The tactical approach to public space

24 December 2021ContactLisa Gaucher, Maximilian Gawlik, Cécile Diguet, Paul Lecroart

Imperatives relating to health crisis management, in particular the issue of social distancing, have forced decision-makers to act fast on all fronts. The health emergency has raised global awareness of active mobility issues and opened a window of opportunity for local authorities to retrieve dormant public space projects from their archives. Tactical urbanism, in the form of (often experimental) development initiatives in public space, has been widely covered in the media. L’Institut Paris Region is launching a series of articles on these experiments, some old, some new, and is devoting the first issue to the tactical approach that emerged in the 2000s and has attracted renewed interest in the current circumstances.

Temporary, spontaneous, sometimes illegal and always quick to implement, the tactical approach involves installing urban amenities that respond directly to residents’ expectations and bypassing often complex and time-consuming official procedures. Because of the crisis and the need to act fast, many local authorities have used tactical methods to roll out a number of initiatives: cycle lanes, extended pavement occupation rights for cafés and restaurants, temporary street closures, and so on. 

The emergence of experimental urbanism since the 2000s

New ways of using public space, initiated not by public authorities but by citizens, local community associations, activists and artists, began to emerge in the 2000s. They were lightweight, temporary, small-scale initiatives, for example using a few wooden pallets to turn parking spaces into a temporary outdoor seating area, creating a mini-square by painting the ground and cobbling together some urban furniture, or greening a street with wild plants. Spontaneous, sometimes illegal and always quick to put in place, these initiatives seek to spark the interest of decision-makers by providing pragmatic responses to local residents’ expectations. They offer an alternative to the complexity of planning procedures. In 2012, referring to these “short-term initiatives for long-term change”, American planner Mike Lydon suggested the term “tactical urbanism”1
From 2010 onwards, this type of approach attracted the interest of city councils, which embraced the same principles while allowing them to be scaled up, moving from local settings (e.g. streets and neighbourhoods) to larger environments (e.g. cities and metropolitan areas). Taking their cue from tactical methods, cities such as New York (Plazas Program), Barcelona (Superilles) and Paris (Réinventons Nos Places!) initiated innovative programmes relating to public space. This experimental urbanism casts itself as an “antidote” to traditional urban planning and car-oriented approaches, which have shaped cities for half a century and whose models are now being called into question. This is what Paul Lecroart, urban planner at the Institut Paris Region, describes in a recent article.

The 2020 health crisis: “Let’s see what’s sleeping in our cardboard boxes”

The health disaster that began in 2020 highlighted a social and environmental crisis that was far from new. Imperatives of crisis management, in particular social distancing, led decision-makers to act fast and on all fronts. To manage social distancing in the street while discouraging people from resorting en masse to public transport and private cars, authorities had to quickly adapt public spaces and come up with temporary urban planning strategies. All over the world, there was extensive media coverage of cities rolling out temporary cycle lanes, extending pavement occupation rights for cafés and restaurants and closing streets to traffic—all in record time. The health emergency raised widespread awareness of the challenges of active mobility and opened a window of opportunity for public authorities to dust off projects that had been “sleeping in cardboard boxes”: ideas put forward by council officials and/or local associations that ran into practical difficulties and were shelved. 

In the summer of 2020, the Institut Paris Region produced a “flash” report for the ADEME on temporary amenities for public areas by documenting different new and existing tactical approaches responding to the challenges of the health crisis in France and worldwide:

  • The “réseau transitoire” [pop-up network] in Tours 
  • The “plan communal de déconfinement” [local post-lockdown plan] in Saint-Etienne 
  • Temporary cycle lanes and pedestrian amenities in Paris 
  • Transformation of the Croix de Chavaux and emergency cycle lanes in Montreuil 
  • Healthy cycle lanes in the départément of Val-de-Marne
  • The “voies transitoires” [temporary roads] in the départément of Seine-Saint-Denis
  • The role of the établissement public territorial (EPT) in coping with the crisis: Est Ensemble case study 
  • Pedestrian and semi-pedestrian streets and “safe active transportation routes” in Montreal 
  • “Slow Streets” and “Essential Places” programmes in Oakland
  • Temporary bike lanes in Bogotá 
  • The “Streetspace for London” programme 
  • The Pop-Up Bike Lanes in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, Berlin 
  • Temporary measures in Brussels and the “Brussels on Vacation” programme 
  • The “Strade Aperte” programme in Milan
  • The metropolitan network of “Bicivias” and the “Actuacions Emergència” in Barcelona. 

