Don’t wait, just start: 3 key components for tactical urbanism to make long term impact in our cities
Tactical Urbanism is described as ‘flexible and short-term projects to advance long-term goals related to street safety, public space, and more’ (Tactical Urbanist’s Guide). Born from a community and grass roots need to do more, over the past year however it has gained traction as a key response to the pandemic as City Councils and Governments around the world are responding with a ‘cut the red tape and just start attitude’. From the UK Government announcing micro forests the size of tennis courts (link) to a global flurry of pop up cycle lanes across our cities (link) we have seen fast responses to city challenges in the midst of Covid 19. This isn’t new to us at USI. Our own work in partnership with the Goethe Institut saw the delivery of the Disappearing Wall (link) that engaged 24,000 citizens within empty public space as a cultural response to social distancing and events. We have always questioned how tactical urbanism, through the use of pop-ups, deliver three integral components to long term development:
1. Build Narrative: engage with communities to understand context and issues. For example we rebuilt the tale of a killer whale named dopey dick that swam up a city river in the 70s. The story was remembered as a tale of positivity and even has his own beer in the city. Through using this narrative and building an installation we engaged over 15,000 citizens through events on “How do you want to improve your riverfront?” This has informed a co-design process of a longer £20 million regeneration scheme to improve wellbeing. And for future engagement marked us as “the guys that built the whale”.
2. Civic ownership: if people feel invested in a project they feel invested in a place which leads to pride and improved well being as they have contributed and helped shape the place. An example where we trialled this was in a contested space known as a conflict area, through the use of an engagement ‘tipi’ we saw the grey pocket of underutilised space clean from rubbish and anti-social behaviour while laying grounds to deliver longer term civic participation goals.
3. Measuring impact: we sometimes forget during the pressure to deliver these pilots that it’s all about learning. It’s important from the outset that we set up longer term goals and measurables so we inform better decision making and co-creation as a result. The studio recently was successful in a tourism recovery grant to develop a pop-up living museum with National Museums NI. We found our narrative in the shape of a Banana from an old neighbourhood story of a gentleman that was the first in the UK to grow ripe bananas over 110 years ago. Using this story we are bringing back over 500 banana trees to the local neighbourhood as a three year engagement programme to build civic ownership and measure with an anticipated 90,000 visitors what the future of the museum looks like. The measurement will take the form of events, participation, and exhibitions that will lay the foundations for future funding opportunities and the spatial design of a much larger museum offer on the same site over the next few years.
Whilst seeing an increase in tactical urbanism is a great ‘just start’ attitude that we need to see within our cities, it’s important we deliver frugal and meaningful intervention with a focus in mind. Pop-ups need captured measurement, they need to be co-created and inform longer term decision making. This will ensure they are not just an excuse for poor quality implementation over time. Used correctly they offer a powerful insight for change, show results amongst our endless amounts of strategy and master plans and allow us to ‘just start’ in a world where demonstrating impact for funding opportunities for new ideas is not always easy.