Lessons of tactical urbanism for technology-focussed urban policy

Tactical urbanism points to a vital role for participation in inclusive urban planning, writes Dr. Mark Dean in his recent article for Bang the Table.

Dean highlights a renewed focus on social and democratic values in urban development,  calling for community engagement practitioners and urban planners to respond to the relationship between cities, planning and democracy.

He suggests that practitioners and planners could take lessons of tactical urbanism into:

  • a set of approaches that understand how social values relate to technology-focused urban policy;
  • tools that enable practitioners and projects to tap into local cultural and political values; and,
  • practices that build collaboration into projects and decisions.  

Urban development in the age of the smart city has tended to focus on economic values and technology, Dean points out. By contrast, the citizen-led projects of tactical urbanism take back public space, and re-imagine the city around its people.

By engaging citizens to re-fashion public space with a community focus and creative ways, tactical urbanism underlines the idea that urban development should reflect a shared vision for the city.    

What is 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. ‘ says Dean.

In the years following the global financial crisis (GFC), community-led neighbourhood building interventions have sprung up in cities around the world. Tapping into local creativity and a Do-It-Yourself ethic, they transform urban space with small-scale, often temporary projects. Parking spaces become community-gathering plazas, pavements are re-purposed as parks, unused land sprout community gardens, streets host community events.

These grassroots initiatives can feature a wide range of activities, from art to performance to gardening to upcycling – but they commonly reflect a shared sense of togetherness and publicness.

Challenging the ‘creeping technocratic view of progress’ in planning

Dean connects tactical urbanism to the following trends which have emerged in the aftermath of the GFC:

  • Risk-averse urban planning driven by economic values
  • The rise of a technology-focused vision of the smart city

These profound economic and technological changes have transformed the physical and social environments of cities – and their democratic life too, he points out.  

The GFC drove economic values to the forefront of urban planning. As cities faced financial uncertainty and growing pressure on resources, risk management became a high priority for decision-makers. The GFC’s effect on real estate laid an uneven path for urban growth,adding to the social and economic exclusion brought about as jobs, homes, businesses, and neighbourhoods were affected by the crisis.

Recent years have seen the rise of a technology-focused vision of the smart city. This vision assumes that technology plays a driving role in the social, economic, cultural, and political aspects of the city. This technological determinism overlooks how technology in the urban environment is itself shaped by these factors – an echo of how cities are themselves a shared vision of all the people and interests that inhabit them or have a stake in them.

This technocratic way of looking at the city builds urban change around technology, rather than around the people it is meant to serve. It overlooks how technology can be deeply political, especially in how it is put to use in the smart city – and how it can include or exclude people.

Tactical urbanism challenges this dominant understanding of the relationship between technology and progress.    

Putting citizens back into the story of the city

Acts of tactical urban participation are often temporary. But they set out significant long term goals for planners and practitioners, suggests Dean. By actively reclaiming public space for community use, tactical urbanism creates a place for social and democratic values in the story of the changing city.

Tactical urbanism reminds us that cities are not merely the sum of their economic and technical dimensions, and that communities can be left behind when their experiences and values are left out of the conversation.  

By building collaboration into planning and decision-making, planners and community engagement practitioners can bring crucial democratic values to an inclusive vision for the city.

Read more about tactical urbanism and community engagement.

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