What Is Tactical Urbanism

Reviewed: June 12, 2024

Visitor Question: I understand tactical, and as a newer resident of a large city, I hope I am beginning to understand urbanism. Recently I started hearing that my neighborhood wants to practice tactical urbanism, but I don't know what that really means. It sounds like this is a type of project. Maybe this is something about biking too? Help!

Editors Respond: Tactical urbanism is a term that is relatively new, so many people have not figured it out. Community leaders really should explain that phrase every time it is used.

Tactical urbanism refers to a quick, cheap, and sometimes temporary intervention that will demonstrate the feasibility and desirability of a particular change in the urban environment. Often makeshift materials are used. Proponents say that it is a much faster and more practical alternative to elaborate government-led and elite-led planning processes. These small projects quickly show people what is intended, and lead to a fast "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" on an idea.

Another element of the definition should be that the project's proponents are grassroots individuals or groups, and not part of the government or an elite. (If the government does the same thing, it might be called a demonstration or just a temporary project.)

Bicycle lanes and other bicycle accommodations are among the most common projects undertaken under the tactical urbanism banner. By using hay bales, chalk lines, old tires, or rope, tactical urbanists can quickly divide off part of a street and allow it to serve as a bike lane. That is why you may have the idea that tactical urbanism is about bicycle facilities, but the term could apply to many other types of projects as well.

Sometimes tactical urbanists also construct a makeshift tiny park, community garden, or "sidewalk cafe" that actually expands beyond the sidewalk. In those applications, potted plants may substitute for permanent landscaping to allow people to imagine the softening effect of plants.

Parking spaces may be taken over for a day or a weekend to create a place for outdoor seating, street musicians, or even an ice cream stand. The Park(ing) Day, a San Francisco invention, has become a common manifestation of getting creative about lessening the visual and environmental impact of on-street parking spaces and adding some much-needed greenery to urban hardscape.

We should say that sometimes the tactical urban projects are what is called unsanctioned. That's a polite way of saying the organizers did not ask the city (and property owner, if not the city) for permission to do these temporary projects. Examples may include guerrilla gardening, where a garden is planted on abandoned land or public property, or chair bombing, where chairs from salvaged materials are placed in a park or other public space that lacks seating.

This brings up an important point about tactical urbanism: If it is the hope of the organizers that the installation become permanent, it is wise to involve the property owner, and any governmental entities that must grant permits, from the beginning. They may not be the most enthusiastic of partners, but at least if they are informed that this is happening, and if they give grudging permission for a one day or other short period of time, the government can quickly pivot to a more positive frame of mind when the tactical urbanist project proves to be popular.

Most tactical urbanist projects do prove popular, by the way, but many also uncover potential problems that the organizers may not have considered. If so, the result is an improved permanent project. If difficulties are overwhelming, of course the governing authority is quite unlikely to consider making the project permanent.

Tactical urbanist projects also may be called pop-ups, although the term pop-up often is applied to temporary retail and restaurant spaces, which is not at all what tactical urbanism implies. The pop-ups that are part of tactical urbanism really refer to the creation or improvement of public spaces.

Often a successful tactical urbanist installation includes more than one element. For example, a bicycle lane might be combined with a parklet on two or three metered parking spaces, a guerrilla wayfinding sign set-up, and an installation of potted plants on an awkwardly shaped piece of public land nearby. Often food, music, and other festival elements are added, just to attract attention and discussion of the tactical urbanism project.

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