Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Actions for Long-term Change
Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia
2000 M Street NW, Suite 650
Washington, DC 20036
2015. 256 pages. Paperback $25.00
What do $15 lawn chairs in Manhattan’s Times Square; orange traffic cones on a street corner in Hamilton, Ontario; or a temporary plaza upgrade in Christchurch, New Zealand, have in common? According to lead author and Brooklyn-based planning consultant Mike Lydon, they share common characteristics of a growing, if at times irreverent, movement that has spread worldwide in just a few years’ time. Simply put, “tactical urbanism” is all about a new generation of small scale urban design interventions that are low-risk, cheap, quick, and easy to implement.
Tactical interventions go by such names as DIY crosswalks, open streets, build a better block, and pop-up plazas. Although Lydon, who coauthored The Smart Growth Manual with Andrés Duany and Jeff Speck, is generally recognized as the spokesman for tactical urbanism, he admits that it is “owned by no one and can involve anyone.” The bottom line is “to bring projects to life that may have been dormant, dysfunctional, or simply ignored. And once that is achieved, to figure out how to make them work on a permanent basis.”
This is a much-anticipated book, and the basic message is an important one: small-scale actions play an essential role in ensuring that cities—and especially the street frontage or building blocks within them—are responsive to genuine but unmet needs. Tactical maneuvers not only build social capital among residents, but also can help forge alliances with developers, government agencies, foundation sponsors, and other parties with a stake in local planning and development.
Tactical urbanism projects always deal with publicly used spaces, even if privately owned. Often they are initiated by neighborhood residents or groups impatient with the red tape and soul-numbing delays of “big project” planning. The more successful efforts, Lydon argues, tend to be partnerships between public and private interests because these have a better chance of influencing longer-term change. An important element is the incremental and tentative nature of a tactical maneuver; if it does not fulfill expectations, it simply reverts to its previous status. Lydon emphasizes tactical urbanism’s special appeal among fellow millennials because of the huge role that social media have played in spreading the message, and because so many city-dwelling millennials are prone to take action when confronted with the slow pace of change.
But this is far from a new phenomenon. A brief chapter traces the history of tactical urbanism as far back as 1557. That is when booksellers (les bouquinistes) hawked their wares from makeshift, portable green boxes, which popped up illegally along the River Seine in central Paris. These small-scale vendors now stake claim as part of a United Nations–designated Heritage Site.
The Paris precedent sheds light on today’s interventions, which can legitimately occur along what the authors call a tactical spectrum. After failed attempts to get local officials to help, Anthony Cardenas took matters into his own hands early one morning in May 2013 by painting a badly needed crosswalk at a dangerous unmarked intersection near his home in Vallejo, California. His harmless but illegal act of civic defiance illustrates guerrilla-type maneuvers, and they fall at one end of the spectrum. The “Walk Raleigh” North Carolina experiment in wayfinding signage also began as a guerrilla intervention, when, under the cover of darkness in early 2012, 27 pedestrian signs pointing to landmark destinations suddenly popped up at street intersections.
At the other end of the spectrum are “sanctioned” interventions involving widespread local participation. These are often managed or spearheaded by the public sector. Several examples are located in the heart of New York City, including the incremental conversion of traffic-clogged Times Square from lawn furniture to permanent amenities.
Lydon concedes that “the planning process is not going to be replaced by tactical urbanism. But doing things quickly, incrementally, and cheaply, rather than having them filed away in hopes of an eventual multimillion-dollar funding stream, can be a compelling means of citizen-based empowerment and a valuable place-making tool.” This straightforward book succeeds, despite some minor lapses, in conveying the movement’s credibility, especially to audiences attracted by nimble and responsive approaches to urban development.