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The Past & Future of Tactical Urbanism: A Conversation With Mike Lydon

The 20th annual Congress for the New Urbanism was held this week in West Palm Beach, Fla.  Such anniversaries are an occasion for reflection on past accomplishments, and also for looking ahead.  One of the most exciting topics on the docket was “tactical urbanism,” the movement of incremental, small-scale – usually temporary, sometimes unsanctioned – improvements to the built landscape.  One session featured Ralph Rosado, of C3TS, who presented on a project that turned a parking lot along Miami’s Biscayne Boulevard into a park for a week.  Russ Preston, Design Director of the Principle Group, described how informal outdoor movie projections activated a neighborhood (and eventually became sanctioned by Paramount Pictures).  Ellen Dunham-Jones, of Georgia Tech, described how her students installed temporary bike signage, historical markers, and storytelling benches to downtown Lithonia, Ga., to help catalyze long-term change there.   

The session was emceed by Mike Lydon, principle of Street Plans Collaborative, and lead editor of the Tactical Urbanism manual, volume 2 of which was just released.  Following the session, Lydon stepped aside with EngagiesCities to discuss the past and future of tactical urbanism.

Q: Thanks for taking some time out of your busy schedule to meet with us.  You seem to be involved in a different session or panel every day.  Why is tactical urbanism so popular now?

A: It’s the confluence of three big trends: the Great Recession, shifting demographics, and the rise of the web.  With the economy the way it is, everyone’s looking way for a cheaper solution.  The internet and social media make it easier to connect and disseminate ideas, and everything I accelerated.  And more and more young and old people are demanding more walkable, bikeable, vibrant places to live – places that don’t necessarily exist everywhere and have to be made.  The younger generation is also very activist – they don’t want to wait around for things to happen, they want to make things happen.  They’re outcome-oriented, not process-oriented.  And that’s great, because there’s so much that can be done right now.  

Q: We’re here at the Congress for the New Urbanism.  One of the criticisms of New Urbanism is that the results sometimes feel so conservative, so programmed – so suburban.  How do you see the improvisatory, subversive nature of tactical urbanism fitting with New Urbanism? 

A: Well, you have to remember that early New Urbanism was tactical.  Back [in the 1980s], hardly anyone knew what we were talking about, and rules had to be broken.  It took a lot of time to get the principles of mixed-use and walkabilty accepted for new development.  

As for the results, it’s unfair to judge a place after 15 years.  Look at photos of Boston’s Back Bay from when it was first built [in the late 19th century].  The trees are tiny, the buildings all look the same – it looks like what we think of as drab, suburban sprawl.  But today it’s one of the country’s great neighborhoods.  If you give these things the right bones, in time, good things happen. 

And that’s were today’s tactical urbanism can come in.  We’re not trying to be strictly guerilla; we’re trying to shine a light on the spectrum from unsanctioned to sanctioned interventions.  Look at the new El Paso Comprehensive Plan [Streets Plan Collaborative contributed as a sub-consultant on this plan].  It’s a great plan.  But it could just sit around.  So what we’re doing now is to look at what were the stickiest ideas from that process, what was everyone most excited about, and seeing what we can implement right away.  That makes the whole planning process more transparent.  You may have to deputize your citizens to do something like build out a park or open space immediately, but you can.  That’s something easy to visualize and easy to realize and doing it right away makes the planning process more transparent.  Tactical urbanism can be a real-time infographic that explains a complex process. 

Q: Can you tell me a little more about the role new technologies and mobile technologies are playing?

A: New York just appointed its first chief digital officer.  All cities need to have something like this, a director of digital or a director of tech.  If you don’t, why don’t you?  The digital realm is all about spreading more ideas more quickly and elevating the conversation that way.  Some cities are really leading the way with this.  And they watch each other, they challenge each other.  San Francisco and New York go back and forth, tit for tat, it’s like a jazz combo trading solos. 

But we also have to recognize the limitations of the tech side.  You have to know how to be the mediator between the digital and the analogue.  It’s important to recognize the echo chamber effect of the digital realm – though of course you can get that from traditional modes.  You can wind up only hearing from the most passionate individuals, for better or worse.  We could learn from the model in Australia, we people are called to public hearings on planning issues just like they’re called to jury duty. 

Q: Speaking of the analogue, what books are on your shelf now?

A: Well, I’m trying to avoid books strictly about planning!  Right now, I’m getting everything I can out of “Compendium for the Civic Economy.”  It looks at ways to promote local, indigenous, community-based entrepreneurship and investment.   Another fascinating recent read was, “Camp: A Guide to 21st Century Spaces,” which shows how the form of the encampment is fundamental to human habitation and continues to be the model for organic urban forms. 

Q: Where does tactical urbanism go from here?

A: We’re looking for ways to encourage HOAs to activate and improve areas.  HOAs are usually so conservative, and this can strangle a neighborhood.  Most great neighborhoods don’t have HOAs.  But HOAs are here to stay, so we have to involve them better.

I also wonder why we aren’t collaborating more with artists and musicians.  These are the people energizing cities.  I’m thinking of organizations like Slideluck Potshow [a mash-up of slideshow and potluck, which promotes artists and community through food], which now has the Slideluck Bikeshow, where they’ve added this alternative transit element.  It’s the “creative class” idea, but it’s also just about getting people together who want to help each other and their cities.          

Editor's Note: Stay tuned for more reports from CNU20, including a discussion with Ian Wolfe Ross and a report on “Charettes and the Next Generation of Public Involvement”.


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