“It is essential to adapt tactical urbanism to the size and characteristics of each territory.”

27 January 2022ContactMaximilian Gawlik, Lisa Gaucher, Paul Lecroart

For this second issue of the articles on tactical urbanism, L’Institut Paris Region looks back at an interview conducted on 9 September 2020 with Mike Lydon, co-founder of Street Plans, an urban planning and public space design agency based in Miami and New York.

An activist from the start, Mike Lydon has become an internationally renowned urban planner, writer, lecturer and advocate for liveable cities. Since 2012, he has published a series of books with Tony Garcia on tactical urbanism: Short-Term Action, Long-Term Change Vol. 1 - 5. More recently, he co-authored NACTO's Streets for Pandemic Response and Recovery and accompanied several cities in the New York region in their strategy for adapting public spaces and mobility options to the health crisis. With his agency, he now assists certain communities in their projects of the transformation of public spaces.

Tactical urbanism, historically based on the bottom-up initiatives (or local activism), has now become a real lever of transformation for certain cities like New York. Could you go back over this notion and how cities have started using it?

Nomad Piazza, located along two blocks of Broadway in Midtown Manhattan, was implemented to support local restaurants, pedestrians, and cyclists during the pandemic. In the fall of 2021 the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership worked with Street Plans to improve the piazza with asphalt art and other amenities, like public seating and planters. Credit: Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership

From the outset, tactical urbanism has involved the appropriation of public or private outdoor spaces by associations and residents. For example, underused parking spaces, parkland, or sections of streets, etc., were transformed in a simple way, using light materials to test a better use of space. Projects often included recycling existing materials adding seating, or plantings. Sometimes, these transformations were staged as an event, such as PARK(ing) Day1.

A big change occurred when government agencies started to apply this approach to otherwise conventional projects. In North America, it can be said that it was around 2014 that some cities started to take an interest in and mobilise the tools of tactical urbanism in the context of strategic projects. But the bottom-up approach is still seen as the driving force behind the methodology. Today, one of the aims of tactical urbanism is to connect local short-term desires and solutions and transform them into something more sustainable over time and replicable for an entire city or territory. The strategy needs to eventually be developed and owned by local authorities so that the main idea can gain momentum and shift into long-term investment in community spaces.

Therefore, the role of city governments is crucial, as they are the only entities capable of distributing resources and responding to different sites at the same time with equity. Financial and material support, as well as a supportive policy and legal framework, makes the process clear and visible between the different stakeholders, and gives local authorities the permission to act. It also allows partnerships and funding to be put in place between public actors such as city, regional, or national governments, private actors like shop owners, or BIDs2, and the general population, community organizations and NGOs.

In 2020, with the onset of the pandemic, tactical urbanism has been highly publicised. Do you think this is a step forward in designing public spaces differently?

The health crisis has shown that small and large cities around the world can transform and adapt their streets very quickly. Many initiatives were deployed rapidly, and new types of designs were tested for cyclists and pedestrians as well as for expanding shops and restaurants. Thanks to the release of some parking spaces, many creative, publicly-minded projects have emerged. A new focus has been placed on the curb lane, which is highly contested space as it’s where various public and private actors compete for highly valuable space. The scale of the phenomenon has emboldened political leaders to assert that quality pedestrian space, active mobility, and supporting local businesses is more important than using public space for private parking. Ultimately, this results in a more equitable and just streetspace for everybody (including children, the elderly, disabled people…). 

Unfortunately, one of the tradeoffs for moving so quickly at such a large scale is that temporary infrastructure is not always the most durable. And when built too quickly, without public engagement and with low cost materials, some designs have been allowed to deteriorate over the ebbs and flows of the pandemic, creating physical barriers in the public space and even road safety hazards. For some local authorities, the political effect has been so negative that they have decided to withdraw their facilities rather than seek ways to improve upon the demonstrated benefits, however brief.

Street Plans designed a "street seat" to replace two parking spaces. The goal of the project is to add a public amenity that also supports Rockaway Brewery and Culture Lab, a cultural programming organization in the Queens, NY neighborhood of Long Island City. Credit: Street Plans

Another difficulty is the involvement of the population in these actions in times of crisis. Acting in an emergency situation may mean that elected leaders and city staff must take a very strong and decisive leadership. This must be accompanied by strong and clear communication to the local population about objectives, rationale, and the proposed timeline. This is in contrast to more traditional methods based on engagement and involvement of local people and community organizations, which is known to take much more time. 

Apart from the context of the health crisis, what lessons could you draw from the tactical approach?

Too often, the evaluation of a temporary project is done without a predefined objective. Each project situation has its own issues, actors and ways of doing things. A specific evaluation matrix needs to be developed in order to assess the impact of a temporary project at different scales. This matrix can be refined with the project's stakeholders (local populations and associations), particularly when it involves the transformation of a residential area. 

