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Tactical Urbanism – Green Cities

Highly urbanized cities are usually surrounded by countless high-rise buildings and a lack of access to open public spaces and natural environments for citizens to explore. This exposes its people to encounter issues of traffic congestion, noise and air pollution, and safety of pedestrians and cyclists. 

The world is becoming increasingly urbanized with 3.5 billion people living in cities worldwide and this is projected to increase to a staggering 5 billion people. As cities grow, so does its infrastructure. However, with limited resources, how can we enhance urban development sustainably that meets the needs of the communities living in cities and megacities? 

Tactical Urbanism

Guerrilla gardening, pop-up park, and pop-up bike lanes are among several projects of small-scale urban intervention initiated by local communities and, what they call, tactical urbanists to improve the livability and safety of local neighbourhoods utilising unused, wider public spaces. 

small communal pop-up garden inspired by tactical urbanism

Tactical urbanism is a growing movement led by local communities focused on temporarily altering urban infrastructure using short-term, inexpensive materials to catalyze long-term transformation. This growing movement emerged from local communities’ frustration with the pace of change in the complex bureaucratic process towards infrastructure improvements. 

It has become an outlet for local communities and tactical urbanists to collaborate and accelerate change for the better of their communities as well as the health of their neighbourhood and cities. It can also be an effective method for activating and revitalizing existing public spaces. 

This phenomenon is centred around empowering individuals and communities to change and improve their cities and neighbourhoods to be the places they want it to be. It encourages them to take a grassroots approach by encouraging them to implement their own DIY creative, rapid-fire solutions and flexible experimentation with public space that can have an immediate benefit to their community. 

At the core of tactical urbanism is the use of low-cost, readily available materials, on top of this, it also supports the research and design of utilizing better materials as they come along. This comes from input gathered from different communities and the various strategies they implemented for tactical urbanism. 

Tactical urbanists would run a routine of testing the effectiveness of the urban intervention through communicating with the local communities.If it doesn’t benefit the community and the space, they would remove the project and if it was effective and successful they would increase their efforts to expand upon the project. 

Tactical Urbanism Transforming Major Cities

One of the first tactical urbanism initiatives was an experimental project of turning Times Square into a pedestrian public plaza by the New York City Department of Transportation, known as the Greenlight for Midtown Project. They closed off a very large intersection using simply orange traffic cones and 376 folding inexpensive beach chairs to improve pedestrian experience by providing people the space to take a break and enjoy the view of Times Square. 

​​This intervention was a success turned permanent and this led to dramatic increases in foot traffic and reduced traffic-related injuries. More improvements were made around the area as new benches were added and rebuilt the streets from the ground up. Their aim was to transform Times Square into an even more dynamic and welcoming public space. That project began in late 2009 until the summer of 2014 where they began to build up the space permanently to be car-free. 

                                  Before                                                                                     After

a comparison between time square before and after tactical urbanization

These basic and impactful strategies are utilized across many other major cities and megacities for communities and citizens that hope to create sustainable change towards their own cities and neighbourhoods. In Washington D.C., two local residents took the initiative to paint a crosswalk after a fatal pedestrian accident to improve the safety of the intersection and more importantly for the local community.

In Chengdu, China, the local education bureau was in urgent need for a temporary and stable learning environment for an elementary school that was demolished after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Shigeru Ban Architects from Japan collaborated with Chengdu’s local community leaders and recruited 120 volunteers from Japan and China to create temporary classrooms made out of paper tube framing. By using such inexpensive and sustainable materials, they were able to build nine classrooms within 40 days. 

volunteers coming together to build temporary classrooms in chengdu

How to Participate?

The Street Plans Collaborative, an urban planning, design and advocacy firm, has produced numerous open-source documents as well as their guidebook The Tactical Urbanists Guide to Materials and Design that serves as a how-to guide for those interested in approaching a tactical urbanism project. Their guidebook has helped communities around the globe in creating sustainable change for their local neighbourhoods and cities. 

Tactical urbanism cannot simply be applied anywhere. Neighbourhoods and cities with a stable foundation are the best areas to work on where the communities are highly engaged with their surroundings. Recommendations that might be helpful:

  • Begin with small-scale DIY interventions and projects 
  • Start by using inexpensive and short-term materials 
  • Use of materials that are sustainable (i.e. recyclable and reusable)
  • Ensure that the goals towards the projects are realistic in order to catalyze long-term change
  • Engage with the local communities, urban planners or tactical urbanists on how to activate the space 

Why is Tactical Urbanism important?

As mentioned before, the population living in cities will be a staggering 5 billion people by 2030 and most are projected to be poor. With limited resources, there will be uneven growth which will be one of the greatest challenges faced by societies around the world. If we are to achieve SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) by 2030, we need to be able to enhance the inclusiveness and sustainable urbanization and develop the capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement and planning for all countries. If you want to learn more about how we can participate in achieving sustainable cities and communities, click here

Tactical urbanism is an excellent approach to be more engaged and proactive with your local communities as it allows for specific issues to be identified and mitigated with minimal environmental cost whilst maximising the benefit of the community.

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