On 05.04.15, Mike Lydon, principal of The Street Plans Collaborative, spoke about Tactical Urbanism: Short Term Action for Long Term Change, co-authored with his partner Anthony Garcia. Lydon and Garcia head a research advocacy firm that has crafted an ideology around placemaking and small-scale urban activism. Lydon’s talk at the Center for Architecture was entrepreneurial in tone and presented a clear and exciting set of new methods to think about and navigate citizen-led urbanism. He put forward case studies and examples that illustrate his belief that the tools designers are equipped with in school might not be the most useful in many urban applications. He contends that the evocative rendering may have to be rethought as a communication tool for designers. His work in “tactical urbanism” holds the key.

The book, an in-depth study of Lydon and Garcia’s ideas, is thorough and thoughtful. In the chapter “Inspirations and Antecedents of Tactical Urbanism,” they provide the reader with wonderful precedents that propel their thinking. The historical research on the New York City Police Athletic League (PAL) spearheading summer play street programs at the turn-of-the-century was enthralling. PAL’s work led to a real shift in thinking of what activity in the public street can mean: anything from community connectivity and lowering crime rates to obesity in children can be grappled with. At every turn, the authors are clear in what their purpose is and define the parameters of every idea; this is a no jargon, no acronym-filled reading experience.

Andres Duany provides a “call to arms” preface for the book. Dismissing the XL scale definition of urbanism, he praises the idea of “extra small” urbanism as a key to crafting more livable cities. According to Duany, the XL model is unsustainable. He predicts that “these beasts will stumble and whither,” and proclaims tactical urbanism as a purely American phenomenon. The alliance with New Urbanism is easily understood throughout the book; Lydon was educated in this vein. But the work of Garcia and Lydon is very distinctive from the public perception of New Urbanism. In Tactical Urbanism, history is mined for good ideas – not to prop up nostalgic institutions and stylistic conceits. The tone of the tactical urbanist’s rhetoric is proactive rather than peppered with talk of “good streets” and sanitized public spaces.

Tactical urbanism describes itself as immersed in small-scale interventions to promote change. A powerful aspect of the work is in the method of guerilla acts to “mock-up” strategies to advocate for change. The most striking example of this method is the work in Hamilton, Ontario, to alter the geometry of an infamous intersection to create a safer traffic pattern. Citizens under the cover of night placed traffic cones decorated with daisies to redirect traffic. This polite guerilla action resulted in city agencies assessing the problem more quickly (via the full scale “mock-up”) and designing a city-sanctioned solution. The efforts outlined in the book are a wonderful series of working inside/outside governing bodies. Tangible community action is achieved through hacking and rule-bending. The book actually dismisses yarn-bombing and other such guerilla art as not activism. The distinction that activism has a progressive function puts design and design thinking back in the hands of the community and designers.

In the end, this text is an exciting handbook. I found myself examining my subway commute to see how to enhance, document, craft, and engage in my own urban construct. Take the advice of the final chapter: “Stop reading and start doing.”

Event: Oculus Book Talk: Tactical Urbanism
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.04.15
Speaker: Mike Lydon, Principal, The Street Plans Collaborative; and Gordon Douglas, Ph.D., Rebuild by Design Postdoctoral Fellow, NYU Institute for Public Knowledge
Organizer: AIANY Oculus Committee
Oculus Book Seller: McNally Jackson Books