Talking Tactical Urbanism

Talking Tactical Urbanism

Everyone can be an urban planner, and that’s a good thing, according to Mike Lydon, principal at Brooklyn’s Street Plans Collaborative and author of Tactical Urbanism, Volume 2. With a surge of interest in urbanism across the country and at every level, communities are rethinking public space, or the lack therein. Into the breach, so-called tactical urbanism has surged, offering quick, affordable tools for making a big impact. Lydon and other tactical urbanists will be contributing to the U.S. Pavilion’s Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good at the 13th Venice Biennale in August. AN gets a jump on the conversation:

The Architect’s Newspaper: How does tactical urbanism differ from traditional forms of urbanism? How did you get involved with the movement?

Mike Lydon: In 2010, I began noticing a lot of little things happening that were, in a lot of ways, self-funded or self-organized but having a big, longer-term impact. One of the flagship examples of tactical urbanism, Build a Better Block, which started in Dallas, was just a weekend event. Essentially it put a three-lane one-way street on a road diet—adding chicanes [bump outs] and a bike lane. They visually mocked up an environment, a neighborhood setting, that the community wanted. The result was huge. It rippled all across the Internet and produced actual change in the city of Dallas itself.

After seeing that, I started looking for similar efforts—both bottom-up and top-down—and it was clear people were being really creative in making physical changes in their neighborhoods. New York City is the great example of public space reclamation. Using very temporary materials in plazas and public spaces built literally overnight, [those plazas] became these placeholders that are very highly used. Now we’re seeing some of them up for permanent design and construction. That process is what’s fascinating and what I have been very interested in trying to document.


What is the value of this tactical approach?

A lot of these efforts are not expensive. Really, $2,000 can help people envision change. What’s difficult about the traditional planning process is that it’s behind closed doors. It can be intimidating for people to get involved, but if you’re experimenting with change in real time on the street, on your block, or on your sidewalk, people get a real understanding of what that means. Especially when it’s part of the larger planning process. You can mock it up, and it becomes a type of rendering in real time. People can say, “This really works for me. I like it.”

What are the tactical urbanism projects that have achieved long-term success?

Open Streets [Appropriating a street for non-automotive uses] is one of the most successful that’s out there. We’ve been documenting Open Streets programs around the country as part of the Open Streets Project. There are now 70, from very small towns to large cities like New York, Chicago, and LA. It’s something that can be scaled to each individual town and it touches on a number of issues facing communities, from public health and community exercise to developing discussions around making cities more pedestrian and bike friendly. Businesses tend to do very well during Open Streets, so it’s good for the economy, too.

Build a Better Block and all its variations is also a very good tactic. It’s basically a neighborhood barn raising. People really get together and volunteer time for a week-long or weekend-long event during which they mock up what they want to see on the block.


What’s great about the guys from Dallas—Jason Roberts and Andrew Howard, the founders of the Better Block movement—is that they’ve open-sourced it. They are the consultants on numerous Build a Better Block projects all over Texas and the Southwest, but they are really happy to serve as a resource. They have one now in Philadelphia and we were involved in one in Oyster Bay, New York.

Memphis did one that had a cycle-track, where they mocked-up a physically separated bike path during a weekend-long event called A New Face for an Old Broad, which was on Broad Avenue, and that cycle track has remained for the last two years. It was supposed to be temporary, but everyone loved it, so they just kept it and now, two years later, there’s an actual detailed plan to build a permanent cycle track with a much more permanent structure and materials. It’s one of those great case studies in which you see a temporary idea leading to permanent change.

Did tactical urbanism help give rise to the surge in interest in urban issues among the general public, or did it emerge from it?

It’s probably a little bit of both. With the economy the way it’s been the past couple years, there’s been a lot of interest in the fact that cities are a lot more resilient economically, but I think the rise of the whole tactical urbanism trend and interest in cities is also a reflection of how information is exchanged via the Internet. There are dozens and dozens of blogs and resources to tap into in any city now that are on the ground explaining neighborhood issues, drawing in supporters for changing neighborhoods.


How can tactical urbanism work in architecture and the formal planning process?

A couple of ways. Projects that started unsanctioned or that were generated at the neighborhood level really rise up quickly when they’re successful. They then gather the attention and support of city council people, politicians, city planners, and different departments in the city. We’re seeing that in a lot of places. Portland, Oregon, is a good example with depaving. Neighbors got together in 2007, busted up a bunch of pavement and put in some green space, with gardens and public space. It was a really good idea, and the municipality funded the initiative with some seed money. It turned into a nonprofit and then gained funding from the Environmental Protection Agency at the federal level.

The planning process is not going to be replaced by tactical urbanism. Following up on comprehensive planning efforts, the neighborhood-wide or city-wide planning process can use tactical urbanism to take some of the most popular ideas and really do things quickly rather than have them wait on the shelf for the million-dollar funding stream. Tactical urbanism is a tool for the more formal planning process.