Book review: Tactical Urbanism. Short-term Action for Long-term Change

and UK.)

Publisher Island Press writes: Short-term, community-based projects–from pop-up parks to open streets initiatives–have become a powerful and adaptable new tool of urban activists, planners, and policy-makers seeking to drive lasting improvements in their cities and beyond. These quick, often low-cost, and creative projects are the essence of the Tactical Urbanism movement. Whether creating vibrant plazas seemingly overnight or re-imagining parking spaces as neighborhood gathering places, they offer a way to gain public and government support for investing in permanent projects, inspiring residents and civic leaders to experience and shape urban spaces in a new way.

Tactical Urbanism, written by Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia, two founders of the movement, promises to be the foundational guide for urban transformation. The authors begin with an in-depth history of the Tactical Urbanism movement and its place among other social, political, and urban planning trends. A detailed set of case studies, from guerilla wayfinding signs in Raleigh, to pavement transformed into parks in San Francisco, to a street art campaign leading to a new streetcar line in El Paso, demonstrate the breadth and scalability of tactical urbanism interventions. Finally, the book provides a detailed toolkit for conceiving, planning, and carrying out projects, including how to adapt them based on local needs and challenges.

0lecture_faustino_web.jpgDidier Fiuza Faustino, Double Happiness, Urban reanimation device, 2009. Shenzhen-Hong Kong Bi-City Biennial of Urbanism and Architecture

0Little-Free-Library-by-Stereotank-1.jpgStereotank, Little Free Library

Tactical Urbanism is a grass-root approach to urbanism. Tactical Urbanism is what happens when citizens, frustrated with the hurdles of civic administration, take the future of their neighbourhood into their own hands before someone else, someone with a political mandate, someone who doesn’t actually have to live there, does it for them. Tactical Urbanism is a method for transforming ‘an orderly but dumb system into one that’s more chaotic but smart.’

The authors of the book, Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia, believe that the city is the perfect laboratory for testing out dreams and ideas. They show us how to experiment with, reclaim, redesign or reprogram vacant lots, empty storefronts, overly wide streets, local markets, highway underpasses, surface parking lots and other underused public spaces.

Garcia and Lydon have been documenting and applying Tactical Urbanism practices for the past 4 years. That’s not a very long period of time but they have learnt a lot in that period. More importantly, they’ve learnt mostly by doing: they released Tactical Urbanism guides, organised salons and also worked alongside citizens, government officials, advocacy groups and developers on a series of projects.

The authors also admit that they haven’t invented everything. The second chapter of their book looks at moments in history that have paved the way for Tactical Urbanism. The journey starts much earlier than i had expected, with the Neolithic settlement of Khoirokoitia in Cyprus, one of the first citizen led planning process in history. Garcia and Lydon then explore and explain how the Roman castra (temporary roman military camps with easily navigable gridded streets) literally set the first stones for European cities to settle and develop. How in the late 1960s, people in Delft started to strategically place trees, bollards or bike racks in order to slow down traffic and give the street back to the community. How parents in the city of Bristol appropriated legislation designed for street parties to close street to cars so that their children can play safely. The initiatives in both England and The Netherlands ended up being officially condoned by their national governments.

0alohacrosswalk.jpgAloha crosswalk in Honolulu. Photo Katrina Valcourt

0Portable-Park-550x541.jpgBonnie Ora Sherk, Portable Parks II, 1970. Mission and Van Ness, San Francisco.

The following chapters contain many more U.S.-based examples and lessons. They also analyze the reasons for the current resurgence of Tactical Urbanism (growing disconnection between citizens and decision-makers, people moving back to the city, the current recession, the rise of the internet.) At this point, however, i was starting to lose interest in the book. Apart from the historical section, it was firmly grounded onto the U.S. soil. Nothing wrong with that, i just expected the book to either make me travel all over the world or apply to a reality i feel closer to (i should probably mention that some of Street Plans publications focus on other parts of the globe.) I was also a bit annoyed with the constant talk of ’empowering’ citizens. But then the word ’empowering’ has that nails-scratching-on-chalkboard effect on me. I just can’t help it. If I did carry on reading, it’s because the experiences shared in the book are indeed very uplifting, each story is written in a clear and engaging language and then there’s that chapter 5….

0Times Square Image 2.jpgYoga in Times Square. Photo

0WYC_DowntownRaleigh_signsD.jpgWalk [Your City]. Photo

0tu_design_thinking_diagram.jpgTactical Urbanism. Design Thinking diagram

Chapter 5 is a gem. It is a very detailed and informative toolkit for aspiring Tactical Urbanists. The pages explain how to use online tools (such as Neighborland, Mindmixer, etc.) to widen engagement, how to identity your project partners, fund the project, apply for a permit (or not as it appears that sometimes applying for special event is enough if you want to test drive an intervention in public space and get the ball rolling), where to find the materials to make it happen, how to build a prototype, measure its impact and learn from the results, etc. There’s even a cheat sheet with important guiding questions.

But as the authors make clear, Tactical Urbanism is not an off the shelf solution or a check list, it’s a process that should also allow for frequent adjustments. It’s also decidedly small-scale, short-term and low-cost (and often surprisingly low-tech) but it should also serve a larger purpose.

The concluding chapter is mostly preptalk, an admonition to go out, use this book and take action in your own community.