Mike Lydon: Tactical Urbanism for Urban Replanning

Tactical Urbanism is a term used to describe a new movement of place-making and change-making in cities around the world. It is also the title of a publication that promotes these ideas of immediate, short term improvements and changes in neighborhoods and cities. Tactical Urbanism Vol 2 was released on March 2, 2012 and was subject of discussions during the Delai Sam (DIY) conference in St. Petersburg.

The follow-up to the first publication is full of ideas for people to strategically engage and improve their cities, anywhere in the world. The initiatives show how creative, strategic interventions have been growing across the US, and how their strategic nature makes them different from DIYism. Overall, the idea is that improving the city is in the hands of citizens and that it is up to them to improve their environments through small, short term changes that can ultimately have a longer term impact.


Some of the tactics in Vol. 2 include:

Park Making
Increasing the supply of public park spaces by reclaiming under-utilized or vacant parking lots.

Chair Bombing
Improving the social well-being of neighborhoods by salvaging discarded materials and creating something useful, comfortable or required infrastructure in public space.

Reducing the visual pollution from billboards and ads within the public realm.

Temporary occupation of space, often with an eye toward creating permanent change.


We interviewed Mike Lydon, Street Plans Collaborative principal and editor of the publications.


What is Tactical Urbanism?

Tactical Urbanism  incorporates a deliberate, phased approach to instigating change; local solutions for local planning challenges; short-term commitment and realistic expectations; low-risks, with a possibly a high reward; and the development of social capital between citizens and the building of organizational capacity between public-private institutions, non-profits, and their constituents. In short, Tactical Urbanism is a movement to reclaim our city spaces with short-term actions that are intended to lead to long-term change. Tactical Urbanism projects are typically carried at small, local scales: vacant lots, street corners, parking lots, etc.

The idea certainly isn't new, but its application has been amplified over the past few years and we think this has to with the recession (we need to do more with less) and the rise of the civic economy, changing demographics (North American cities are seeing influxes of educated young adults who want to re-make neighborhoods to their liking), and the Internet ('tactics' can spread rapidly now that the Internet allows us to share everything easily).

Tactical Urbanism is a movement to reclaim our city spaces with short-term actions that are intended to lead to long-term change.

The first and last point are key to understanding how the term has 'gone global.' One, our publications are free, which is in keeping with the idea of the civic economy, which support a greed for good ethos, rather than a greed is good ethos. We believe that giving away the material not only makes it accessible, but leads to opportunities for our firm, which it is. Also, by using online tools and social media, its availability can and has spread rapidly.


Grand Central Park, whose construction took one month.

How is this collaboratively shaping city streets, why is it important and why are strategic or temporary interventions a means for long term change?

One of the reasons we began documenting Tactical Urbanism interventions is precisely because we saw a common thread, which is that unsanctioned, citizen-led efforts provide a "proof of concept" opportunity for municipal governments who tend to be more risk averse. With the citizens taking the lead, city's can then come in behind and make the change permanent. From formalizing "guerrilla crosswalks" and bikes lanes, to funding DIY depaving efforts, cities are not only coming in behind and making change, they are starting their own pilot and test programs. This trend, from sanctioned to un-sanctioned is very exciting and is making city-making more collaborative, and quite frankly, fun!

What's also fun is that we are seeing, and as a firm leading, interventions that take good old ideas sitting within a master plan on shelf, and activating them by actually building out projects. This effectively takes projects directly to the public in a highly visible way, one that can build more public support than any general public meeting or rendering can. We aren't suggesting the end of planning, just that implementation can and should begin immediately and the results studied so that the good and bad results and be measured and calibrated before larger investment is made. This approach won't really work with a new high-speed rail line, but at the scale of the street and block, it's a totally sane and prudent way to make change.


Chair bombing by New York city collective, Do:Tank.

Do you ever work with street artists? Who are your favorites and what do you think of such unsanctioned statements in public space?

Our firm has not worked directly with street artists for a project, Tactical Urbanism, or otherwise. However, I think street art of high quality is a very important contribution to stirring and reflecting upon public political, social, and environmental discourse. Not all street art reaches this level, which is then difficult to justify, but one of my favorite things is walking around New York and becoming inspired or moved by someone's public work. Other cities, developers, and organizations are increasingly recognizing the importance of such work. In Miami, Atlanta, and Baltimore, sanctioned street art is being solicited as a way to activate and engage neighborhoods. I think that is when street art is most powerful, when it inspires neighborhood change.  


A billboard takeover, replacing the ads with swings.

Do you think Tactical Urbanism is happening only in the US, or is it global?

Oh, it's definitely global. In fact, I almost always describe Tactical Urbanism as an old practice with an updated definition to fit our current challenges. For most of human history and in most current urban contexts outside of wealthy societies, humans have and continue to utilize very small-scale, creative efforts to catalyze long-term change. So when I say 'our' I mean a western, post-industrial, capitalistic context.

For most of human history and in most current urban contexts outside of wealthy societies, humans have and continue to utilize very small-scale, creative efforts to catalyze long-term change.

Tactical Urbanism has gained significant cache as our economy has flagged and projects stalled. And now it has become recognized as an important and viable way of building and re-building neighborhoods and cities. This is very important; not everything should be top down and large scale. So, in general it would be ignorant to assume that only the last few years has brought about this way of place-making, as that's simply not true.


Place-making discussion led by the BMW Guggenheim lab.

Is Tactical Urbanism also used for political re-planning?

I think Tactical Urbanism is a great tool for neighborhood scale democracy. So, in that way it is indeed changing political landscapes. We've documented case studies in many cities where Tactical Urbanism projects have absolutely changed cities' social, political, or environmental priorities, and largely at the neighborhood scale, which is where change matters to most people.

In the past few months I have been lecturing and speaking a lot about this topic, and one of the newest things that I have realized is a convergence of socially driven, bottom-up ways of making physical and social changes within neighborhoods. For example, a project called Neighborland has created a fantastic tool for project/idea generation at the local scale. A new platform called IOBY, then allows people to source funding very locally to combat very local problems or challenges. Add in Tactical Urbanism as an implementation technique, and the result is a very powerful, bottom-up method of working that not only informs long-term change and investment, but is driving it. It makes me very excited for the future of cities.

* Stay tuned for a followup post tracking the emergence of tactics in Moscow.


Download Tactical Urbanism vol. 1

Download Tactical Urbanism vol. 2

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