A pop-up plaza in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo courtesy of City Collaborative)

This past summer in Philadelphia, “Park(ing) Day” returned for the ninth year, converting several metered parking spaces into temporary pocket parks. Meanwhile, roving beer gardens sprouted up in 14 locations throughout the city, including one by an elevated rail line in the center of a once-industrial manufacturing neighborhood, showcasing the area’s potential to become a public park similar to the High Line in New York. And toward the end of the summer, city officials worked with a nonprofit group to clear several major streets of all vehicular traffic one Saturday morning to “give back” the streets to pedestrians and bicyclists.

Of course, projects like these are not unique to Philadelphia; they are part of a burgeoning global movement to tackle urban issues through tactical urbanism—low-cost initiatives that make small-scale, temporary changes to the built environment. Tactical urbanism has captivated a new generation of architects, city planners, designers, and community organizers who are drawn to its guerrilla ethos. Their target is blighted, vacant, and hazardous spaces, and their interventions have repurposed and reimagined parks, blocks, plazas, lots, underpasses, and intersections around the world.

Yet despite its promise, tactical urbanism has garnered critique on a number of grounds. Some see it as a gentrification instrument masking as a tool for community improvement that produces privileged outcomes for a particular socioeconomic—and sometimes racial—segment of the greater urban population. Others have disapproved of tactical urbanism’s perceived lack of strategic focus and highlighted the need to measure its impacts. Some tactical urbanism projects have incited opposition by community residents who cite their tone-deaf approaches.

We believe those who lead these efforts have the opportunity to strengthen tactical urbanism’s perceived and actual value by:

  • Ensuring equitable participation. Practitioners must include and engage with neighborhood residents, both new and old, throughout the brainstorming and implementation process. Residents have a deep understanding of neighborhood dynamics and needs, as well as strengths and weaknesses, and are therefore well-positioned to help set priorities and determine the best methods for working toward a common goal. The process of community buy-in also reveals that the built environment is not so much an urban laboratory ripe for experiment, but an interconnected ecosystem in which the smallest of interventions can have ripple effects on economic, social, and cultural conditions. Examples of inclusive participation are not difficult to find; San Francisco, New York, and Philadelphia are just a few cities where tactical urbanists have sought to engage inclusively with the community.
  • Confronting failing public policies. Tactical urbanists frequently cite their frustration with the intransigent bureaucratic systems of city governments and valorize their own nimble methods as a means of achieving real change by sidestepping government altogether. Nevertheless, they are keen observers of where public policies are failing or inadequate in their communities. (Even local governments like New York’s have taken notice of their potential in this regard.) Navigating the policy process can be complex and demanding, but practitioners need to confront urban problems at their source, and when necessary, strategize about the types of interventions that can spur policy movement and mobilize like-minded people to effect change on a bigger scale. One recent example comes from Portland, Oregon. A small-scale, rogue DIY-project set out to create a sense of neighborhood community and reduce vehicle speeds by painting colorful murals at a few intersections. When safety measurably improved, the city adopted an Intersection Repair ordinance allowing residents (with the right permits) to paint these areas. Policy follow-through such as this is how practitioners can realize the true potential for long-term impact.
  • Measuring the impact. Who benefits and who doesn’t? What’s the impact on the local real estate market, traffic circulation patterns, or nearby commercial activity? What’s the social and economic cost to scale the project? In today’s data-rich society, anecdotal evidence is insufficient to measure the impacts of tactical urbanism projects. Practitioners can deploy quantitative and qualitative measurement tools—such as bicycle and pedestrian counts, participant observations, US Census data, survey intercepts, geotag metadata from social media, and mobile crowdsourcing—to address projects’ efficacy and salience. Comprehensive, data-driven, evaluative studies can provide critical insights into how people respond to such interventions. One example is a recent report on usage trends at “The Porch,” a creative outdoor space at the iconic 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, which sees up to 2,500 pedestrians pass each hour.  

There is an inherent tension built into tactical urbanism by virtue of the fact that all human interventions in the built environment take place within an established social and economic power structure. Indeed, one of the potential strengths of the approach is that, at least in theory, it recognizes this fact. While appearing to be ad hoc and informal on the surface, the tactical urbanist approach intentionally and strategically positions demonstration projects so that—if they show promise—people can implement them on a more formal, established level. Systemic rigidities—whether sociocultural, economic, or political—are therefore as much a reality as physical or geographic challenges. We will realize the full transformative potential of tactical urbanism only when and if we address these systemic challenges head-on.

Tactical urbanism has demonstrated its potential as an economically efficient and politically expedient method of animating tangible urban change at the “bricks & mortar” street level. However, we believe it has the potential to go beyond that, and effect longer-lasting social and political change at the local level. Our recommendations ultimately seek to facilitate that kind of meaningful transformation.