Exploring the Rising Movement of Tactical Urbanism

Published on
Carey, Christopher. “The tactical urbanism transforming Milan’s streets.” CitiesToday, 23 November 2022, https://cities-today.com/the-tactical-urbanism-transforming-milans-streets/.

Worldwide, cities have seen a rise in ‘tactical urbanism.’ While tactical urbanism has led to many positive impacts, cities should continue to consider its downsides and ways to make tactical urbanism a more inclusive, equitable, and evidence-based project.

What is “Tactical Urbanism”?

As defined by the term’s originator, Mike Lydon, tactical urbanism is a “city, organizational, and/or citizen-led approach to neighborhood building using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions to catalyze long-term change” (Tuna, 2022). These grassroots efforts aim to resolve urban issues including but not limited to transportation, food source localization, deficits in greenery, and deficits in creativity. Seeking to bridge communities, tactical urbanism can “represent the most promising paradigm one could imagine… in which design is not a vision of some creative individual or a select group but a true reflection of collective identity and intelligence at the local level,” (Tuna, 2022).

Tactical urbanism projects typically begin with a demonstration, lasting from a day to a month. This low-cost, generally unsanctioned effort is then used to assess communal support for a possible secondary testing program. If the neighborhood agrees to the project, a sanctioned implementation of tactical urbanism usually ensues, hopefully leading to official infrastructure (The Street Plans Collaborative, 2016, 14).

Most tactical urbanism efforts focus on the day-to-day urban experience. In Milan, for instance, city officials, local organizations, and individual residents have worked on a campaign to cultivate more community and greenery within the city (Censi et al, 2022). Through the installation of 380 bike racks, 250 benches, 32 ping pong tables, and several other low-cost, high-impact actions, they have managed to transform Milan into a collaborative urban environment (ibid). Now, Milanese residents enjoy 22,000 square meters of pedestrian spaces, with half of them living within 15 minutes from a square (ibid). These tactics make cities more livable and walkable for their residents, cultivating high morale.

Tactical urbanism also extends into the creative sphere, supplementing the urban landscape with artists’ works. For example, Camille Walala’s The Box in Plymouth, England, showcases how public art installations help beautify a neighborhood, enticing more pedestrians to get outside and see the art for themselves (Davidson, 2021). A colorful optical illusionist sculpture, the art “giv[es] life to [the] newly created public square” (ibid). However, a weakness of tactical urbanism art pieces lies in the emphasis on qualitative impact; while one could make an anecdotal argument that Walala’s piece improves the pedestrian experience, Plymouth nor any organization bears the statistical evidence to make a numbers-based argument (ibid). As will be discussed later in the article, a narrow framework for collecting evidence impedes tactical urbanism’s growth.

What are the benefits of tactical urbanism?

The grassroots nature of tactical urbanism makes it a people-first urban planning tactic. Like Milan’s city-wide project, anyone from “community-based organizations, concerned citizens, civil society organizations, and local authorities” can collectivize to create positive change through improving and beautifying their neighborhoods (Tuna, 2022).

As Aline Barata and Adriana Fontes explain, tactical urbanism “promot[es] the protection and prioritization of transportation means by human propulsion,” transforming cities into more eco-friendly and social spaces (Barata and Fontes 2017, 738). With an emphasis on making walking, micro-mobility, and public transit more accessible, these actions are intended not to impede on established urban structures, but to innovate in ways that make cities livable for all residents.

In Beirut, Lebanon, “urban hives” encapsulate the diversity and resourcefulness of tactical urbanism (Harb, 2020). Built above small-scale parking lots, these structures create space for gardens in densely populated areas. As the artist Nathalie Harb framed it, these pockets of greenery bear “the potential to play a vital role in the sustainability of our cities by alleviating local environmental issues” (ibid). By localizing produce, agricultural companies will inevitably emit less carbon emissions when importing goods from remote farmlands (ibid). However, a meaningful difference in emission outputs can only materialize through larger-scale efforts to grow food closer to one’s home. Tactical urbanism, nonetheless, remains a vital first step in this ongoing process to make fresh food more cheap, environmentally-safe, and accessible.

While most focus of tactical urbanism is on art installations and sustainability efforts, tactical urbanism also saves lives. Serving as a tool of advocacy when governments will not listen to their people’s voices, unsanctioned installations like stop signs and cones help keep neighborhoods safe. In Brooklyn, New York, city officials refused to create two “slow zones” with reduced speed limits per residents’ requests (Breed, 2014). Shortly after, a 9-year-old boy died after being hit by a car that went over the curb. A local organization then “took matters into their own hands,” placing “20 is Plenty” signs around the area to reduce the speed limit in a more round-a-bout way (Breed, 2014). As seen through this example, citizens employ tactical urbanism to keep their cities safe when their governments cannot do so.

What are challenges to tactical urbanism?

Illustrated by Joe Lee and Terence Milstead in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, tactical urbanism faces allegations as being a method of gentrification merely framed under the facade of ‘communal improvement.’ They elaborate how critics find it “produces privileged outcomes for a particular socioeconomic—and sometimes racial—segment of the greater urban population,” due to its spontaneous and un-vetted nature (Lee and Milstead, 2017). In fact, several tactical urbanism campaigns “have incited opposition by community residents who cite their tone-deaf approaches” (ibid).  The intricacies of defined socioeconomic privilege dynamics make it difficult to effectuate widespread, equitable change. Hopefully, however, with more input from more people, urbanists can turn the tide. Continuous grassroots actions will lead to a brighter, more equitable future for urban living.

