Three examples of tactical urbanism that enhanced public spaces

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Senior Associate | Landscape Architect

In my previous article, I described tactical urbanism as an alternative approach to the project delivery process. I gave the Times Square transformation as an example, a project that 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 been defined to describe 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 other types of design interventions that business improvement districts, organizations, local governments and developers have used in pilot projects to set this change in motion.

Tactical Urbanism meets 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" and more specifically Sainte-Catherine East and Amherst. Their mission is to support local initiatives, their members, and encourage prosperity and further investment into the area.

The SDC of the village wanted to spatially define and transform the street into a summer plaza. However, at the same time, the installation could not be permanent, because in the winter, the street had to be transitioned back for 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; an intervention that 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.

Tactical Urbanism meets Better Block

The 'Block Better' approach empowers members of the community to take charge by using repurposed or donated materials to temporarily transform disenchanted retail streets into 'people-friendly' places, which create 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 creating a temporary neighbourhood improvement project along Tyler Street that would only last for a weekend.

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 their zoning codes.

Image Credit Better Block

Even though it was dismantled at the end of the weekend, the organization behind the event continues to thrive. They've helped and empowered communities and their leaders across the globe to change the system, reactivate underused or forgotten neighbourhoods and reshaped them into healthy and vibrant places that attract people and businesses.  

Tactical Urbanism meet Pop-ups!

Pop-ups, whether it's a pop-up park, market, restaurant, gallery, etc., 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 on a potential investment for a fraction of the price. As developers are facing increased risks in significant capital investments, the use of temporary creative interventions has become a more appealing way of testing out change.

For example, the Schieblock building project, located in Rotterdam, Netherlands, was scheduled to be demolished in 2009 and replaced with several new commercial office towers. However, due to an economic crisis, the developer postponed the latest construction as the demand for offices no longer existed. Faced with an obsolete business plan and stuck with a vacant building that was at-risk to be taken over by squatters, a shift in the business model had to be taken.

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 be used as an urban laboratory. Short-term leases, pop-up exhibition spaces, pop-up bars, cooking workshops, etc. started to occupy the deserted building and brought back in revenue.

Currently, the building is considered to still be in temporary transformation as it awaits for 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.

In conclusion

Tactical urbanism, through its temporal nature, allows for the exploration of alternative scenarios and the ability to react to instant changes and challenges. It has attracted a broad spectrum of people with different perspectives as it allows for the opportunity to investigate unconventional solutions, experiment with functions while avoiding some cumbersome bureaucracy.  

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 have the potential to inspire progressive placemaking and act as catalysts for long-term change.

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