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.

A street transformed into a town square: Create the Vibe in Thames. (Image: Waka Kotahi)

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?

Mik Smellie’s illustration of a potential re-use of the Hobson St Flyover.

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.

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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.

Market in New Delhi, Photo: Unsplash

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.

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27 comments

  1. Great article thank you! Indeed, we need our spaces to be more ‘forgiving’, less brittle, and more open to changes needed. It’s good to know that the Innovating Streets program engaged with locals, ‘carving up budgets by numbers of planters’ is language people understand.

    I was excited about Te Ara Mua when it was presented more than a few years ago, but puzzled about lack of uptake – thanks for your explanation. Still, there’s hope yet.

    (The Mik Smellie ‘illustration’ is not the one he produced IIRC.)

  2. I think your comments about Future Streets as just an ‘academic process’ are wrong. There was really extensive consultation and community involvement around that project. I had a student who interviewed people in the community about their perceptions of the cycling infrastructure there: some things they liked (the community trail, and work of local cycling orgs), some things that they didn’t like (lanes don’t connect to places outside the community they want to go, not sure about onroad lanes). Street trials, placemaking, they require experimentation, and sharing of knowledge and experience and open supportive spaces for talking about what works and what doesn’t and why. I would resist setting your projects up as successful and others as an ‘academic process’. This stuff is hard work. Generosity is required

    1. Tautoko, it’s not my intention to diminish the extensive community engagement that was done in the Future Streets programme with my comment, what I learned from your research was that relationship-building is the critical element to the success of TU projects, even more so than what you build on the ground. I just question if our systems to deliver these projects actually enables this.

  3. Hi Charlotte,

    Great Article. The Brittle City concept and the decay that comes with set planning outcomes certainly got some neurons firing.

    I would be keen to hear your take on the approach the various Innovating Streets Team’s have taken with respect to engagement wit h communities. From my perspective the whole thing seems to have been an unmitigated disaster.

    Onehunga, Gore and Pukekohe are all examples for me where it has been met with fierce criticism and in some case vigilantism. Forklift guy in Onehunga! Why was he not prosecuted.

    I live in Pukekohe and the one way trial on King Street was ripped out following intense anger from locals on Facebook and the Council Feedback page.

    Anecdotally most people I know like elements of the trial (but had certain reservations about some aspects).

    The problem is that the neutral or part positive people often have a lot more going on and do’nt have the bandwidth to pen a response as opposed to those that have a strong dislike and are motivated to end it

    It is after all very easy to simply write. ‘I hate it, change it back’. As opposed to taking half an hour to provide a considered balanced response stating elements you think could improve etc.

    Almost all of the feedback online was simply stating that they hated it and wanted to return it to how it was with a ‘Make Pukekohe Great Again fervor’.

    Panuku caved and reverted the street to how it was. It seems to me that Facebook/Twitter has created an impulsive 140 characters at a time kind of democracy around these things. This is totally unhelpful and as stated above is tailor made for the hate change brigade.

    I worry that if feedback is going to be gathered and taken seriously through echo chambers such as Facebook that we will have a situation where the vocal minority will prevail.

    In Pukekohe’s case, a vocal 150-200 people set the course.

    It would’ve been nice if they had engaged with school kids for example. After all they are often the most vulnerable road users and have least mobility options, available to them.

    They walk far more than any other group in our town. So why were they not front and centre of the consultation is beyond me. If Panuku went down to Pukekohe at 8am they would be blown away at the hundreds of school kids walking around dodging traffic as they try and get to school.

    In a nutshell the engagement model was poorly executed and extremely lazy on Panuku’s part. If you create a free for all where simply stating ‘I hate it’ get’s you a vote then you are always going to get a poor outcome.

    Apologies for the ramble, but I would love to hear your thoughts.

    1. I know little about the Pukekohe trial, but I can see the truth in these words:

      “It is after all very easy to simply write. ‘I hate it, change it back’. As opposed to taking half an hour to provide a considered balanced response stating elements you think could improve etc.”

      This is partly about sharing the “democratic burden”. Recent experiments in different styles of democracy show that when people take the time to learn the fuller context of decisions, they are able to learn quickly and can make good decisions that serve society. There are too many subjects for us each to become sufficiently expert in them all to necessarily make good decisions. We need to respect those who do put the time in and find a way for people to give input appropriate to their effort.

      Decisions about these trials should only be made in the framework of what it is that society wants to achieve, not on the basis of people simply reacting to change and who haven’t taken the time to understand the whole situation and the detailed options available in various solutions.

    2. And yes, children should be at the front and centre of every decision.

      In fact, Council has committed to being youth-led in approving the Auckland Climate Plan, in order to restore intergenerational equity, but I’m seeing that being ignored in surveys and consultations all over the show.

  4. Thanks for this. Yes, Jarrod, why wasn’t forklift guy prosecuted? It never seemed to be even mentioned.

    Thanks for the link to the Justin Latif article on Mangere (includes a video of the cycleway) and for Kirsty’s article. The locals said the Mangere path doesn’t go anywhere – a short suburban loop doesn’t seem that helpful on the face of it and I can see why biking around and around a loop might not fit people’s idea of how to spend their time or get around.

    So where do people want to go in Mangere? There seem to be a lot of schools and churches in the area, plus a shopping mall, surely these are local destinations. The locals mentioned that they wanted to go to Sylvia Park and Manukau, these are 10 km away in different directions.

    Overall, a perplexing story, especially for local leader Teau Aiturau.

    1. Either AT or Auckland Council need to file a complaint with the police. Then the police would need to allocate resources. There was least a team of 4 people who did the job. There is video footage.

