According to Tony Garcia, the city built in the post-war automobile era never fully developed an effective model for civic engagement beyond regular elections and public meetings. With the advent of the internet, personal computing and hacker culture there are now new ways to disrupt existing city-making processes, i.e. Tactical Urbanism.
Cities are as central to human civilization as they’ve ever been. Increasing numbers of people are moving to the city or simply choosing to stay there and as a result, more people are demanding municipal amenities that are not always available. The formal processes that should facilitate the change they need is lacking and our collective ability to plan and build great places is still dominated by ‘Big Planning’ and ‘Big Government’ approaches that favor large scale changes and investments that often prove disastrous to our cities.
Our collective ability to plan and build great places is still dominated by ‘Big Planning’ and ‘Big Government’ approaches.
In recent years, communities around the world have embraced an incremental approach and grassroots energy to plan and implement neighborhood improvement projects, this is what we call Tactical Urbanism. Because the places that people inhabit are never static, Tactical Urbanism doesn’t propose one-size-fits-all solutions but rather suggests intentional and flexible responses to neighborhood building and activation by using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions. Tactical Urbanism is used by a range of actors including governments, business, non-profits, citizen groups and individuals. It makes use of open and iterative development processes, the efficient use of resources and the creative potential unleashed by social interaction. This is a model that has always been a part of how we build cities. Human settlements existed for thousands of years as vernacular responses to practical every day needs, long before any centralized, top-down city-making endeavor was established.
From Big Government to Hacker Culture
The lack of municipal amenities is as true in former industrial precincts or traditionally underserved areas as anywhere else experiencing an influx of new residents. While the pros and cons of gentrification are debated endlessly, they do not seem to alter the desire of some people to approach their city councilor, local planning department, or even the mayor’s office in an effort to bring an idea to fruition. However, it doesn’t take long for them to discover that the formal processes that facilitate change are often out of date, cumbersome and far too time consuming to make it worth the effort. This results in frustration as people feel they have little to no ability to legally use the system – local or otherwise – to enact positive change in their neighborhoods or beyond.
Most urban planners would agree that the municipal government plays an important role in regulating land uses and building form, but the cities built in the post-war automobile era never fully developed an effective model for civic engagement beyond regular elections and statutorily required public meetings. Even these methods are weak given the ever-increasing scale of metropolitan regions and their diversity of human and economic capital. Consequently, innovative planning processes, those that can be truly inclusive, effective and efficient in delivering change have always worked at the margins of an aligned set of disciplines that together participate in an unfortunate professional contract of sorts: do as much as the budget allows and hope for the best.
Tactical Urbanism makes use of open and iterative development processes, the efficient use of resources and the creative potential unleashed by social interaction.
Despite this, ‘Big Government’ has become disrupted and altered by the democratization and evolution of the Internet. Thanks to a wide array of software, hardware and web-based applications, individuals no longer need to rely on the static institutions of government that don’t work. The advent of the internet, personal computing, hacking culture and the exponential growth in computing power over the past thirty years have shaped our expectations about the exchange of information, work, social relationships and government. A whole generation of Americans has grown up with the dominating presence of the computer in their lives. These so-called “digital natives” (those people born after 1980) now account for 47% of the total US population according to 2011 census data, a number that will only get bigger with time.
While there is an obvious downside to the excessive consumerism that comes with the obsolescence of technology, our culture has become more comfortable with change in an iterative but fairly rapid fashion – a fact that lends itself naturally to the type of iterative change described as Tactical Urbanism. This is the cultural legacy of Moore’s law and the exponential nature of technological innovation.
Disrupting existing processes
Today millions of people are using social media sites, redistribution networks, rentals and cooperatives to share not only cars but also homes, clothes, tools, toys and other items at low or marginal cost or for free. The availability of wireless Internet infrastructure has also helped to establish a social and tech-based approach that connects the dots between information, a dispersed citizenry and the government. While hacker culture involves creatively reshaping our surroundings and short-circuiting existing systems, it is ultimately about disrupting existing processes and ways of doing more with less.
For example, 1.7 million people globally are members of car-sharing services, a business that would not be possible if it were not for the ability of each car to communicate to other possible users within a network. The implications for urbanism are clear; a recent survey found that the number of vehicles owned by car-sharing participants decreased by half after joining the service with members preferring access instead of the burden of ownership. Without any new transit or bike infrastructure, the number of cars on city roads can be drastically reduced by simply creating new efficiencies out of the existing system.
Hacker culture is ultimately about disrupting existing processes and ways of doing more with less.
Examples of this paradigm pervade our work. Street Plans recently worked on a project in downtown Miami, transforming one of Biscayne Boulevard’s six median parking lots into a green doorstep for the downtown area. For years no action had been undertaken to make this change, which had been planned for decades, but by using a small grant Street Plans arranged for nearly 30 downtown stakeholders to support and contribute to the 3/4 acre project, which was built in less than a day. This tactical urbanism project brought thousands of people to the space, which was activated by planned and spontaneous activities throughout the week including live music, yoga, food trucks, exercise equipment and public seating. The project allayed fears about the loss of parking spaces while also galvanizing the community in support of fast tracking the permanent implementation of the park.
We hope that one of the biggest causalities of the wider adoption of this hacker culture philosophy, especially through the use of Tactical Urbanism, will be some of the more onerous aspects of Big Planning. Indeed, while many call for smaller government, it seems most of the rising millennial generation is more interested in having better government. No wonder activists and bureaucrats alike are turning to the immediacy of Tactical Urbanism to hack the system so that they can get something done.