Tactical Urbanism and Sustainable Change

Several communities have successfully formalized Active Design strategies within their policies and codes (Sacramento County is a standout). Yet many others struggle with the question, “where do we even begin?” Advocates for Active Design may be concerned that cost implications or a lack of political will might stifle their aspirations. When barriers are seemingly high, tactical urbanism approaches can offer affordable, rapid-fire solutions and change the way people think about their streets and public spaces.

This approach is exemplified in the work of Jason Roberts, who initiated the very first Better Block Project in Dallas after realizing the vibrant street life he loved in Europe was untenable under Dallas city code. For one weekend in 2010, Roberts collaborated with friends and neighbors to transform a blighted street in their Oak Cliff neighborhood into their vision for neighborhood revitalization. They installed bike lanes, landscaping, sidewalk seating, and pop-up businesses in vacant storefronts—and posted a list of all the ordinances they were violating.

The project led to significant permanent changes that support a healthier, more engaged neighborhood, including revisions to the outdated zoning code, cost reductions for the ordinance allowing al fresco seating, permanent new business development, and adoption of bike and two-way auto infrastructure scheduled to be installed along the corridor. Today, the Better Block approach has gathered momentum in cities around the world and the Better Block Foundation has been established to provide a how-to guide for communities seeking to embrace this innovative tactic.

Roberts’ approach represents just one method in the tactical urbanism toolbox, which is unpacked in Tactical Urbanism: Short-Term Action, Long-Term Change, published by The Street Plans Collaborative. According to this open source guide, tactical urbanism can be defined by a number of characteristics, including a phased approach, local ideas, short-term commitment, low risk (with potential for high reward), and the development of social capital and collaborative partnerships. At their core, acts of tactical urbanism allow for creative, flexible experimentation with public space.

The examples provided in Tactical Urbanism have been adopted in communities across the U.S., leading to lasting changes that support community health and engagement. New York City’s Plaza Program is a city-driven initiative that partners with non-profit organizations to convert underutilized roadways into new public spaces. The interim use of paint, plantings, and moveable seating allows pilot plazas to pop up almost overnight; the most successful projects later become permanent through capital construction plans. Portland’s Depave initiative began in 2007 when neighborhood activists decided to target underutilized parking lots and driveways to remove unnecessary pavement and create community green spaces that mitigate stormwater runoff. Today, Depave has blossomed into an influential non-profit that receives federal and state funding.

In addition to creating new spaces, tactical urbanism provides an excellent method for activating and revitalizing existing public spaces. The Miami Foundation sponsors an annual Public Space Challenge to crowd-source ideas for making public spaces more vibrant, and funds over a dozen projects each year (like this Public Stair Activation at the Brickell Metro Station.) Projects inspire new ways to interact with neighbors and strangers, and help infuse neighborhoods with a spirit of surprise and playfulness. In 2015, half of the winning submissions were adopted as permanent installations, demonstrating the Challenge’s capacity to drive long-term improvements.

Whether sanctioned or unsanctioned, grassroots-driven or orchestrated by public agencies, tactical urbanism has become a widely adopted approach to bringing community health and engagement to the core of neighborhood planning. While long-term results can be very powerful, even temporary, playful tactics can have a permanent impact on people’s perception of what their community can be.

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    Better Block brings tactical urbanism to Akron, OH. Photo courtesy of Better Block.
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    Better Block in Akron, OH. Photo: Kyle Kutuchief / Flickr.
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    New York City's Plaza Program reclaims underutilized roadways with paint, plantings, and movable seating. Photo: NYC Department of Transportation.