Tactical Urbanism - Why It's Exciting

While Henry Ford and creativity aren’t words often used in the same sentence, there is something to be learned from his response when asked about the invention of the motor vehicle. Mr Ford said “If I’d stopped to ask people, they would’ve told me they wanted a faster horse”. As designers, our role is to create something new, but new is different, and different it seems, is difficult for us to imagine. To combat this problem, we’ve historically used sketches, models and renders to help us communicate our ideas, and while these can be visually strong, they don’t account for all the things that make a place real; there’s no sound, no smell, nothing to touch and no atmosphere to feel. In this sense, clients and users of a space are asked to make vital decisions that will impact the design without all the information they actually need.

Tactical Urbanism, whilst sounding a bit like a branch of a SWAT team, is a new design methodology that might be able to help. In its purest form, tactical urbanism involves a number of temporary ‘design experiments’ replicating, in a low-cost, low commitment way, the future change an urban environment could take. The aim is that these experiments are measured for effectiveness and those that work are either left in place, or implemented in a more permanent manner. In this sense, tactical urbanism harnesses the power of experience - a bit like a ‘try before you buy’ approach to design.

As an example, we recently put a proposal to Waterfront Auckland for the redesign of Waitemata Plaza. Here we suggested six themes for temporary installations, including picnic areas, sports fields, gardens and pools. The intention was that structured research would be undertaken to review each theme which would then inform the final design - giving the design team confidence that they were truly designing for the public. Whilst our proposal was not the successful one, we are pleased to see Waterfront Auckland embracing tactical urbanism, and note that they’ll be rolling out similar installations in the not too distant future. Be sure to check them out and provide your feedback.

Tactical urbanism presents many advantages, such as greater community consultation and engagement. However, for it to be truly successful, the temporary design installations need to provide a realistic representation, whilst also being commercially viable as temporary interventions. For the Waitemata Plaza proposal, we utilised a young and energetic team; as recent grads, we figured they were best qualified in the art of creating something out of nothing.

As it turns out, some of our Jasmax grads are already involved in tactical urbanism projects. Landscape Architecture grad John Allan has been heavily involved in the global ‘Park(ing) Day’ event, which transforms parking spaces to public space, with the aim of drawing attention to how public space is created and allocated. While Patrick Loo and Oh.no.sumo are building a reputation for innovative temporary architectural installations.

More than just improving the design process, we see tactical urbanism as an opportunity to create real change for the better. It is without doubt that the design of our cities needs to respond to a changing world. With less readily available energy, a pedestrian-friendly and transport-orientated city becomes a priority. But how do we get there? How do we entice people out of their cars? Perhaps it might be best to listen to the man who got them in there in the first place. Tactical urbanism gives us the power to start experimenting and utilise real feedback from the public, based not on perceptions but on experience. Because as Henry Ford discovered, the difference between what we think we want and what we actually want can be world-changing.

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