The transformative power of tactical urbanism

Article By:

Senior Associate | Landscape Architect

“Tactical Urbanism enables people to not only envision change but to help create it”. -  xiii Paul Romer

A designer’s job is to envision something that has yet to exist. Whether it’s a city, neighbourhood, plaza, building, or a new app for your phone. A challenge presents itself, and we respond to it with an idea.

At times, however, some of these ideas can be so big that moving from the current reality and stepping into our enchanting architectural renderings can feel like an impossible leap. A leap that is often weighed down by outdated policy, budget and time, and (most importantly) public and political buy-in, leaving us with little idea of where to even start. So those enchanting images of what the future could remain only on paper due to the complex and sometimes unwieldy path followed to get a project in the ground.

I find that tactical urbanism provides an alternative approach to the project delivery process. It utilizes low cost, scalable interventions that can enact change without delay, and these pioneer projects act as catalysts for long-term change.

What is tactical urbanism?

The tactical urbanism movement arose from a growing frustration with traditional project delivery methods. It uses grassroots initiatives and temporary installations to kickstart projects by engaging the community, changing the conversation and revealing new possibilities through tactile creativity. Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia, founders of the movement, write:

“Tactical Urbanism is an approach to neighbourhood building and activation using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions and policies… It makes use of an open and iterative development process, the efficient use of resources, and the creative potential unleashed by social interaction.”

One of the most notable tactical urbanism projects that resonate with me is vehicular to pedestrian plaza conversion in New York City’s Times Square. Tim Tompkins, a planner and the President of Times Square Alliance, played a crucial role in this transformation. Back in 2014, when the opening of Portage and Main to pedestrians was still an aspiration, the City of Winnipeg brought in Tim Tompkins to speak publicly about the trials and tribulations of getting the Times Square pedestrian plaza project off the ground. I attended this public presentation and was in awe by how they used simple, low-cost lawn chairs to reshape the mindset of a city with a population of 8.5 million people to move forward with the idea that became a $55 million project.

Long-term vision with a short-term approach

The tactical urbanism approach is not about having a specific end product in mind, it’s about a long-term vision. The process allows designers to test out real-time ideas or scenarios, evaluate the responses and adapt the overall vision. In the case of Time Square, the vision was to increase pedestrian safety by creating more pedestrian space in one of New York’s more vehicular congested and iconic locations. In the fall of 2009, Mayor Bloomberg temporary closed off Broadway between 42nd street and 47th street for a few months to test the possibility of converting it into a pedestrian street.

As anyone would expect, his decision to temporarily shut down the street for even just a few months was met with intense criticism and public outcry. Tim Tompkins of the Times Square Alliance, who advocated for years to expand the pedestrian realm, was tasked with curating a provisional pedestrian space in Times Square with minimal funds during this pilot study. In the few months leading up to the closure, Tim Tompkins and his team had to come up with a design solution to temporary convert an asphalt street into a public space on a dime under intense scrutiny by the masses. Their solution: 376 rubber lawn chairs that were locally sourced from hardware stores. At $15 a piece, this ‘campy’ solution transformed the street into a plaza and changed how people experienced the city.

Nadi Group’s Kristen Struthers discussed the social and cultural importance of ‘sittable’ public spaces in cities in her article, Why the city bench is the unsung hero of good public space. Benches or ‘sittable’ places, she writes, citing The Bench Project, are positive transformations for cities: “simply sitting, seeing and being seen in itself can provide a sense of belonging”.

Tim Tompkins also recognized this potential, creating a ‘sittable’ public space in an area that had been traditionally ruled by cars in the past. On launch day, New Yorkers came, sat and saw Times Square in a new light. The news headlines went from a focus on traffic, cars, and congestion to peoples’ opinions on the aesthetic of the lawn chairs and what a permanent plaza solution may look like.

To sum it up

Tactical urbanism has been around for a long time, when used cleverly, it can draw attention to unused/overlooked spaces creating potential in areas that seemed unsuitable. While they used lawn chairs in Times Square, citizens have also implemented change through paint, programs, signage, etc. The tactical urbanism movement is made to be accessible to all, they have even gone as far as to publish an online tool kit to help empower citizens.

As a landscape architect, I see tactical urbanism as a way to widen public engagement and get the community involved in the design process. It encourages people to work together, help contribute to their neighbourhood and become invested in their community and urban transformation to create new, beautiful destinations.

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