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The do’s and don’t’s of Tactical Urbanism

tactical urbanist t-shirt

Blog post by Catriona Swanson


A few weeks ago I wrote the very first In Tandem blog post entitled “What is Tactical Urbanism?” and was blown away by the response. That post mainly focused on it going mainstream in 2020 with councils suddenly embracing tactical urbanism as a way of quickly providing safe space for active travel and social distancing during Covid.

However, the origin of tactical urbanism is residents undertaking direct action to make their streets safer and while it’s great that it is being embraced by councils, there’s still work to be done and opportunities for citizens to use tactical urbanism to push for faster change.

It’s clearly a topic that people are really interested in, even if we don’t see or hear about people actually going out and doing much of it themselves, at least in the UK.

A story in the news this week reminded of why people are reluctant to go out and get their hands dirty with this stuff. What happened was that Laurie Phillips, a 78 year old from Bournemouth, painted a zebra crossing on a road he felt was dangerous. He was acting out of fear someone might be knocked down. He’d already contacted the council about it but got no response which he took as tacit approval that he could get on and sort it himself.  I’m sure many people reading the story will sympathise and may have had similar ideas themselves – I know I have.

DIY zebra by Laurie Phillips

Unlawful zebra - not a good idea. Photo: Laurie Phillips

And zebra crossings are simple, right? Slap a few lines down on a road and you can magically make drivers stop, making things much safer for people walking. We seem them all over the place; not just on roads but in just about every car park we go to and compliance with them is really high.

However, I’m afraid that, as is often the case, it’s not as simple as that. I’m not going to get into all the technical details as there’s far better blogs for that, but zebras (on roads) do give pedestrians priority over motor vehicles and, for that reason, need to be planned and designed carefully to ensure they’re as safe as possible.  

For example, there’s strict rules about their design including the need for Belisha Beacons (those funny poles with the yellow globes on top) and zig zags. And designers need to consider about the speed of traffic, sightlines, junctions etc. Sometimes, in order to ensure a zebra crossing will be safe, traffic calming such as speed humps or a raised table may be required. This can be a bit confusing as they are used liberally in car parks where they often are just a matter of a few horizontal lines. However, that’s because those are on private land and don’t have to follow the same rules (though they should still be designed to be safe).

Unfortunately, Mr Philips didn’t know that. No doubt he thought he was being helpful and saving the council a job or at the very least thought it would be a good stunt to attract some press attention to his cause and speed up getting the real thing. What actually happened was that he gave the Council a massive headache because they needed to go out and remove the markings as quickly as possible. As a result Dorset Police ordered Mr Philips to pay £130 to the Council to cover their costs for removing the markings.

While this is a really useful warning for anyone who was planning to go out and paint some zebra crossings, it doesn’t mean that all tactical urbanism is going to get you into trouble.

So, here’s some ideas for tactical urbanism that will hep you civilise your streets while staying on the right side of the law:


Work with rather than against your local council

While the pace of change in the vast majority of councils in the UK is painfully slow and it can feel like councillors and council officers don’t care (or are even actively hostile), there’s normally at least one person who does and your job is to find them and build a positive relationship. In most local authorities taking on the role of active travel officer is akin the career suicide so the person in that role will normally be pretty passionate about it. However, they often don’t have much of a voice within the organisation and probably struggle to get anything done. This person can be a great ally to have as you can be an additional resource for them and help get things done. It’s your job to find out what you can do to help – helping to set up an active travel forum, writing to the council to praise things that they’ve done well, organising local rides to get more people cycling in the local area, and, most importantly, asking the active travel officer what would be most helpful for them whether that's bits of tactical urbanism or other campaigning.

Work with what you’ve got

If you live on a residential street that suffers from rat running, see if your Council has a play street policy or allows road closures for street parties. Organising a play streets is a great opportunity to start a conversation with your neighbours about the benefits of less traffic – there’s so many that you don’t even need to terrify them all by talking about walking and cycling! Safe space to play without having to traipse to the park, less noise and air pollution, the opportunity to meet neighbours are all things that are likely to appeal to your neighbours (and help them realise how much things have changed since they were kids) and could be enough to start a conversation about campaigning for change. Ideally involve your neighbours on adjacent streets too so you can take turns hosting play streets (and shuffling cars about) to build local support for an area-based approach to civilising your neighbourhood. If your council doesn’t have a play street policy, it’s worth checking out Playing Out for loads of advice and tips on how to constructively speak to your council about creating one.

