Tactical urbanism: small-scale projects, paradigm shifts?

07 February 2020ContactPaul Lecroart, Senior Urbanist, L’Institut Paris Region

In Bogotá, New York, Amsterdam, Paris and elsewhere, the future is being invented from the bottom up: connected, agile and creative, citizens are taking action, experimenting with short-term, small-scale and inexpensive solutions. Public bodies are increasingly building these tactical participatory approaches into their strategies. Is this a passing fad or the sign of a deeper change?

The art of building cities sometimes borrows from the art of war. The concept of “strategic planning” appeared in the 1990s as a coordinated response to the urban crisis that arose from de-industrialisation: it involves bringing public and private stakeholders to the table to share their analysis, their vision, and their priorities with a view to concentrate investments in projects that are most able to catalyse regeneration. Strategic plans have helped Barcelona, Birmingham, Copenhagen, Lyon, Turin and Pittsburg to bounce back. In Bilbao, the famous “Guggenheim effect” can be seen as a tactical plank of a strategy carried out since 1992 by the association Bilbao Metropoli-30. Today, strategic thinking tends to form part of the development process of long-term master plans. But however strategic they may be, plans and major topdown projects are slow to come to fruition in local neighbourhoods and respond poorly to the expectations of the people who live there. The turn of the 21st century in Europe and the USA saw activist citizens re-appropriating spaces abandoned by the car-oriented or post-industrial city. Their goal was to reactivate neglected areas by stimulating new modes of use through temporary occupation, on-site experimentation, and festive events. The principle was to develop small-scale, rapid, lightweight, lowtech initiatives. The ingredients were design, a dash of humour…and social media skills.

Tactical acupuncture

This “pop-up urbanism” borrowed from the “urban acupuncture” used in 1980-1990 in the favelas of Curitiba by the city’s mayor, Jaime Lerner: “Just as in the medical approach, it revitalizes an area through a simple touch of a key point: this intervention will trigger positive chain-reactions, helping to cure and enhance the whole system”1. Dubbed “tactical urbanism” by Mike Lydon in 2012, “Short term action for a long-term change”2 is also part of the history of urban activism. In the early 2000s, cities and metropolitan areas seized upon the potential of these methods to green their streets or stimulate modes of use that are more creative than parking a car. After the crisis of 2008-2009 and the reduction of public budgets, the need to act fast and cheaply prompted local authorities, residents and “urbartists” to group together in order to innovate in a wide range of fields.

A Look back at some pioneering experiences

Bogotá, Ciclovía

Bogotá was the first city to temporarily close major traffic arteries as an urban policy tool: every Sunday 120 km of boulevards were given over to 1 to 2 million cyclists, rollerbladers, joggers and pedestrians, turning the city into a gigantic park. Initiated by a collective in 1974 and managed by the municipal sports and leisure department since 1995, Ciclovía spearheads an eco-mobility and public health strategy that has been copied in over 60 cities including Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Lima, Los Angeles, Melbourne, Mexico City, Miami, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, São Paulo… and Paris.

Los Angeles, River Revitalisation

When poet and activist Lewis MacAdams founded the association Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) in 1986, he knew that revitalising the Los Angeles River was an almost impossible task: channelled, polluted and inaccessible, this 80 km waterway, running through 14 municipalities, was choked with rubbish. With a handful of volunteers, he launched cleanup campaigns and small-scale projects, and raised money to fund legal action, surveys, and lobbying. In 1996 this resulted in County approval for a restoration masterplan; in 2007, the city adopted the LA River Revitalization Masterplan; in 2014, 1.1 billion dollars was set aside for the restoration of the river’s ecosystem and a riverside urban and recreational development programme. FoLAR changed the way Angelinos perceived “their” river, and inspired similar projects in New York (Bronx River Greenway), Seoul (Cheonggyecheon River Restoration) and the Paris Region (Amis de la Bièvre).

