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Strategies of Community Engagement: Tactical Urbanism

Since the decade-old GFC, tactical urbanism has filled a vacuum left by massive declines in investment in urban regeneration by private and government stakeholders. Mark Dean weighs up recent literature, and shows how, as strategies of community engagement, tactical urbanism can enhance an engaged citizenry.

Tactical urbanism: Raising knowledge and awareness of urban environmental and social issues

This article will discuss:

In a post-Global Financial Crisis (GFC) era, we have witnessed the shaping of cities with an increased technocratic and administrative focus in what can be understood as a heightened level of risk aversion. In the wake of a clear crisis of global accumulation, the development of cities has been stalled, postponed and in some cases stopped completely. In others, it is arguably reversed by conditions of austerity urban policy. This creates dynamics of urban exclusion – a phenomenon exemplified most of all in American cities. Although, there is evidence of urban decline in Europe and in Australia.

Changes to urban environments commonly produce winners and losers. This is mostly illustrated in the social consequences of gentrification processes. In response to uncertain post-GFC financial conditions, governing bodies at local and urban levels have made risk management a major priority. Not only does this contribute to a geographically uneven property speculation-led development of urban spaces. It also narrows – or even removes – the scope for public participation. Furthermore, it has limited the scope for experimentation relating to the democratic use of public space.

In this article, I will explore:

1) recent research and theories around tactical urbanism;

2) it’s emergence in a post-GFC context and effects on urban democracy; and,

3) point to how tactical urbanism is used as a strategy for community engagement that enhances inclusiveness for all citizens.

Addressing exclusion in urban planning

In the recent publication, Inclusive/Exclusive Cities, editors Ognen Marina and Allesandro Armando argue that the technocratic management of cities since the GFC has held significant consequences for urban democracy and social inclusion. As urban activists, academics and civic groups contest this lack of public participation from the margins, post-GFC urban management pits decision-makers against those seeking broader inclusion, revealing vastly divergent imaginaries for urban development.

‘Tactical’ urban participation

Recent research aims to show how the private takeover of public space can be contested and reclaimed by citizens. Addressing how this divisive marginalisation magnifies inequality, Inclusive/Exclusive Cities presents a global urban research perspective. It identifes and analyses the causes of these issues and recommends pathways to achieving inclusive change. The book aims to conceptualise new approaches, tools and practices that might enhance a project for inclusive democratisation of urban development. The goal, the authors argue, is to recognise the socio-technical aims of urban transformations:

A project of the city, taken as a public action of governance, can integrate many different dimensions of urban transformation: social interaction and public debate about values, symbols, etc., the technical and bureaucratic management, the economic and financial aspects of the process.
(Marina & Armando 2016: 11)

What these authors touch on is the pressing need to engage with urban development that makes technical decisions with due attention to the democratic values that underpin inclusive urban spaces. Marina and Armando highlight the possibilities of a socio-technical approach to urban change that can be informed by ‘tactical’ urban participation to effect more inclusive growth.

Tactical urbanism for more inclusive urban developments

As cities push towards obtaining ‘smart’ status in a digitally-connected global economy, recent literature in the social sciences explores the peripheries of urban change. Here new possibilities that focus on social values are in contrast with more mainstream processes of change that focus on economic values. This is the concept of ‘tactical urbanism’.

Tactical urbanism can be understood as the active use of public space by citizens to create new and diverse public discourses around urban change. This is, often, achieved through art, performance and creative re-use of materials in the urban realm. Hence, an understanding of Tactical Urbanism may be that it challenges, contests, or negotiates with urban development and change.

The purpose of this is effecting more inclusive urban developments that can narrow the divide between winners and losers.

Tactical urbanism is a concept practiced by artists, activists and citizens not so much to resist change, but to bring into the process connections of place to the past, the present and the future. It also draws on connections between politics, economics and culture. In this practical sense, tactical urbanism holds the potential to help all citizens span the boundaries of democratic participation in urban development processes.

Urban life imitating environmental art?

Tactical urbanism is primarily practiced in the form of public works of art, or performance. It may not necessarily consist of political action, but rather educative action. In ‘Public pedagogies of arts-based environmental learning and education for adults’, Pierre Walter and Allison Earl examine recent theory and literature in Canada and Australia. They determine the most effective concepts for teaching and learning around translating art in the public realm into effective informal environmental education for adults.

Utilising Gert Biesta’s typology of public pedagogies, Walter and Earl discover that public art that is most informative to adult learning and education will most closely resemble features of what he calls, ‘pedagogy in the interest of publicness’. This is the learning and teaching of art as intrinsically a form of expression that belongs in public places, defining public space and reflecting public life.   What Biesta suggests is that, in contrast with art ‘for the public’ and ‘of the public’ – which Biesta argues only produce market-oriented behavioural change – public art ‘in the interest of publicness’ is art produced in ways free from coercive discourses of the state. Likewise, it is outside of governmental or market regulation.

Art produced in ‘the interest of publicness’ is primarily motivated by an intent to educate individuals and influence them towards enhanced political awareness. In this way, they compare three streams of literature: arts-based adult learning and education in the environmental movement; eco-art; and, tactical urbanism. They find that tactical urbanism is the most inclusive means of bringing art to the public where it does so in the most public of ways – in a reclamation of public art spaces for and by local communities in such ways that reflect shared local ideals, institutions and values.