These issues are exacerbated by the lack of statistical measurements of these projects’ impacts. For example, in the previously presented Fort Greene or Beirut examples, these innovators only base their actions on qualitative evidence. While meaningful, anecdotes simply cannot sustain such a vast movement. Without more quantitative evidence, tactical urbanism will lose its credibility and reliability.

Moving forward, what can be done to ensure tactical urbanism remains successful and ethical?

There exist three primary paths for improvement in tactical urbanism methodology. These three possibilities, all intertwined, can help lead to a brighter and more equitable future of cities.

  1. Tactical urbanism is not a standalone solution. While undoubtedly a beneficial component to urban development, tactical urbanism projects treat symptoms of greater urban diseases. Looking back to Milan’s recent campaign, the root issue was not a lack of bike paths; it was and continues to be car-first city infrastructure that not only takes road space and contributes air pollution but also excludes lower-income individuals who need high-quality, consistent public transportation. More urban advocates must hold office and participate in city planning processes to advocate for equitable and reasonable policy that does not create a subsequent need for tactical urbanism. As Lee and Milstead explain,  “Policy follow-through such as this is how practitioners can realize the true potential for long-term impact” (Lee and Milstead, 2017).
  2. Tactical urbanism must ensure and create widespread inclusivity rather than highlight exclusivity. Even though wealthier neighborhoods may have more time and funds to innovate their environment, these exclusive efforts only exacerbate core issues of poverty and environmental injustice. These methods should reach all inhabitants of a city, not just those with the most resources. One recent method cities have employed to engage more residents is the implementation of community gardens. In Providence, Rhode Island, for instance, these green spaces have popped up across the city, reaching diverse neighborhoods (Roger Williams Park Botanical Center, 2023). While free to join and easy to access, these urban gardens still do not address the root issues in food transportation and carbon footprints that necessitate the sharp increase in urban gardens in the first place. Nonetheless, this example of tactical urbanism creates community in city spaces and helps localize produce.
  3. Urban organizers must research more quantitative results of tactical projects. As the information age rises , tactical urbanism must employ a data-centered mindset too. Even though these grassroots efforts require widespread support just to get off the ground, only statistical analysis can positively confirm these projects’ effects. An emphasis on data will allow citizens to hold tactical urbanists accountable for their actions and ensure their programs effectuate change in diverse locations within a city, not just the most affluent sections. Through exploring various avenues of data collection like census data, surveys, pedestrian counts, and geotagged locations, tactical urbanists can begin to recognize what has and has not worked in their undertakings (Lee and Milstead, 2017). This adjustment will also appeal to more individuals and organizations who prioritize numbers over anecdotes.

Tactical urbanism has been and will persist to innovate and enhance modern city life. However, participants of the movement must examine and change its use of inequitable and unproven methodologies that fail to address the root issues of urban policy.


Barata, Aline F., and Adriana S. Fontes. 2017. “Tactical Urbanism and Sustainability: Tactical Experiences in the Promotion of Active Transportation.” International Journal of Urban and Civil Engineering 11 (6): 734-739. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/331686161_Tactical_Urbanism_and_Sustainability_Tactical_Experience_in_the_Promotion_of_Active_Transportation.

Breed, Allen G. 2014. “Tactical urbanism: Citizen projects go mainstream.” Yahoo! Finance. https://uk.finance.yahoo.com/news/tactical-urbanism-citizen-projects-mainstream-150438966.html.

Carey, Christopher. 2022. “The tactical urbanism transforming Milan’s streets.” CitiesToday. https://cities-today.com/the-tactical-urbanism-transforming-milans-streets/.

Davidson, Lisa. 2021. “Camille Walala at The Box Plymouth, Putting Things In Perspective.” We Heart. https://www.we-heart.com/2021/07/28/camille-walala-at-the-box-plymouth/.

Harb, Nathalie. 2020. “Urban Hives.” Nathalie Harb. https://nathalieharb.com/portfolio/urban-hives/.

Lee, Joe, and Terence Milstead. 2017. “Unlocking the Potential of Tactical Urbanism.” Stanford Social Innovation Review. https://ssir.org/articles/entry/unlocking_the_potential_of_tactical_urbanism.

Censi, Arianna, Elena Grandi, Marco Granelli, Pierfrancesco Maran, Gaia Romani, and Giancarlo Tancredi. 2022. “Piazze Aperte: A Public Space Program for Milan.” Comune di Milano. https://www.comune.milano.it/documents/20126/409775564/Piazze+aperte+-+A+public+space+program+for+Milan.pdf/fcefa9da-98c3-baa5-7bd9-ad1554c61658?t=1653560401192.

Roger Williams Park Botanical Center. 2023. “Community Gardens.” City of Providence. https://www.providenceri.gov/botanical/community-gardens/.

The Street Plans Collaborative. 2016. Tactical Urbanist's Guide to Materials and Design. N.p.: Tactical Urbanist's Guide. http://tacticalurbanismguide.com/.

Tuna, Gökçe. 2022. “Tactical Urbanism: What is in a Name?” United Nations Development Programme. https://www.undp.org/turkiye/blog/tactical-urbanism-what-name.

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