Reclaiming city spaces with “tactical urbanism”

These guerilla construction crews breathe new life into streets.
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From guerilla gardening to pop-up parks, tactical urbanism is catching the world by storm. The growing movement is characterized by the temporary altering of city infrastructure through citizen-led initiatives. These efforts are inexpensive and intended to improve the functionality, safety, and enjoyability of neighborhoods and gathering places.

At its core, tactical urbanism is a commitment to community carried out by residents who care about the health of their cities. It was born out of frustrations with the slow and complex process of city-approved infrastructure improvements, and it’s turned into a channel for activists to accelerate change in their communities.

The Growing, Tactical Urbanism Movement

The people who live, work, and socialize in a city are often the most in tune to its infrastructure needs. However, traditional methods of urban planning can leave citizens feeling disconnected from how changes are implemented in their own communities.

Combine that feeling of disconnect with the lengthy bureaucratic processes required for urban improvements, and you’ll find a group of bold and persistent tactical urbanists who are ready to take action.

When tactical urbanists see something wrong in their cities, they start dreaming up ways to fix it themselves. Their creative, proactive solutions ultimately allow for the faster completion of projects that bring immediate benefit to their community.

Intimate familiarity with a setting leads to impactful ideas. Tactical urbanists take these ideas and experiment with their environment. If the experiment works, increased efforts can be made to expand upon the project. If their temporary changes aren’t effective, they can easily be removed or reworked to better serve the city.

While this form of guerilla urbanism was born with a spirit of rebellion against bureaucratic processes, the results have been so beneficial that cities across the globe have been compelled to collaborate with tactical urbanists rather than work against them.

It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, like a bee pollinating a flower. Local citizens with first-hand knowledge and ideas for improvement get to have their voices heard, while cities save time and money by allowing the experiments. While long-term implementation likely requires support through funding or permission from municipalities, big solutions can be planted through small actions. 

Tactical Urbanists Lead Change in Major Cities 

Although the movement can be traced back to the introduction of experimental pedestrian plazas in New York City under Janette Sadik-Khan‘s leadership, the first formal emergence of tactical urbanism began at a New Orleans gathering of “new urbanists” in 2010. Today, citizen-led urban design initiatives are showing up from coast to coast in major U.S. cities.

In San Francisco, for example, a local group was frustrated with cars wandering into the bike lane on a particular stretch of road. So they took action by setting up a long line of toilet plungers —yes, you read correctly— to create a barrier, ensuring the safety of cyclists. The city took notice of the project’s effectiveness and agreed to install a permanent barrier on the road.

In Washington D.C., two local residents took it upon themselves to paint a crosswalk near the site of a fatal pedestrian crash. It not only improved the safety of the intersection but also gave the community peace of mind, allowing for a more enjoyable commute.

A grassroots campaign in Miami, Florida consisting of advocates, conservationists, and community residents transformed a partially abandoned stretch of railroad into a world-class park and trail. The area is now scenic and practical, providing a commuter corridor that connects five schools, four parks, two transit hubs, and numerous neighborhood districts.

This DIY spirit is catching on all over the country. Citizens are feeling more autonomy in their environments, and cities are reaping the benefits of the inexpensive experiments.

And with the onset of a global pandemic, an increased demand for innovative solutions that are quickly implementable is all the more evident. Tactical urbanists have capitalized on this sense of urgency, experimenting with unique ways to meet new needs such as outdoor street dining.

In many cases, the adaptive solutions resulting from tactical urbanism can be replicated in other communities as well, speeding up improvements for cities that face similar infrastructure challenges. While change may start locally, the impact is often felt globally. 

Teaming Up to Protect Jersey City 

The tactical urbanism movement is spreading quickly, and some cities have begun to collaborate with partners like Street Plans to launch projects that could benefit from an organized, citizen-led approach. Jersey City is one of them.

As the third most densely populated U.S. city, behind New York and San Francisco, Jersey City has challenges with pedestrian safety. To make streets safer, more beautiful, and more inclusive, city planners turned to residents for solutions.

Street Plans partnered with the city to quickly iterate a bicycle master plan in accordance with the city’s Vision Zero Initiative, which seeks to reduce pedestrian fatalities. With input from the local community, Street Plans set up temporary bike lanes as a test in just one weekend.

The result of the bike lanes was so successful that permanent designs were adopted in Jersey City within a year. Since the project’s inception, over 10 miles of protected bike lanes have been installed, making for a safer and greener commute.

Mike Lydon and his partner Tony Garcia are the principal directors at Street Plans, and have quite literally written the book on tactical urbanism. The Tactical Urbanists Guide to Materials and Design is a 132-page handbook that serves as a how-to guide for those interested in tactical urbanism. The book has helped communities around the world improve their local neighborhoods.

“The barriers to change is us,” Lydon says. “If we break down those barriers, we can make lots of great things happen very quickly.”

From neighbors to advocacy groups, transport engineers to elected officials, there’s no limit as to who can contribute to building more enjoyable neighborhood experiences through small but mighty actions.

The barriers to change is us. If we break down those barriers, we can make lots of great things happen very quickly.

Mike Lydon

“These projects are aimed at making a better street. A better block. A better city,” says Lydon. “And in the long term, we’re all beneficiaries of that change.”

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