Tactical Urbanism: Small-Scale Intervention, Large-Scale Impact

Tactical Urbanism: this article attempts to answer its role, aims and significance in the urban landscape.
by Mehdi Comeau

Everyday people give meaning to the livability of a city or town–why don’t they play a larger role in creating it? In the age of New Urbanism, people are playing that role more and more, as individual and collective ingenuity manifests in strategic action restructuring built, social and economic space.

You may know it as DIY, guerrilla or ad-hoc, but this nascent approach is more than that–it’s Tactical Urbanism, where small-scale, short-term action serves a larger purpose catalyzing long-term change.

Traditionally, planners, architects and policy makers are responsible for larger urban developments requiring large amounts of capital and lengthy legal processes. These economic and political investments produce inflexible developments, where social and economic benefits could boom or bust. While Tactical Urbanism does not dismiss the need for large-scale developments, it operates effectively where they do not or cannot.

The tactical approach offers maneuverability through low-cost, flexible processes where the urban landscape becomes an urban lab for people to test out diverse ideas. In essence, the process is incremental. Each step provides real-time feedback that leads to further development or defeat, where survival of the fittest becomes survival of the most applicable.

Named one of the top planning trends of 2011-2012 by Planetizen, The Street Plans Collaborative put together a Tactical Urbanism Guide complete with case studies and five characteristics defining the approach:

• 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, and non-profits sectors.

Easily initiated by citizens, examples such as pop-up cafés, guerrilla gardens, and food carts often partner with municipal government or local businesses. In other instances, people may paint a crosswalk where a need is recognized, and when it gets used, the city is more likely to ‘legalize’ the long-term establishment of the new crosswalk instead of cleaning up the paint.

There are still Borders to Cross as democratic innovation and civic driven change reach new collaborative, co-creative roles in urban planning and development. Tactical Urbanism is increasing these links, blurring the dividing lines of who can produce change to an urban landscape and new relationships between citizens, government, and public and private sectors stem restructuring from both bottom-up and top-down.

Preceding mutual benefit, there is mutual need. Governments and citizens have experienced recent economic downturn, mingled with rising frustrations–citizens with the lack of government action, support and recognition, and government with setbacks, political hindrances, and pressure from citizens. These conditions are breeding metamorphosis through originality, where social media and new technologies enable Tactical Urbanists, or Tacticians, to gain broader public support substantiating urban interventions. For instance, the mobile food vendor tied into a social media site can post where they are when, their menu, and add a little personal authenticity to their tactical venture, growing business and building community.

With the right governing environment, or without it, Tacticians are identifying civic needs and stepping up to fulfill them. No more waiting for government. No more need for major capital investments. Citizens are active in their own right, fulfilling their own needs and generating long-term changes to economic and social community landscapes through small-scale, incremental Tactical Urbanism.

Communities are now laboratories. Tactical experiments are welcome.

*For more, please visit The Tactical Urbanism Guide, where some examples and information were sourced.

About the author

Mehdi Comeau

A long-standing curiosity in the transformative social underpinnings of urban environments has maintained Mehdi’s drive to actively explore cities. Mixed with ambition, this curiosity lead him to UvA’s urban sociology masters program, where a sociological mindset blends urban studies with an interdisciplinary background in international environment and development. Having worked with both local groups, from small organic farming operations in the USA to school children in Malawi, and also organizational and government entities, Mehdi’s primary interests span boosting bottom up influence and increasing collaboration and coherence with top down strategies, power relationships, relationships with and within social and material space, urban farming and food systems, and (eco)mobility.


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