      1. Based on the fact that the 7OK person has tagged pretty much every single piece of rail infrastructure in the city, I’d rate their chances of escape pretty high.

  5. Interesting post, thanks. I’m coming to the conclusion that safety should not be mixed up in tactical urbanism, as someone else here suggested a few weeks ago. I really don’t imagine that the sorts of safety fixes Auckland needs, many of which are so very basic, are done using tactical urbanism in places with safer systems.

    I sure hope they “pull the infrastructure apart” by getting rid of the flyover rather than doing something silly like that Mik Smellie idea.

    I suppose this makes me quite wary of the general thrust of your article. We can muddle along making incremental changes to the bits we can quickly repurpose. And there’ll be places where that’s appropriate. But if you think it’s appropriate for something like the flyover, I respectfully disagree.

    Planning and formal design has its place and one of those places is in removing huge big pieces of concrete that are no longer suitable.

    1. “Planning and formal design has its place and one of those places is in removing huge big pieces of concrete that are no longer suitable.”

      But is all of it no longer suitable? The platform at the southern end seems pretty suitable for a park. Why not keep that?

      1. As I see it, A4E should open up the potential for a park at the lower level. The higher park would ruin that opportunity. If they don’t fix the roads below, the upper park might be good. But it wouldn’t be good planning to keep the roads as they are.

        Ideally, the removal would happen in two parts. Is that possible? Then Charlotte’s description of messy, engaged, tactical urbanism would be really useful for making a park out of a piece of flyover. The findings could translate into a better ultimate design for the park at the lower level – (or, I guess, since I don’t have all the answers, into keeping the upper one.)

      2. A park sounds neat, but it will be quite isolated from the rest of the city by Fanshawe Street.

        For the space below it, I think covered public space is also quite useful. If part of the ramp is removed it should be less dark than it is now.

        1. it’s only isolated by Fanshawe if we leave Fanshawe exactly as it is. looking at A4E and the CCMP, that won’t be happening.

  6. If you are keen to see what the Te Ara Mua interventions look like (most of which are not cycling related), how community were involved in the intervention, and what early results there are around impacts, the Future Streets website is really worth checking out: http://www.futurestreets.org.nz. While journalists can be great sources of info on lots of things, I would caution against using newspaper articles as your only source of information about the success or otherwise of safe streets or placemaking projects

  7. Te Ara Mua – Future Streets was a partnership between a research team, the Māngere Otahuhu Local Board, Auckland Transport, and Waka Kotahi. It’s goal was to make walking and cycling safety and easier in Māngere Central, and largely our research shows that this goal has been achieved. Longer-term uptake is a challenge – there is a need to complete the networks (e.g. to Māngere Bridge) and do more to support walking and cycling activation and these things are slowly happening. The majority of the $10m spent was on walking safety and placemaking infrastructure with around 20% of the spend on cycleways. Overall, the investment has been appreciated and well used, but there is more to do explore what cycling promotion looks like in Māngere. Innovating Streets is great further investment, and the overall picture is that the W&C investment needs to continue, in the right way.

    There is plenty to read and people to talk with about Te Ara Mua – Future Streets, why, what, how, etc…and there have been many local hui. I suggest a more sophisticated conversation about it is needed. You can start with: https://www.futurestreets.org.nz/

    1. It definitely made things safer for active modes. Pity that few people who live there can afford bikes and have no time to use them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them used by a cyclist unless it was me cycling along there. From AT’s counters it doesn’t look like many. But it’s ok. Give it a decade or two and the area will be gentrified by people who can afford bikes. Just like in Mangere Bridge. By that time AT will have built nicer connections that actually lead to other places.

  8. Thanks for the post, Charlotte, which is quite inspiring. The ideas in your post remind me of the Pattern Language.

    And can be applied to things at home too. Involving all the family in the design of a change to the house, resolving family differences through quality conversations, mocking it up so everyone can see how it works, letting it be messy, then using techniques that family members already have the skills for… and only bringing in the experts as required.

  9. “When you embark on a tactical urbanism project, you can’t start by prescribing an outcome. ”

    One of the issues is that the outcome for tactical urbanism is the process.

    In fact this is a big difference with hard infrastructure projects, and even projects like Te Ara Mua.

    Tactical Urbanism is about low cost trials. Doing things outside the status quo. Failure should be expected. New knowledge and engagement are outcomes.

    That said these projects have limited budgets. So broad goals are not possible.

    The complexity is that transport (and land use) are multi-faceted, inter-related, and both very personal and impersonal. Engagement can be tough as knowledge is unequal, and engagement can be frustrating if it requires constant education.

  10. I really like this post, how it defines that urbanism is a process, not a destination and that it has to be done collaboratively with community and by community. Many other posts on this website expect some great Zerg hive mind to come and to fix everything at once, however most of great old cities evolved, whereas masterplanned cities built by hive minds like Brasilia or Nur-Sultan are complete rubbish.

  11. I noticed in oversea Japan, some shopping street are maintained by the local business association. There is a law in Japan to allow shops to form business association that has full control of their street (including putting a roof, set up policy when cars can come in, change the layout, materials, paving, design, lighting)

    Because the local business has full control, they can do whatever they want on the street and apply whatever ‘tactical urbanism’. They continuously trying, learning and improve. The end-results is usually very good.

    Those streets are generally very inviting for people to shop and well maintained. The experience is as good or better than the Melbourne laneways.

    I am wondering the same way can be applied to residential streets, where residences association can take control of their street.

  12. Thanks for the post, Charlotte. If we followed a process as you suggest we wouldn’t take something that works well in High St and assume it can be replicated (badly) in a different environment like Queen St or Mangere.

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