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What is Tactical Urbanism?


Blog post by Catriona Swanson

 

So, you may have seen that we have a design called “Tactical Urbanist” where the letters are made up of slightly odd things like paint cans, traffic cones, skipping ropes and toilet plungers. Yes, toilet plungers.

In this blog post I’ll try to explain a bit about what tactical urbanism is and why it’s an important tool in the armoury for creating safer streets and doing it fast.

The term has been best defined by urban planners Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia in their book Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change. They define tactical urbanism as “an approach to neighborhood building using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions and policies.”

Common examples that you may be aware of include:

  • Play streets and car-free days where streets are temporarily closed to cars to enable people to reclaim the street, often for just a few hours and perhaps only once or a handful of times per year.
  • Park(ing) day and parklets where a small number of car parking spaces are temporarily re-purposed as a space for people to sit or play. In the case of park(ing) day this is for a measly one day per year but there are many examples of where parklets have become semi-permanent or at least last the summer.
  • Pop-up cycle lanes where road space is quickly reallocated to cycling using things like plastic cups or even (my personal favourite) toilet plungers. This approach has almost exclusively been undertaken by cycling campaigners and activists in the dead of night in the past. However, 2020 saw many councils across the world from Bogota to Berlin to Trafford, Greater Manchester get in on the act using traffic cones or bolt down “light protection” to quick create protected-ish space for cycling (though often failing to properly deal with junctions, unfortunately).
  • Low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) where planters and sometimes bollards or even concrete blocks are used to prevent through-traffic (also known as rat running) on residential streets in order to make streets safer for walking and cycling but also to tackle air and noise pollution and generally give back residential streets to the people who live on them and to push traffic back onto the main roads which were designed to carry it. Trials are generally designed to last at least 6 months to enable traffic patterns to settle down and residents to form a considered view of whether they should be made permanent, be tweaked or be removed entirely.
Parklet in Salford, Greater Manchester

Parklet in Salford, Greater Manchester 

Pop-up cycle lane

Pop-up cycleway 

Trial low traffic neighbourhood in Salford

Salford's trial low traffic neighbourhood

Is Tactical Urbanism going mainstream?

One of the silver linings of the pandemic was that many councils started to embrace trials and tactical urbanism, an approach that had hitherto only been embraced by a small number of authorities around the work including New York, Vienna and (everyone’s new favourite country) New Zealand whose national government were just about to launch a tactical urbanism programme when they went into lockdown in March 2020 (timing, huh?).

As a result, we saw parklets, pop-up cycle lanes and LTNs proliferate across the globe and even (eventually) in the UK (particularly London) in the summer of 2020 in response to two key issues:

  1. Physical distancing requirements in cafes, pubs and restaurants meant they needed to “spill” outside in order to remain viable. In city centres and high streets this meant repurposing parking bays as parklets to create outdoor seating areas.
  2. Lower traffic levels and the requirement to stay local for exercise and shopping, to work from home if possible, and to avoid public transport, led to many more people walking and cycling on their local streets. However, lower traffic levels meant that many of those who were still using their cars were speeding and driving recklessly. Councils implemented pop-up cycle lanes and trial LTNs to create more space for walking and cycling.
Tweet about trialling modal filters in response to the pandemic lockdown

 

Not all of the trials and experiments have gone well and there has been some disappointing tales of pop-up cycle lanes and LTNs being removed due to a loud minority of very vocal complainants rather than any actual evidence that they were not working as planned (often quite the contrary).

What happens next? What's the long term goal of tactical urbanism anyway?

When people talk about tactical urbanism they often talk about the fact it is cheap, fast and enables experimentation. All those things are brilliant and definitely true. However, it’s also really important that tactical urbanism is not just used haphazardly because its cheap and fast. Pissing people off by closing a road with no real idea of why you've closed the road ain't the way to deliver long-term structural change that's going to get people driving less and walking and cycling more. Tactical urbanism should be a way of speeding up the delivery of a long-term plan to create streets for people.

So even though that pop-up cycle lane is cheap and fast to implement, it’s still important that it’s in the right place as the ultimate goal should be to make it permanent. Therefore it's crucial to monitor it, make sure it works (is it the right width, can people get to it, are the junctions safe or are some improvements needed on the wider network to support it?) and then you can put in the kerbs and the lovely red (yes red) surface (and even the street trees and rain gardens if you have space!) once you have the funding.

And that is why we need every local authority and government to embrace tactical urbanism as a fundamental part of their approach to improving their streets.

So, when you're wearing your tactical urbanist t-shirt, by all means think of yourself as a bit of a rebel or an outlaw if you want, particularly if you are out at night super gluing toilet plungers to the road (can I come next time!?), but also remember that it's what all the cool (and not so cool) kids are doing these days, including, quite possibly, your local council.

So, have you or your local council been involved in any tactical urbanism? Have you got any examples that weren't included in the blog post? Do you have any other thoughts? If so, please leave a comment below!

 

Our Tactical Urbanist t-shirt being modelled next to a trial modal filter (planter) in Salford implemented by Salford City Council

4 comments


  • Catriona Swanson

    Hi Ruth,

    I’m not sure it’s exactly what you’re after but I came across a good journal article on the Reclaiming the Street for Livable Urban Spaces course on Coursera:

    VanHoose, K., & Savini, F. (2017). The social capital of urban activism: Practices in London and Amsterdam. City, 21(3-4), 293-311.

    It has a really good case study about the Undercroft skatepark in London’s southbank.

    I put a call out on Twitter as well so will let you know if anyone comes back with any good examples but skateboarding definitely seems the way to go!


  • Ruth

    Thanks, Catriona! Very much appreciated. :)


  • Catriona Swanson

    Hi Ruth,

    Thanks for your comment and hello from slightly snowy Salford!

    Yes, we do ship to Germany but be aware that you may have to pay some customs and admin charges since the UK left the EU :-(

    I love the topic of your thesis! Children’s participation in tactical urbanism is definitely something that’s under-researched and under appreciated in my view considering children have so much to gain from streets that are designed for people, in terms of health, road safety and independence.

    In the UK we have a really cool organisation called Playing Out (https://playingout.net/) who help parents and residents organise play streets so I’d say they would be a great place to start.

    Also, I’m not sure it fully fits the definition of tactical urbanism but Russell Scott Primary School’s junior PCSO initiative is always worth knowing about as they’ve had great success civilising the school run: http://headsup.russellscottblogs.net/2018/06/14/how-to-guide-running-your-own-junior-pcso-campaign/

    However, I can’t think of any examples where tactical urbanism has actually been instigated by children or teenagers themselves – hopefully others reading this blog post will be able to add some examples!


  • Ruth

    Hi Catriona!
    Thank you for this post! I’ve been following tactical urbanism on fb and also your insta (and have been tempted to buy your tu-shirt – do you ship to Germany?:)..)
    I graduated from Manchester school of architecture way back in 2002, but have since turned to social work (diversity, education and participation). I am writing my thesis on tactical urbanism and social work, particularly looking at children’s participation in it. Do you know of any examples of tactical urbanism initiated by youth or kids’ groups or representatives? Would be lovely to see what’s going on. Ta very much and many greetings from snowy Cologne!


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