Tactical urbanism is in the air at the moment. In case you’re not familiar with the concept, tactical urbanism is a design strategy that involves testing changes to spaces temporarily before permanent solutions are built. It’s a cost-effective way of trying things out without many expensive hours of design, planning and construction.
Back in 2015, Auckland Council brought one of the leading exponents and founders of tactical urbanism to town to explain how it works. You can see Mike Lydon’s presentation here, and an overview of tactical urbanism here.
Waka Kōtahi’s Innovating Streets For People program means right now, New Zealanders are seeing examples of Tactical Urbanism all over the country. The Innovating Streets projects run from anywhere from a day to 18 months. They’re a way for communities to say ‘what if our street worked like this instead…?’ and then actually live with those changes for a short period of time. They don’t have to be right the first time. The beauty of tactical urbanism is in the opportunity for change. The challenge is in convincing people to be open to the experiment.
The Innovating Streets program is (90%) funded and supported by Waka Kōtahi. Local councils and road-controlling authorities have to approve the projects before they are implemented.
But tactical urbanism’s roots are not in institutions of government. Guerrilla urbanism is where it started, a community-led process of creating better places and safer streets. It’s a process that fixes the persistent problems that, for whatever reason, the councils or authorities have failed to address. Sometimes, communities take action when they don’t feel they have basic freedom to move around safely.
On Monday this week, a pop-up cycle-lane appeared unexpectedly in Wellington on Adelaide Rd between Island Bay and Berhampore. Cycle Wellington noted that the line of cones, flexible bollards and small wooden planters had been installed on a route that was meant to become a cycleway connecting to the existing Island Bay bike path.
But within six hours, WCC contractors were on site, coning off the cycle lane and adding signage directing cyclists back into the traffic lane. On Monday evening it was removed entirely. Gone by bedtime.
— Patrick Morgan (@patrickmorgan) May 24, 2021
Other people in other places have attempted to install their own versions of road safety when councils were slow to act. Late in 2020, a Whanganui resident practised a textbook act of guerrilla urbanism when he placed a makeshift timber speed-bump on his residential street. The speed-bump, he said, was an attempt to combat ‘excessive hooning’. When interviewed, residents of the street talked about how unsafe it was for children to cross, and that they’d been contacting council for over three years to try and get some speed control installed.
The police said it was unauthorised and within six hours, the speed-bump was removed.
Guerrilla urbanism is a form of protest, a way that ordinary street users can show road controlling authorities what they’re not managing to do. It’s also an invitation to do more than acknowledge the issue – it’s an invitation to acknowledge the lack of safety, and respond nimbly with official devices.
Our road-controlling authorities, it seems, are very good at tidying guerrilla urbanism away.
Over in Onehunga last week, an Innovating Streets project planned since last September had been in place for barely two months when the Local Board abruptly pulled the project for “safety reasons.”
The catalyst for the removal of the project was acts of vandalism (and threats to continue them) by members of the public, who brought a forklift onto site and used it to shift and damage plywood boxes that had been used to direct traffic towards the arterial roads. Because road signage and markings had been changed for the duration of the pilot, this vandalism made the situation actively dangerous overnight. Local leaders who’d enthusiastically endorsed opposition to the trial are now sending messages urging the community to stop taking things into their own hands, and to drive carefully through the area while the project is formally dismantled.
The biggest disappointment is that the trial was halted before it could even be modified to reflect community feedback, let alone properly completed and assessed. What a wasted opportunity. But: “the people have spoken,” said a Local Board member who’d led the opposition.
But – people had spoken in Wellington and Whanganui, too. The people who built the pop-up cycle lane used their intervention to ask WCC why their safe cycling connection is taking so long. The resident in Whanganui was asking his local council why they couldn’t make his street safer for children and quieter for locals.
There is a common thread here. One act of (unsanctioned) guerrilla urbanism created a safe lane for people on bikes. Another act of guerrilla urbanism slowed cars. An act of (sanctioned) tactical urbanism placed directed cars off residential streets. In every case, the argument for removing the tactical elements was: ‘the installation is creating a hazard, making it unsafe for users.’ But for which users? Isn’t that argument fundamentally misunderstanding the point of a protected bike lane, a speed-bump, and a low-traffic neighbourhood? Their purpose is to make streets safer for the most vulnerable of road users – children, pedestrians, cyclists.
In every case, the cars won.
They can’t win forever, right? What will Road Controlling Authorities and Councils do if guerrilla urbanism continues to appear? There are plenty of examples from around the world where creative and innovative acts of street activism and guerrilla urbanism have led to more open, inclusive, safety-conscious or nimble road authorities.
It can be used to enforce parking restrictions –
To create secure bike parking –
Not enough on-street bicycle parking?
A government that doesn't want to solve that?
Another DIY solution!pic.twitter.com/vBuq1sBNa5
— MonkeyWrenchGang (@M_WrenchGang) November 17, 2020
And to create cycle lanes, exactly where they should be.
What if, instead of immediately removing an intervention, our road-controlling authorities had a policy of quickly assessing its merits, securing it and monitoring the area for a set period of time? It wouldn’t take much to make a pop-up cycle lane like Wellington’s safe enough to last for a test period of a few weeks or even months. Put a bit more reflective tape on the planters, sandbag the cones so they don’t blow away. Install a couple of people on the footpath and give them high-vis and clipboards to observe, count and measure the results.
And even if it was only left up for a few weeks, in its short life that protected lane would have made life a whole lot safer for a fair few people on bikes. In a week in which we’ve already lost two poor souls, on roads unsafe for bikes… is there really a good reason not to try this?
On our Road to Zero, every act of tactical and guerrilla urbanism is an opportunity to test, evaluate, understand and then plan for a new, better way of doing things. But to truly realise their value, these interventions need to be in place over time.
Edit: The bike lane is back! Day Two of the Trial, giving WCC another opportunity! We hope today they choose a different path, and turn up with clipboards and enthusiasm.
— Patrick Morgan (@patrickmorgan) May 24, 2021