This exploratory work, mainly based on interviews carried out in local authority departments, was updated a year later and highlighted a number of key points:

  • Opportunities to experiment and test projects by rapidly setting up temporary installations in public space have emerged in the context of the health crisis.
  • Once evaluated, these installations may be made permanent. Quantitative evaluation is most commonly used, sometimes at the expense of qualitative assessment based on user perceptions.
  • It is clearly vital to coordinate stakeholders, to mobilise para-public bodies with in-depth expertise in their region, and to involve associations in order to develop amenities and active mobility networks on all scales.
  • Lack of discussion and participation due to the emergency, which allowed projects to be implemented at unprecedented speed, can generate problems relating to the understanding and acceptance of new amenities, making them less likely to be made permanent.
  • It is necessary to strike a balance between pedestrians, cyclists and vehicle users. Distribution between these different users has sometimes been uneven, and pedestrians have often found themselves less well catered for than cyclists. Taking each different user into account also makes it possible to ensure their safety.
  • Maintenance of temporary installations is a subject that must be taken into account with council departments and local associations in order to avoid rapid deterioration and safety issues.
  • The “look and feel” of areas that have been fitted out is an essential factor. Attractive spaces gain acceptance more easily, help users feel safe, and increase understanding of modes of use in public space.
  • Lack of foresight when temporary features are quickly installed has led to negative effects such as the exclusion of certain users (the elderly, the disabled, children, etc.).
  • Insufficient evaluation has been made of the environmental benefits of new practices and modes of use connected to temporary amenities, such as improved air quality.  

These strategies and experiments will be discussed in more detail in forthcoming issues of the articles, which will present case studies and expert perspectives on the issues raised, exploring how these different approaches are identified and used by local authorities and eventually become permanent features of streetscape.

Lisa Gaucher

Lisa is an architect who graduated from the École d'Architecture de la Ville & des Territoires Paris-Est. She has been project leader in the Planning, Development and Regions department at the Institut Paris Region since February 2020, and explores the benefits provided and issues raised by the tactical approach in the context of public space. She is also interested in energy-related issues in the Paris Region; infrastructure that will eventually become brownfield; the conversion of buildings; and the use of bio-and geo-sourced materials in the construction industry.

Maximilian Gawlik

Maximilian is a landscape architect and urban planner who graduated from Dresden Technical University and Sciences Po (Paris). After working in architecture, urban design and landscape architecture firms in Paris and Zurich, Maximilian joined the Institut Paris Region in 2019. His role is to support regional and metropolitan bike use policy and to study the energy-related, digital and spatial impacts of data centres. Since 2020 he has been working on the subject of temporary installations in public space.  

With support from

Cécile Diguet

Cécile has been director of the Regional Planning and Development department at the Institut Paris Region since January 2020. She is especially interested in the way urban development is changing, in particular the emergence of third spaces and urban commons, new project models, and temporary and tactical urban development practices.

Paul Lecroart

Paul is Senior Planning Expert at the Institut Paris Region. He works on metropolitan strategies and urban projects in Greater Paris and worldwide. He has initiated innovative projects such as the “Avenues métropolitaines” and “Parc des Hauteurs” programmes. Among his interests are the catalysts of urban and ecological transformation; the landscape; mobility; and public space development. He has co-edited several books on changing cities, including “Cities Change the World” (2019). He lectures in urban strategies as part of the urban planning curriculum at Sciences Po (Paris).

1. Lydon, Mike et al., Tactical Urbanism, Street Plans, 2012.

see also

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Urban planning