In this sense, tactical urbanism engages citizens in forms of social action and mild forms of civil disobedience to creatively test out alternative ways of using public space to improve neighbourhoods.

“Tactical Urbanism … embraces an ethic of experimentation and human togetherness to show that alternative ways of being, acting and doing are possible.” (Walter & Earl 2017: 14)

Tactical urbanism for inclusive urban development

With research, policymaking and theory outlined, it’s useful to describe ways in which tactical urbanism might unfold.

An example that Walter and Earl cite is the ‘permanent breakfast’. This sees one person organise a breakfast for at least four other people in a public place without permission from local authorities. At later dates, this is repeated by the other four members to serve what Biesta theorised, and Walter and Earl echo in their article, as a ‘political litmus test’ for the ‘publicness’ of the space. Unlike the comparative arts-based adult environmental education and eco-art, tactical urbanism has no ownership. Tactical urbanism is spontaneous and ongoing, and by definition, it defies political affiliation to create broad opportunities for civic participation. In this way, it is applicable to a variety of purposes that can involve and include all citizens.

Once the ‘publicness of a place’ is established, tactical urbanism can then serve larger goals. In the Journal of Urban Design, Krystallia Kamvasinou investigates tactical urbanism as ‘temporary intervention with long-term legacy’. This is seen in two examples of urban regeneration in response to disused industrial land in London – the ‘Skip Garden’, and ‘Cody Dock’.

These projects join private investors with local governments and social initiatives for temporary, sustainability-focused urban art-based learning, training and employment. What both London case studies emphasise is the role of ‘temporariness’ in tactical urbanism. But as with ‘art in the interest of publicness’, temporariness can create a long-term legacy that permeates the regeneration plans of private investors and governments alike. In these examples, building alliances amongst diverse stakeholders through initiatives for the sake of publicness embeds public participation and sustainable transformation in long-term planning and urban rejuvenation and redevelopment. When joining political processes with the tactical urbanism of citizens, positive results can be achieved.

Moving forward: opportunities and challenges of tactical urbanism

Tactical urbanism is evidently a concept that has received increased focus in the decade since the GFC. It has filled a vacuum left by massive declines in investment in urban regeneration by private and government stakeholders. A managerial approach to urban development has exacerbated geographic inequality. As such, tactical urbanism offers opportunities to build on the increasingly voiced discourse of democratic participation in urban renewal.

But tactical urbanism also faces challenges. The kinds of tactical uses of public space that commonly have long-term effects are often carried out by professional artists, designers and other creatives. As Margaret Crawford highlights in a report on the situation of public space in the United States, this practice is most evident where large-scale public art and urban renewal initiatives are projects that return public space to more affluent, white communities and tourists – projects like New York’s High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Park.  By neglecting suburban public space, class and racial divides between citizens are reinforced.

Arguably, such outcomes can be interpreted in projects in the Australian context that focus renewal on inner-city areas, often neglecting inclusion of lower socio-economic regions in outer metropolitan areas.

But critically, Crawford highlights the way that tactical urbanism involves “ordinary people rather than designers or artists [undertaking] these projects” (2016: 14). Where Crawford identifies tactical urbanism as covering a vast range of activities, temporalities, and sales, it contains opportunities for traditionally excluded social groups to participate in public space.

Such inclusive tactical urbanism would cover movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter, which Crawford argues comprise politically motivated temporary uses of public space, critical to “connecting public spaces with real issues of democracy and citizenship” (2016: 16).

In a post-GFC political economy, where urban planning processes often elude social justice, tactical urbanism holds opportunities to activate citizens to engage with public art that carries a message of inclusion. As Walter and Earl highlight, the task of embedding this agenda for transformation in urban planning and development requires planners, policymakers, academics and activists to build an approach that places inclusive social and democratic objectives at the forefront of initiatives to redevelop public space.

Ideas for public engagement on tactical urbanism

The above research in urban studies seeks to ask questions about what urban spaces should look like in the future, how they should be occupied, and by whom. It is of critical importance for community engagement practitioners to develop a knowledge of the dominant view in policymaking that technology will determine the cultural, economic, political and social dimensions of urban life. This determinism ignores the very political nature of technology, particularly when through policy it is integrated and applied to the smart city.

To date, tactical urbanism has most often been used to contest this creeping technocratic view of progress in urban planning. Tactical urbanists make their voices heard in unquantifiable ways – thus a key element missing from typical planning practices. It is evident that a purely technical reading of urban change most often creates social exclusion.

Thus, community engagement practitioners would benefit from being equipped with:

  1. a set of approaches that recognise the social aims of tactical urbanism and understand them as an informative response to the techno-centrism of policy;
  2. tools that allow practitioners to build upon the cultural and political values of urban communities in their projects; and
  3. practices that embed collaboration in the very design of urban projects or re-development decision-making.

There is perhaps space to think about these issues beyond the urban laboratories that rely on technology for their data, and instead in the spontaneous, day-to-day cultural and political actions and experiences of citizens.