Spaces to Places

Transforming Public Spaces into Vibrant Places for the Community.

Try Out Placemaking with a Tactical Urbanism Project

Pedestrian Plazas on the Fly.   Temporary Parklets.  Complete Streets Pilots.  Pop-up Bike Lanes.    Guerrilla Gardening.  Pavement-to-Parks.  Open Streets.

These are all a type of intervention called Tactical Urbanism – quick, often temporary, cheap projects that aim to make a small part of a city more lively or enjoyable.  Other aliases include DIY Urbanism, Planning-by-doing, urban acupuncture, or Urban Prototyping.

 A simple PARK(ing) Day installation. Credit: Park(ing) Day FLICKR Pool.
A simple PARK(ing) Day installation. Credit: Park(ing) Day FLICKR Pool.

Tactical Urbanism is a city, organizational, and/or citizen-led approach to neighborhood building using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions to catalyze long-term change.

It usually involves undertaking small-scale “demonstration projects” (typically lasting 1 to 7 days) to experiment with and gather input on potential street design changes or public spaces projects.  Projects can be in the form of pop-up crosswalks or parklets created by frustrated residents or community activists on the fly.   Or, they may be sponsored by departments of transportation or public works, as part of public outreach for a corridor or master planning process.  Whether officially sponsored or not, these types of projects are typically heavy on volunteers and collaboration and light on budget.

Car free space provides carefree play space. Credit: Clarence Eckerson.

Tactical Urbanism projects have grown in popularity in recent years as tactics to improve the urban environment.  They tend to be replicable across cities, and in certain instances have become worldwide phenomena.  Maybe the most widespread of these tactics is the annual Park(ing) Day, in which parking spaces are turned into temporary park spaces.

A Tactical Urbanism approach usually features five characteristics:

• A deliberate, phased approach to instigating change;

• The offering of 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.

 Phase 1 of the new Times Square simply added lawn chairs. Credit: New York City Department of Transportation.
Phase 1 of the new Times Square simply added lawn chairs. Credit: New York City Department of Transportation.

While stadiums, museums, large waterfront parks, and convention centers are all big-ticket items with measurable curb appeal, most of these types of projects require a substantial investment of time, as well as political, social, and fiscal capital.  And their long term economic or social benefit cannot be guaranteed.

Tactical Urbanism projects, on the other hand, enable a community to test aspects of a program, project or plan before making large political or financial investments.  Iterative design is welcome as part of the process.

For those of you ready to dig in, the Street Plans Collaborative’ s  newest  guide, "The Tactical Urbanist's Guide to Materials and Design," dives into the details of pop-up urbanism.

“Most of the things that we include in the guide generally are aiming at doing something larger. They’re not just for the sake of doing it. And of course in a lot of ways, to make that work, you need to have whatever you’re doing to become sanctioned or supported, either with funding or with being allowed by the municipality.”  Mike Lydon, Street Plans Collaborative.

A Build a Better Block installation in Kansas City.  Credit: Build a Better Block.
A Build a Better Block installation in Kansas City. Credit: Build a Better Block.

The guide includes case studies of pedestrian crossing, bikeway, intersection, plaza, park and alley projects in the demo, pilot and interim design phases. The projects span the country, from a community-painted crosswalk in Seattle that became a sanctioned city project, to a demonstration roundabout in Long Beach.

Examples include highly-visible and formalized efforts, such as New York’s Pavement to Plazas program, or San Francisco’s parklet program, both of which have been replicated in dozens of cities across North America, as well as the rapid implementation of smaller projects.

San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks. Credit: City of San Francisco.
San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks. Credit: City of San Francisco.

The guide aims to provide a “flexible palette of materials” that can be deployed depending on the type of project being developed. Different materials and tactics are called for depending on whether a project is a demonstration, pilot, interim design or final, long-term installation, the guide notes.  Since the goal of a tactical urbanism project is often to test a design in the short-term that may later become permanent, so it’s often not necessary or practical to use long-lasting materials from the start.


The guide also includes suggestions for barrier materials and their relative permanence and explores surface treatments, street furniture, landscaping elements, signage and programming.  Duct tape, corn starch paint and sidewalk chalk are great for demos, while spray paint could last long enough for a pilot. For a project that will last a few years, acrylic asphalt paint or street bond pavement coating will do the trick.

“Over the past seven years Street Plans has built a practice around implementing tactical urbanism projects around the globe.  Our four open-source guides and recent book, along with other resources, provide substantial case-study level information on the topic, but, we’ve heard time and again that what is needed now is more guidance about design and materials, for both citizens and city-led projects. We are constantly bombarded with requests and questions about materials, processes, and logistics.”

So with the new guide you will find out the nitty, gritty “how-to’s” of how to undertake a tactical urbanism project in your community.

Cities, both large and small, are engaging in Tactical Urbanism and maybe it’s time to give it a try in your community.



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NAR Placemaking Resources

Placemaking Guide: A Guide to Transform a Public Space into a Community Place
REALTORS® and state and local association staff can learn the details of Placemaking, the kinds of projects placemaking entails, how to organize them, and where to go for assistance and resources.

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Placemaking Grant
The Placemaking Grant funds the creation of new public spaces, like pocket parks, trails & gardens, in a community. The grant focuses on “lighter, cheaper, quicker” placemaking projects, which can be built under a year and cost less  than $200,000.

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