This is a guest post by Charlotte Billing. Charlotte is a place strategist at Place Creative.
Learning through doing
Tactical urbanism is often perceived in terms of its outputs, wider kerbs, temporary crossings, polka-dot walkways – when in fact it’s a process, one that allows us to imagine how our neighbourhoods could be if they adapted to us. Done well, tactical urbanism projects can build deep connections between city-building authorities and communities. They can be used to gather extremely specific information about a place, its problems, and its needs. Investing in this often invisible, backstage work is just as important as the sparkly thing we get to show off at the end.
Waka Kotahi’s Innovating Streets For People tactical urbanism projects are due to be delivered by the end of June 2021. What you haven’t seen is just as important as the diagrams of what’s to come and photos of beautifully intricate road art that are being shared online.
A lot of work has happened in the background to get these tightly budgeted, fast-turnaround, and highly experimental projects to this point. Carving up budgets by number of planters. Zooming with local stream guardians. Getting the right people around the table and gaining invaluable local insight into where neighbourhood problems actually are. These connections and learnings are all being built into what goes into the ground, and in turn, they are steps towards long-term upgrades that have local people’s needs embedded in the design.
These trials enable our future urban spaces to be multi-purpose and dynamic, so we should challenge tactical urbanism that’s implemented using the practices of a capital infrastructure project. Permanent street upgrades can actually concrete over unseen needs within the community, like neon signs that warn drivers about a pedestrian crossing, making a path too narrow to squeeze past on wheels.
Although not a tactical urbanism project itself, the Māngere Te Ara Mua Future Streets cycleways were constructed as a way to improve health outcomes in the Māngere community. However, the community didn’t necessarily see the need it was responding to as a critical one to address, and the lanes still lack uptake a few years on. Future Streets could be considered the pilot phase of the Innovating Streets For People programme, but it was undertaken as an academic process to produce a simple solution for a place under the weight of complex histories, marginalisation, and of impending gentrification.
Trialling neighbourhood-scale interventions can daylight the real issues neighbourhoods face, and allow feedback to be incorporated in real time. It’s an adaptive, responsive way of improving places for the people who live there, while preparing for future users as well. Creative solutions often come directly from the minds of people in the community.
Take for example the CCMP’s plan to remove the Hobson Street flyover. City Centre resident of 18 years Mik Smellie pointed out that for a locale lacking in land, what potential use might it have to the community of the city centre? Mik drew up a quick design for how the space might be reused, and comments from other residents supported the quirky idea, pulling in references to Seoul’s Sky Garden and the New York Highline. We ended up with Te Ara i Whiti/ Lightpath as a solution to the Nelson Street off-ramp being disestablished. What might we find out belongs on the Hobson Street one?
Softening the brittle city: allowing for the unknown
Making room for messiness and letting urban spaces be undefined allows communities to work out how spaces can work best for them, now. It also makes it easier for spaces to evolve along with their communities in an organic way. Richard Sennett, a professor of sociology at London School of Economics, makes the case in an essay from 2006 that planners should be designing cities to change. He calls what we have today the ‘brittle city,’ suggesting that over-determination in modern planning inhibits openness in our urban spaces. He explains,
“Modern urban environments decay much more quickly than urban fabric inherited from the past. As uses change, buildings are now destroyed rather than adapted; indeed, the over-specification of form and function makes the modern urban environment peculiarly susceptible to decay. The average lifespan of new public housing in Britain is now forty years; the average lifespan of new skyscrapers in New York is thirty-five years.”
When you embark on a tactical urbanism project, you can’t start by prescribing an outcome. It takes a lot of time to figure out what’s actually a problem in a neighbourhood, and sometimes it’s not what you expect. A piece of infrastructure left to uncertain use and a bit of disorder can sometimes appeal to people in urban communities, evident in stories like that of the Westway, London’s motorway development that wiped out a significant chunk of Kensington and Chelsea in the 1960s but had its construction site reclaimed as a playground by local kids.
This kind of community-led tactical urbanism is described in Designing Disorder, co-authored by Sennett and Pablo Sendra, associate Professor of Planning and Urban Design at University College London, where they make the case for building without the principle of integration. In the ‘grey market’ of Nehru Place in Delhi, a plaza atop a parking building hosts a thriving, if not-quite-legal local market and surrounding local economy.
Informality, Sennett explains, is crucial in how the marketplace, and the people who depend on it, live. “Socially, it is informal because of its transience. Shops and shoppers, offices and workers come and go; the stall you remember from last month is no longer there. The half-blind, motherly kebab-seller seems, at least in my experience, the only permanent fixture.” Formal investment in Nehru Place has been made in order to sustain this informal place, Sennett adds, including in its own metro station and bus terminal.
Regenerating as we go
The process of tactical urbanism can be a balm against gentrification, by shifting power to local communities, to be able to experiment with the land they live and play on. The results of the tactical urbanism process are not always beautiful, but shifting our goal to being an open city, rather than one that no longer has room to grow and change, creates the potential for unforeseen, accidental outcomes that improve the city through time, regenerating it as we go.
Sennett and Sendra make the point that adaptable spaces balance planned and unplanned use, evident from Middle Eastern souks to Italian village squares. In the context of Auckland, while the city centre’s resident population rapidly grows, and developments like the City Rail Link churn through its roads, we’re also seeing the gradual pedestrianisation of Queen Street, and a future linear park linking up green space at either end of Victoria Street. What we do in the city today should support reaching that vision: the opportunity to return our roads to riverbanks, our offices to playgrounds.
City building, like tactical urbanism, is an ongoing process: of having conversations, innovating, and adapting, all working together to create a context from which good urban places can develop. Tactical urbanism can’t solve every problem right now, and just because we call it ‘lighter, quicker, cheaper,’ doesn’t mean it’s easier. Conversations with communities can be hard ones, and to figure out what they need you first have to understand who they are. Building relationships and trust takes time. But it’s not a project that ends at delivery; like any city, it’s a work in progress.
A note on the photographs: Adam Ritchie photographed North Kensington in the 1960s as an activist advocating for housing equality. Since the occupation of the Westway Motorway Development in 1967, they have been working to shift housing towards local control. It has taken until the Grenfell Tower disaster to see this happen. Adam celebrated his 81st birthday in May and shares his photographs with Greater Auckland in the spirit of advocating for people’s rights to build community. Thank you, Adam, for your work, and your generosity.