The transformative power of tactical urbanism in public spaces

Article By:

Senior Associate | Landscape Architect

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

Whether it’s a city, neighbourhood, plaza or a building, a designer’s job is to envision something that has yet to exist.

At times, however, some of these ideas can be so big that moving from the current reality and stepping into our magnetic 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 A leap that is often weighed down by outdated policy, budget and time, and (most importantly) public and political buy-in, leaving us with little idea of where to start. So those beautiful 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. 

Times Square with vehicles vs without, as a pedestrian space
Image credit: Global Designing Cities Initiatives

Tim Tompkins, a planner and the President of the 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 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. This 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 faced 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. 

Leading up to the closure, Tompkins and his team came up with a design solution to temporary convert an asphalt street into a public space on a dime under intense scrutiny by the masses. 

At $15 each, they locally sourced 376 rubber lawn chairs from hardware stores, transforming the street into a plaza and changing how people experienced the city.

Photo credit: New York Times

The 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”.

Tompkins also recognized this potential, creating a ‘sittable’ public space in an area 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 traffic, cars, and congestion to peoples’ opinions on the aesthetic of the lawn chairs and what a permanent plaza solution may look like there.

Three examples of tactical urbanism

The Times Square transformation is an excellent example of tactical urbanism as it saw millions of people take to the famous intersection after it closed down and decked out with lawn chairs. 

In the theory of tactical urbanism, a typology of actions has described different design interventions (like the 'chair bombing' in Times Square) that act as a catalyst for change. 

To further continue the conversation on tactical urbanism, I have listed additional design interventions that business improvement districts, organizations, local governments and developers have used in pilot projects to set this change in motion.

1. Pavement to Plaza

The 'Pavement to Plaza' approach identifies and repurposes underused asphalt/paved spaces, such as parking lots or streets, into vibrant public spaces (if only temporarily).

One of the most common images you will discover when you google tactical urbanism is an urban street covered by a canopy constructed of pink balls. This project, suitably named Pink Balls, was designed by landscape architect Claude Cormier + Associés for the Société de développement commercial du Village / The Commercial Development Corporation of the Village (SDC) in Montreal, Que. The installation converts a typical street into a temporary summer plaza.

The project covers a one-kilometre stretch of Sainte-Catherine Street East—an urban street lined with restaurants, shops, bars, and other types of retailers—with thousands of pink plastic balls that hang across the street. The SDC is responsible for the commercial and economic development of the area known as "Village" or specifically Sainte-Catherine East and Amherst.

The SDC wanted to define and transform the street into a summer plaza. However, the installation could not be permanent. In the winter, it had to transition back to regular vehicular use. The SDC hired a local landscape architect, who proposed the now-iconic solution to designate the summer plaza by stringing thousands of pink plastic balls across the street. This intervention could be installed in the spring and dismantled and stored in the winter.

Erected in the spring of 2011, Pink Balls became an overwhelming success for the area. Now, it returns each year to convert a Sainte-Catherine Street into a pedestrian-friendly public space, drawing in millions of locals and tourists and helping support local businesses in the summer months.

2. Better Block

The 'Block Better' approach empowers community members to take charge by using repurposed or donated materials to temporarily transform disenchanted retail streets into 'people-friendly' places, creating healthier and more vibrant neighbourhoods.

In Dallas, Tex., Better Block was established when a group of neighbours banded together to improve a desolate block in their neighbourhood of Oak Cliff. 

Decades of inept bureaucracy, city regulations, outdated zoning codes and auto-centric zoning had resulted in a neighbourhood that felt unsafe and hostile for pedestrian use. The lack of foot traffic resulted in business closures and a street filled with empty storefronts.

Several community advocates wanted to demonstrate how clumsy bylaws and expensive ordinances prohibited or made it extremely difficult for citizens to install typical street placemaking elements that make streets friendly to pedestrians and cyclists. The group collectively decided on a temporary neighbourhood improvement project along Tyler Street that would last for one weekend.

A bike facing a bike path on the street
Image credit: Block Better

For two days, they broke city rules. They brought in greenery, lighting, seating and tables for sidewalk cafes; organized pop-up shops to occupy the vacant storefronts; created temporary bike lanes; and installed other placemaking objects that Dallas' zoning codes typically banned. The event was wildly successful and drew attention to the various outdated rules and regulations that Dallas needed to update in its zoning codes.

Even though the organization dismantled the block at the end of the weekend, the project proved fruitful. They've helped and empowered communities and leaders across the globe to change the system, reactivate underused or forgotten neighbourhoods, and transform them into healthy and vibrant places that attract people and businesses. 

3. Pop-ups!

Whether it's a pop-up park, market, restaurant, gallery, etc., pop-ups share a common purpose: to draw attention to overlooked city spaces and places. 

For a developer, the art of pop-ups can be a compelling tactic to test our ideas, gain data, and drum up interest in a potential investment for a fraction of the price. As developers face increased risks in significant capital investments, the use of temporary creative interventions has become a more appealing way of testing out change.

In 2009, the Schieblock building project in Rotterdam, Netherlands, was scheduled for demolishment. The developer aimed to replace the building with several commercial office towers. However, due to an economic crisis, the developer postponed construction as there was no longer any demand for office space. Faced with an obsolete business plan and stuck with a vacant building that was at risk for squatters to move in, he had to shift his business model.

Schieblock building in Amsterdam used for pop up events
Image credit: Maudbrock

At that time, ZUS Architects, one of only four tenants in an approximately 80,000 square foot building, paired up with CODUM, an urban design studio, to outline a five-year business plan that proposed the building act as an urban laboratory. Short-term leases, pop-up exhibition spaces, pop-up bars, and cooking workshops, to name a few, started to occupy the deserted building and brought back revenue.

Currently, the building is in temporary transformation as it awaits future demolition or adaptation. However, the current pop-up tenant diversity model has proven to be hugely successful, not only for the building itself but for the revitalization of the surrounding neighbourhood.

To sum it up

Tactical urbanism allows exploring alternative scenarios and reacting to instant changes and challenges. It has attracted a broad spectrum of people with different perspectives, allowing investigations into unconventional solutions while avoiding bureaucracy. 

As a landscape architect, I see tactical urbanism broadening public engagement and getting 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.

When used cleverly, it can draw attention to unused/overlooked spaces creating potential in areas that seemed unsuitable. The tactical urbanism movement is accessible to all, and they have even gone as far as to publish an online tool kit to help empower citizens.

Whether it's an individual, organization or developer that employs the tactical urbanism approach, they all have the common objective of taking a creative chance to enact change in the city. Tactical urbanism interventions can inspire progressive placemaking and long-term change.

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