Amsterdam, Blijburg Beach

In 2003, the fi rst new housing developments in the IJburg district were built, at the same time as the tram line connecting them to the city centre. The problem was that nobody wanted to live in the “new town”, planned to house 45,000 people, built on windswept and sandy artifi cial islands. As a tactical solution, the city laid out a beach for the summer with a beach café. The place quickly became a hip venue for Amsterdammers and kick-started the sale of the first plots and apartments.

San Francisco, Pavements to Parks

In 2005 three San Francisco designers (Rebar group) temporarily occupied a parking space with a “micro-park” (pallets, synthetic grass and a bench!). “Change is too slow in the administrations, so we decided to do it ourselves,” explains Matthew Passmore, a member of the trio3. When it was posted on line, the initiative earned a lot of praise. In 2011, Park[ing] Day, an international event devoted to the reappropriation of city streets, resulted in 935 initiatives in 162 towns, including about 100 in the Paris Region. It inspired the augmented public space pro-grammes Pavements to Parks and Street Plazas in San Francisco (70 interventions in 10 years) and the Parklets programme in Paris (2019)4.

New York, Plaza Program

Launched in 2009 by Janette Sadik-Khan at the New York Department of Transportation, the tactical remodelling of Times Square was a real shock: in a single night, Manhattan’s main traffi c hub was transformed into an open-air lounge using paint, flowerpots and deckchairs (the furniture they planned to use was not ready!) It was an immediate success: “People fl ooded in from all over. They weren’t talking about Broadway being closed; they were only talking about the deckchairs!”5. Pedestrians and cyclists had a comfortable, safe space to enjoy, and traffi c was more fl uid. Tested over a period of 6 years, it prefi gured the fi nal redevelopment programme that took place in 2015. Applied throughout New York, the same principle has made it possible to inexpensively reclaim 60 small squares in seven years. It has since been adopted in Paris (“Réinventons nos places”), Montreuil and other areas in the Paris Region.

Pioneers of the Grand Paris6

By proposing in 1994 to restore the banks of the Seine between Issy and Sèvres and encouraging different modes of use (gardening, exhibitions, walks), the urban ecology association Espaces initiated a process which in 2010 led the Hautsde- Seine council to abandon an expressway project. It was replaced by a landscaped boulevard that is better integrated into the site (Vallée Rive Gauche, opened in 2018). Was the Sunday closure of the Georges Pompidou Expressway by the Mayor, Jean Tibéri, in 1995 a tactical move? In any case, it opened the way to the pedestrianisation of parts of the riverbank, fi rst in the summer of 2002 with Paris Plages, then permanently (but reversibly) in 2013-2017 with the Parc des Rives de Seine. From 2009 onwards, the annual festival “La voie est libre” on the A186 motorway in Montreuil was designed as a co-construction tool helping to develop an alternative urban future for the Hauts-de-Montreuil area.

