Downtowns & Main Streets

“Tactical Urbanism” or Public Vandalism?

January 29th, 2014

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Parking day photo
Parking day photo by iomarch; Flickr Creative Commons license.

“Tactical Urbanism” is one of the latest widely-used buzz words in the community building industry. It generates excitement and enthusiasm from activists, but concern and disdain from some municipal officials. Can some tactical urbanism take on the form of selfish vandalism or can it reflect a powerful form of community-supportive activism?

To explore these polar views, we need to discuss what exactly is meant by tactical urbanism, and get a sense of its possible range of activities, such as:

  • A new temporary use for a vacant lot, such as a pop-up dog park or bocce ball court.
  • A one day reuse of metered parking spaces for a mini-park, outdoor seating, or sidewalk café.
  • Construction and placement of outdoor seating in public spaces that lack places to sit.
  • Conversion of underutilized roadway pavement to public plazas or bike lanes.
  • Occupation of temporary pop-up retail shops in previously vacant storefronts.

The concept of tactical urbanism has been around for several years under the terms “guerrilla urbanism,” “city repair,” or “do-it-yourself “DIY” Urbanism.”

The concept of tactical urbanism has been around for several years under the terms “guerrilla urbanism,” “city repair,” or “do-it-yourself “DIY” Urbanism.” In fact, you may have read about city repair in a post this past summer by PlannersWeb Editor Wayne Senville, “Can Intersections Lead to Stronger Neighborhoods & Empowered Residents?

The results are typically a series of small-scale interventions that alter the public realm, making it (at least to its advocates) more user-friendly for the public.

photo by City Repairs; Flickr creative commons.
Painting an intersection in a Portland, Oregon neighborhood. Photo by City Repair; Flickr creative commons.

In the Street Plan Collaborative’s, Tactical Urbanism, vol. 1 1  Mike Lydon describes tactical urbanism as having the following 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 public-private institutions, non-profits, and their constituents.

Lydon refers to the interventions or tactics as “short-term actions that were demonstratively leading to long-term change.” Examples best used to describe these interventions include: PARK[ing] day, chair-bombing, pavement to plazas, guerilla gardening, and pop-up shops.

PARK(ing) Day poster
A promotional poster for PARK(ing) Day Memphis 2013. Source: Memphis PARK(ing) Day Collaborative.

PARK(ing) Day is an initiative where citizens and activists collaborate to creatively transform metered parking spaces into temporary public places. The concept was originally conceived in 2005 when a San Francisco firm, Rebar, converted a single metered parking space into a temporary public park in an area that is underserved by public open space. …

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