can be undertaken by any number of parties, ideally in concert with each other. Neither strictly bottom-up nor top-down, the Street Plans practice ideally involves “a range of actors, including governments, businesses and nonprofits, citizen groups, and individuals.” top_down_bottom_up_diagram Such a radically inclusive approach will inevitably play out in unpredictable ways, and the most successful projects will be those that respond to very local needs and desires. This whatever-it-takes, see-what-happens, participatory approach to civic improvement is deeply American in its pragmatism, optimism, openness and self-reliant disdain for the status quo. (As we shall see, it also made a dent in Hamilton, Ontario.)

In their brief half-decade of existence the Street Plans Collaborative has partnered with progressive-minded locals in many cities to instigate a steady succession of “short-term, low-cost and scalable” pilot projects for urban improvement. In a 2012 talk Lydon describes TU interventions as renderings in real time and space, implemented for about the cost of a fancy architectural drawing. Although they may appear whimsical and even half-baked when compared to the dour and grandiose productions of Big Planning, these “urban hacks” have had remarkable success in instigating more refined and durable civic improvements. In Chapter 4 the authors pick out the following examples for detailed description:

The first Build a Better Block in Oak Cliff, Dallas. Photo courtesy Team Better block. From the book Tactical Urbanism, Island Press 2015.

The first Build a Better Block in Oak Cliff, Dallas. Photo courtesy Team Better block. From the book Tactical Urbanism, Island Press 2015.

These are all North American initiatives, two of them spearheaded by Street Plans. While these choices may strike some readers as parochial, it is entirely reasonable that the authors stick to familiar ground, and it is understandable that the greatest TU successes have been in a culture so overrun by fast cars and tax breaks. The case studies are largely drawn from the longer list of examples in provisional and freely-available Street Plans publications, most notably the brief anthologies Tactical Urbanism vol. 1 (2011) and vol. 2 (2012). Even the Street Plans publication strategy—rapid, provisional, iterative, open source and rooted in constantly-accumulating examples of practice—perfectly exemplifies the authors’ pragmatic, constantly-evolving TU approach.

The sharing ethos of open source, hacker culture cuts both ways, giving the authors permission to borrow and combine tools of organization, analysis and communication from various domains. The crucial fifth chapter (“A Tactical Urbanism How-To”) reveals that TU methodology is largely an elaboration of the five-step method of Design Thinking developed at the Stanford Design School and the IDEO consulting firm. tu_design_thinking Lydon and Garcia visualize these steps (Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test) as a circle to emphasize their cyclical and non-linear nature, and then explain how they relate to a TU context. Empathy entails putting one’s self in the shoes of all potential stakeholders in the proposed urban improvement. Definition entails identifying and researching “opportunity sites,” often places that are “underperforming” in critical respects. Ideation (a fancy term for brainstorming project ideas) entails public consultation; the development of “actionable metrics”; and deciding whether or not to seek permission. Prototyping entails putting ideas rapidly into action by enlisting a wide range of project partners; developing a project schedule; obtaining essential permits; and finding materials. And Testing is a version of the build-measure-learn feedback loop articulated in Eric Ries’ Lean Startup (2011).

A key component of the testing stage is documentation of the public response to each pilot project, with an aim to eliciting buy-in that will in turn lead to meaningful commitment from the governments and businesses equipped to implement more lasting change. Lydon and Garcia encourage TU practitioners to develop metrics for realistically assessing project success and failure, being careful to avoid the spurious boosterism of what Ries calls vanity metrics.

Compared to this highly practical advice, the broadly contextualizing sections of the book are less important. Chapter 2 is a quirky and unsummarizable assortment of “inspirations and antecedents of tactical urbanism” ranging from a neolithic street to Parisian book stalls and mobile libraries. Chapter 3 joins many previous authors in addressing how big data and social media might be used to retool US cities at a time when its citizens are finally starting to drive less. I could take issue with the structure and certain arguments in these chapters, but I will leave such quibbling to others and look forward to the next iteration.

*  *  *

Traditional systems of urban planning are clearly becoming less and less viable in many places. In the days when we left it all up to the men in dark suits (i.e. expert civil and social engineers, in collaboration with politicians) we were too often saddled with over-regulated, over-priced, inflexible, sprawling, dangerous urban designs made to convenience the auto and oil industries. From Jane Jacobs to the New Urbanists, enlightened advocates and planners have long known what kinds of civic spaces (dense; mixed-use; accessible via active and mass transit; safely and functionally chaotic) we want to reclaim. The real conundrum is how to implement these changes in a timely and cost-effective manner. Tactical Urbanism offers some compelling suggestions and results. This book is a shrewd, generous, timely and sometimes thrilling call-to-action that should be compulsory reading for anyone impatient to remake his or her city.

Review by Slow Ottawa proprietor Graham Larkin. For more on the subject listen to my one-hour interview with Tactical Urbanism author Mike Lydon and MoMA Curator Pedro Gadanho. Go here for a selection of TU-themed images and videos on Storify, and here for a hundred examples of tactical urbanism (plus some things that might not be) on Pinterest.



2 thoughts on “A Tactical Urbanism Primer

  1. Pingback: The Museum Anarchist Toolkit | smallmuseums.ca

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