Tactical Urbanism: A Building Block for Urban Change

A renaissance styled city square on a busy day with a caucasian person biking across in a yellow raincoat.

Read this article in German.

The rise of pop-up bike lanes and the extension of pedestrian spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic is a phenomenon that has impacted many cities around the world. New rules and routines of social distancing became the ‘new normal’ as recommendations for walking and biking were formulated for safe methods of mobility in urban environments. Research shows that by May 2020, local actions to support walking and cycling during times of social distancing were implemented in more than 140 cities worldwide, with many of them repurposing parking spaces and street lanes.

Redistributing public spaces like car lanes and parking spots in order for citizens to engage more actively with their public infrastructure is part of a new movement in highly dense urban areas. Urban planning around the world has often prioritized the space for cars, resulting in a concrete jungle that doesn’t invite visitors and citizens to dwell. Local communities have taken on the challenge to involve citizens to come up with ideas and validate alternatives that make their city more liveable. Already in 2005 city planners and activists in the U.S. created ideas on how citizen-led projects could showcase the possibilities of redesigning parking spaces to their policy makers. By 2009 this activism caused Times Square, New York City’s largest traffic intersection, to be partially converted into a pedestrian zone for city dwellers. Starting with the intention of a short-term action, the initiative was so well received that city representatives decided to make the partial transformation of Times Square permanent.

What started on a local level with a handful of people paying for a parking ticket to set up chairs and lounge areas has now grown into an annual international “Park(ing) Day” supported by many local authorities. Antje Kapek, parliamentary group leader of the Greens in the Berlin House of Representatives, also participated last year and underlines the necessity of this day: “After all, the question is: What kind of city do we want to live in? We see that many citizens want a safer, cleaner and quieter city with enough space for walking, playing and greenery. Parking Day is a good example of this. It poses the question of space justice in a very practical way: How would it be if a neighbourhood café, a flower bed or a public reading corner were to be built where cars are still parked now?”

At the basis of this activism stands a theory known to city planners as Tactical Urbanism (TU). TU is an approach for a community to build a small-scale, temporary event in a public space at a very low cost. This event has the potential to lead to permanent solutions, which in turn can trigger policy changes. This can happen spontaneously or organically, but can also be planned and incorporated as part of an urban strategy.

For intended policy change it is important to understand that the participants and organizers often differ from the local policy makers. TU has the intention to add a different perspective. This bottom-up approach can help community leaders to bring in new ways of looking at existing regulations.

But in order to cultivate change and move these short term showcases into institutionalized measures and policies, city officials need to be incorporated at some point of the process. Regarding the redistribution of parking spaces around the world, scientists from the University of Warsaw and Victoria University of Wellington have analyzed the necessary steps for successfully institutionalizing the intended change of tactical urbanism. First the project is initiated through independently organized activist groups, subsequently needing to provide initial evidence to the city council in order to receive official permission for the project to be repeated, which would mark the second stage towards institutionalization. With enough documentation and information matching a political framing for the leading political party in office, these recurring initiatives can trigger enough support to be financed by the city council. The final step towards full institutionalization is achieved when city officials organize the action themselves, as in the example of New Zealand. After successfully implementing low cost and fast prototypes, the country’s Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter invited their cities to apply for 90% funding to widen sidewalks and carve out temporary cycleways. The goal is to support measures that can be put in place within hours or days rather than weeks or months.

Kapek sees Berlin on a similar path: “In Berlin, the lively civil society has already achieved a lot and has often enriched parliamentary work: for example, in response to the bicycle referendum, we as the Berlin House of Representatives passed the Mobility Act, which is unique in Germany and for the first time gives legal priority to public transport and bicycles and pedestrian traffic over cars.”

Nevertheless, in Germany this kind of urban activism is still in its infancy and is starting to receive more political and public acknowledgement. As municipalities are discussing future amendments to the road traffic regulations (StVO) in order to reallocate public space for their citizens, the insights of tactical urbanism can provide a valuable perspective. Organizations and citizens can use this tool to contribute ideas and visualize the need to actively get involved in political discussions.

Overall, tactical urbanism is a vehicle to introduce prototypes and ideas for urban infrastructure changes, driven by the general public to revolutionize how cities can become more sustainable and liveable.

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