Experimental urbanism

Tactical participatory approaches focus on reinventing “public goods” (streets, squares, motorways, rivers). They resonate with pop-up cultural initiatives on privately owned brownfield sites that have appeared since 1990 in cities like Berlin, Leipzig, Amsterdam and Paris, opening the way, since 2010, to what is sometimes called “transitory urbanism”7: the activation of the time lapse between initial occupation (which is often industrial) and final development. Such transitory uses can also enrich planning projects. Why are these approaches emerging today as fully fledged planning tools?
First of all, they provide a response to a kind of planning crisis, where citizens perceive planning as too vertical, too heavy, and too slow to change the urban environment, in a context where lifestyles, practices and the economy are constantly evolving in countless different ways. This explains why some projects are already conceptually obsolete as soon as they are completed. In addition, the ability of major planning projects and “turnkey” public-private initiatives to respond to the “here-and-now” aspirations of city-dwellers, especially underprivileged residents, is being called into question.
Second, there is a need to test innovative solutions. Running counter to the technocratic urbanism of high-rise estates and urban freeways and the set-in-stone urbanism of investor-led master plans, the emphasis is on a collective urban development process open to social change. In the context of current environmental, social and technological transitions, tactical collaborative urbanism proposes an experimental method that involves seeking practical and reversible solutions fostering more sustainable development8. Initially launched by individuals with high social capital, these methods are finding their place within the ordinary array of urban policies combining vision, strategy, tactical approaches, and large- and small-scale projects.
Last but not least, we have the increasingly rapid circulation of experiments and models. City-dwellers are being granted “control”< over modes of use within their living environment. We see that they are able to imagine possible futures for their city, as the city planner Zef Hemel has shown with Amsterdam 20409. Thanks to social networks, they can rapidly mobilise resources to test ideas on the scale of a neighbourhood, a valley, or even an entire region10. Will this distributed collective intelligence, fuelled by in-the-field experience, on-site experimentation, collective workshops and real-time shared visualisation tools, transform us into what the architect Alain Renk calls the “7 billion urbanists”11?

Paul Lecroart, Senior Urbanist, L’Institut Paris Region


Kai Tak, Hong Kong’s legendary former airport in the heart of Kowloon East (KE), is being converted into a new metropolitan centre (CBD2*). Created in 2012 by the government, Energizing Kowloon East Office (EKEO) manages the transformation of Kowloon East, using tactical methods as “place-making” tools on abandoned sites. “EKEO stimulates the evolution of the industrial fabric of Kwung Tong through modest initiatives that offer quick wins for all**”, says Senior Place Making Manager Margaret Chan. Examples: the Walkable KE initiative dealt with 65 pedestrian crossings, Energizing Hoi Bun Road-Green gave “makeovers” to a dry weather flow inceptor, a pumping station and a refuse collection point, and Green Trail renovated small areas so that people could enjoy them. Launched in 2013, Fly the Flyover aimed to convert the gloomy underside of a motorway viaduct into social and artistic venues. In 2017, a call for projects resulted in re-energising three sites by installing shipping containers housing an art gallery, a performance stage, food huts, an urban farm, etc., managed by an association. Through low-cost initiatives, EKEO points to future transformations and allows residents to enjoy otherwise unoccupied spaces within a major urban planning project.

*Second Central Business District.
**Interviewed by the author in Hong Kong, 1 June 2018.

1. Jaime Lerner, Urban Acupuncture, Island Press, 2015.
2. Mike Lydon et al., Tactical Urbanism, Street Plans, 2012.
3. Interviewed by the author in San Francisco, 24 April 2011.
4. Interview with Stéphane Cagnot, director of Dédale, Paris, 9 April 2019. www.parkingday.fr
5. Janette Sadik-Khan et al., Street Fight. Handbook for an Urban Revolution, Viking, New York, 2016.
6. Paul Lecroart, Transitional and Participative Urbanism in the Paris Metropolitan Region, Urban Environment Design, Beijing, February 2017 (in Mandarin).
7. Cécile Diguet et al., L’urbanisme transitoire. Optimisation foncière ou fabrique urbaine partagée ?, IAU, 2018.
8. Charles Capelli, Expérimenter pour faire la ville “durablement”, Master IUG-UPMF, September 2013. Nicolas Douay and Maryvone Prévot, Circulation d’un modèle urbain “alternatif” ? EchoGéo n°36, 2016.
9. Zef Hemel, Masterclass Amsterdam-IAU, May 2013.
10. Paul Lecroart and Laurent Perrin, Démocratie participative et aménagement régional, IAURIF, 2000- 2001.
11. Interview with Alain Renk, Romainville, 14 May 2018. www.7billion-urbanists.org

Some international experiences of tactical urban planning that have influenced other cities: Ciclovía in Bogotá (bottom); San Francisco, Pavement to Parks (top, left); Montreuil, “la voie est libre” (top, right).

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Urban planning