The Official Guide to Tactical Urbanism

A new book offers case studies and tips on creating quick and effective urban interventions.

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Flickr/bradleypjohnson

Guerrilla gardening. Pavement-to-parks. Open streets. These are all urban interventions of a sort – quick, often temporary, cheap projects that aim to make a small part of a city more lively or enjoyable. These types of projects have grown in popularity in recent years, and they even have a new name: tactical urbanism, as in tactics used to improve the urban environment. These tactics tend to be replicable across cities, and in certain instances have become worldwide phenomena.

A newly updated guidebook seeks to spread these good ideas and to give more people the know-how to bring them about in their own communities.

Tactical Urbanism 2: Short-Term Action, Long Term Change [PDF] was created and offered for free download by the Street Plans Collaborative, an urban planning, design and advocacy firm. Mike Lydon is one of the firm’s principals and lead author of the guidebook. He says that despite its fancy, academic-sounding name, tactical urbanism is not particularly exotic or extraordinary.

“Really, tactical urbanism is how most cities are built. Especially in developing nations,” Lydon says. “It’s step-by-step, piece-by-piece.”

These small-scale interventions are characterized by their community-focus and realistic goals. Maybe the most widespread of these tactics is the annual Park(ing) Day, in which parking spaces are turned into temporary park spaces.

The first iteration of the guidebook was released free online in the spring of 2011, and quickly hit the 10,000 download limit of the web service hosting it. Since then, Lydon and his colleagues found new ways of sharing the document, and also found new projects worth mentioning. "The point of the first one was ‘Hey, look: here’s all these cool things that are related to this longer-term change that’s happening.’ It was very appropriate with the way economy was,” says Lydon. “In this second volume, we’ve decided to go deeper into the history of the movement, creating a continuum of different types of interventions."

The first edition includes 12 tactics like the aforementioned guerrilla gardening and open streets projects. The new edition includes an additional 12, including intersection repair, ad-busting and depaving – a Portland-born volunteer project to improve storm water treatment by removing unneeded driveways and concrete ground cover.

“We’re noticing more and more of these tactics that are popping up and leading to longer term change, so we wanted to keep that conversation going,” Lydon says.

Of course, not every tactic is a world changer.

“When you’re yarn-bombing something, it’s a really cool and interesting piece of public art and it can have some social and political commentary that goes along with it, but the intent generally is not to create a longer term physical change,” Lydon says. “Most of the things that we include in the guide generally are aiming at doing something larger. They’re not just for the sake of doing it. And of course in a lot of ways, to make that work, you need to have whatever you’re doing to become sanctioned or supported, either with funding or with being allowed by the municipality.”

And this is a key element of the guidebook: making things work. The goal is not to simply do a cool project that will get cleaned up by the city or thrown away, but to make something – even something temporary – that will change how a place works and is perceived. And once that change has been made, to figure out how it can be made again or made permanent.

The tactics in the guide are those that have gone through this process. They’ve had enough iterations in sometimes very different places to know what works and how to maneuver through the realities of municipal governance to make something stick.

"For every one of these tactics that’s in here, you probably have several failed versions," says Lydon. "But when you hit a nerve at the right time with the right group of people and you have enough people watching, you can really help transition these things into larger initiatives."

And though many of these projects can and have worked in cities across the country (and world), Lydon cautions that not every project is right for every place. What’s needed and wanted in one neighborhood can be wildly different from what would work or be accepted in another. Knowing and responding to locals needs is paramount.

"When it comes down to it, you’ve got to figure out what these projects can mean, and how you can do them yourself or with your government or with your neighbors," Lydon says.

If the community is where you start, a good second step could be within the pages of this guidebook.

Photo credit: Flickr/bradleypjohnson

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.