Two other mistakes that emerge are poor communication at the start of a project and a lack of political will to receive and allocate resources properly. In the United States today, projects such as bicycle lanes in New York can be rejected by the population because they are seen as a potential vehicle for gentrification and the reinforcement of social inequalities. This is due to a lack of clear policy and strong communication. Tactical urbanism can help identify the priorities and needs of local populations in terms of safety, mobility, public space or accessibility and ultimately allow for a smoother integration of transformations of public space, by testing. Street Plans builds on the strengths of 'testing': the demonstration project can be modified or removed. The development will then appear less threatening and can open up minds as people see real-time adjustments that address concerns shared during the feedback period. People feel heard. 

A tactical urbanism project may be broken down into several types.

  1. Demonstration projects are best as a tool for community engagement and light testing of project ideas. They use highly removable, reversible materials that are in place for a few days or a few weeks. 
  2. Pilot projects use more durable materials and therefore can tackle more complex conditions. Because they are in place for a year or two, they are about community engagement but also performance. You can actually measure impact over many months/seasons in a way you can’t do over a few weeks. So the data collection methods become essential to understand what might become more permanent and what might not. 
  3. Interim design projects fill the gaps between the need to make change and the timeline required to assemble capital investments. These materials are still adjustable but also intended to last years. That is why project benefits are conferred far faster than awaiting a large-scale transformation requiring years of design and political process.   

Many cities struggle to understand these nuances and do not link the shorter-term projects with a clear process that leads to a systematic transformation of space. For example, taking too rapid an approach with poor quality materials for a project intended to last months or years, not days, can lead to the failure of the programme. Between a temporary demonstration or interim design project and the final permanent designs, each type of project requires its own commitments in terms of materials, management and maintenance, and evaluation techniques. 

The Willoughby Avenue Open Street was implemented by the New York City Department of Transportation in the spring of 2020 to prioritize the movement of pedestrians and cyclists. For 18 months local volunteers set up and removed barricades each day to limit thru traffic during a 12-hour period. In fall 2021, "light touch" tactical improvements were made by the Department of Transportation and Street Plans to further support cycling and walking along the corridor. It is now designated as a permanent amenity even if the materials are still interim in nature. Credit: Street Plans

With so many case-by-case adaptations, wouldn't the tools of tactical planning be too complex for a small city with little experience?

The tools of tactical planning are not universal and need to be adapted to each context, such as for heavy infrastructure projects. The experience of the pandemic crisis situation has shown us that the tactical approach can be used for a variety of purposes. It is therefore useful to call on experienced practitioners. This should not restrict the creativity of residents, shop owners, public and private actors, nor should it lead to formalisation or bureaucratisation. Tactical urban planning must remain light, agile and easy to implement so that local people can adhere to it, participate in it and contribute to its sustainability. The best thing a city can do is establish basic parameters for life safety, put supportive funding measures in place and begin working with community groups, businesses, and other government partners to experiment with better ways of living so closely together as we do in cities.  

Many of us, as international experts, have been working on the subject of tactical urbanism for several years. We have provided a good understanding of the challenges, ways of doing things and lessons learned to help develop global strategies for transformation. The complexity lies in how the different lessons are received on a case by case basis at the local level, responding to the specific socio-cultural, economic, and political contexts. The role of public actors is to help support and scale the approach to help meet public policy mandates, such as reducing traffic crashes, reducing emissions, or providing quality public space within proximity of every city resident. Several cities and even whole countries like New Zealand are now leading the way with adopting tactical planning as a methodology of changemaking. Tactical urban planning can become a tool to create open and accessible streets for all. It works in big cities, such as New York, San Francisco, and other metropolises around the world, but also in small cities, where small changes have a big impact. In fact, sometimes tactical projects are much easier in smaller cities because there is less bureaucracy and cultural alignment. In order for tactical urbanism to contribute to a more global response, it seems essential to set a transformation strategy adapted to the size and characteristics of each territory. 

Interview by Maximilian Gawlik, Lisa Gaucher and Paul Lecroart

1. The initiative began in 2005 in San Francisco with REBAR Group and was introduced to France in 2011 by the urban innovation agency Dédale (Stéphane Cagnot). Today, PARK(ing) Day mobilises people in 22 countries around the world to creatively revisit parking spaces in their cities.
2. Born in North America and particularly widespread in Anglo-Saxon cities, Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) are shopping districts that function thanks to an agreement between the municipality and the private sector on the management of streets and streetscape. Businesses and shop owners pay an additional tax (levy) in order to fund projects and improve the environment within the district’s boundaries.

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Urban planning