Children playing in the street
Play streets can start a conversation with neighbours about more permanent changes to streets. Photo: Playing Out

Make some noise

There’s an idea that tactical urbanism has to be sneaky, done under the cover of dark, involving balaclavas. While some of this does go on and I love a good toilet plunger cycle lane as much as the next person, you definitely don’t have to be sneaky about it. One tactic that can work really well is the “human protected cycle lane”, i.e. getting a load of people to form a human chain between a cycle lane and cars. As well as making a great photo opp and getting you in the news, if done well (i.e. with a lot of people), it can really help demonstrate widespread support for cycle lanes. It also reinforces to drivers that humans are quite squishy and they should probably slow down. It needs a lot of planning to do this as you need enough people to form the human chain (ideally wearing "normal" clothes) and to cycle in the cycle lane – otherwise you’ll get criticism for campaigning for a cycle lane that no one wants to use. If you happen to have a cycle lane that’s already pretty well used despite the lack of protection, this is a good place to start. Involving children (as long as it's safe) like GoBike Strathclyde Cycle Campaign did in the photo below can be powerful in reminding drivers that cycle lanes are for everyone, not just middle aged white men wearing lycra.

Human bike lane
Human bike lane. Photo: Strathclyde Cycle Campaign

And if you really want a zebra crossing, consider something like borrowing ETA’s pop-up zebra to generate publicity and put pressure on your council – just make sure you consider health and safety first!:



Create work (and expense) for the council

This is what Mr Phillips was unwittingly guilty of, I’m afraid. The Council had to scramble to wash off his paint which will have cost them money (they may have even had to pay contractors to come do it at short notice if they didn’t have the equipment in house or the staff available to do it) and took up valuable time when they could have been doing other things (don’t forget that councils in the UK have been significantly depleted due to years of austerity). This is not a good way to get the council on side, trust me.

Piss off your allies

Related to the above point, this is about keeping your key ally in the council on side. Once you’ve found your ally in the council (e.g. the active travel officer), whatever you do, don’t create extra work or headaches for them. While you might think constantly complaining about substandard cycle lanes or broken glass on shared use paths is helpful, it probably isn’t (they almost almost certainly know about all these issues and many more that you’re not aware of but have very limited power to change things). Nor is telling them about your plans to go and angle grind a load of barriers or close roads. 

And, unless they specifically tell you it would be helpful for you to submit an FOI request about something, don’t. It as creates a huge amount of work for officers which would be much better spend designing good schemes. Things like that are much more likely to piss officers off than get the result you were hoping for. (Of course I’m not saying you should never FOI a council – if you’ve exhausted all other alternatives and there’s something seriously wrong that they won’t communicate with you about then FOI away).

Do anything dangerous

Nothing is worth risking your or anyone else’s life for so please think about your and everyone else’s safety when planning projects as some things really need to be left to professionals. For example, even though it looks fairly simple to close a road with a couple of planters, there are legal orders that sit behind them as well as a whole raft of consultation with emergency services so it’s a really bad idea to do DIY road closures. Same goes for putting things in the highway that might become a trip hazard or that someone might crash into. Hurting someone while campaigning for safer streets really isn't a good luck!


So, I hope that's given people some pointers about what can and can't be done. Personally, I'd love to see more action but we need to target our energy wisely! 

I’d really like to hear other people’s ideas of good tactical urbanism projects and any do’s and don’t’s you’ve learnt along the way so please do leave a comment!

Oh and please buy a t-shirt :-)


Note about the author

Catriona Swanson is co-founder of In Tandem and an Associate at PJA. She specialises in planning and designing active travel schemes. She previously led on walking and cycling for Salford City Council and likes to think she worked constructively with local campaigners and activists but will not be drawn on any tactical urbanism activities that she may have turned a blind eye to!

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