By Marcela Moreno

What Does Tactical Urbanism Look Like in Small-Urban and Rural Communities?

April 6, 2022

Tactical urbanism is known by many names, including DIY urbanism, guerilla urbanism, quick build projects, etc. – however you want to describe it, it is defined by taking action.

Introduction


Before the pandemic, tactical urbanism projects cropped up in cities across the world. Tactical urbanism is known by many names, including DIY urbanism, guerilla urbanism, quick build projects, etc. – however you want to describe it, it is defined by taking action. When you think about tactical urbanism, you may think of programs undertaken by large cities like New York City or Seattle but a surprising outcome from the COVID-19 pandemic was the rapid implementation of placemaking projects in communities of all sizes. To accommodate the human need for social interaction and physical activity while maintaining social distancing, municipalities allowed creative use of public space.

The result was the use of parking spots for outdoor dining (AKA streeteries), expanding bike lanes or closing streets to vehicles all together. What are some of the takeaways from re-imagining our public spaces? How can incremental projects help us, and our communities understand design choices before investing in a full build out? How can we continue the principles of tactical urbanism to improve mobility and livability in rural communities?

What is tactical urbanism, anyway?


Tactical urbanism has many names, but the concept is consistent. It has been referred to as a ‘quick build’, ‘DIY urbanism’, ‘guerilla planning’, among others. However, the Street Plans Collaborative defines the characteristics of tactical urbanism (with its many names) as follows:

  1. A deliberate, phased approach to instigating change;
  2. The offering of local solutions for local planning challenges;
  3. Short-term commitment as a first step toward longer-term change
  4. Lower-risk, with potentially high rewards; and
  5. The development of social capital between citizens and the building of organizational capacity between public and private institutions, nonprofits and their constituents.

Extensive literature on tactical urbanism exists from the Street Plans Collaborative, as well as transportation and planning leaders like National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), and Strong Towns.

The initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic was focused on social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and limiting large gatherings. Municipalities were tasked with responding rapidly with policy changes on public spaces, notably public transportation. In a review of mitigation strategies in the built environment, researchers from Colorado State University identified 10 tactical urbanism interventions. While the strategies were focused on COVID-19 mitigation, their research outlines short and long-term health co-benefits. These outcomes demonstrate how these interventions go beyond the sphere of transportation outcomes, and impact community health (beyond COVID-19).

Tactical urbanism projects have been implemented in small-urban and rural communities before the pandemic (see: Fayetteville, Ark., Asheville, N.C.), but the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred policymakers, planners, and communities to think critically about what our ‘new normal’ could and should be.

Examples of Tactical Urbanism in a Rural Context


Parklets in Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Susan Scarlata, the Community Engagement Specialist for the Town of Jackson Hole explores their use of parklets in a blog for Community Builders, a non-profit based in Colorado that works with communities in the American West to make more livable places. Their local government recognized the need to accommodate the influx of summer tourists while mitigating the risk of spreading COVID-19, ultimately choosing parklets as a solution. Parklets are designed ‘to reclaim underutilized asphalt as public space without capital expenditure,’ (Tactical Urbanism Vol 2) Over the span of the parklet project, fifteen restaurants and galleries participated. The public was able to re-imagine the use of public space downtown while maintaining COVID-19 protocols and engaging with the downtown commercial district. Notably, the post-project survey demonstrated that 100 percent of businesses that hosted parklets expressed interest in hosting them again, and some restaurants reported up to 50 percent of their summer revenue was generated from the parklets. 73 percent of community members agreed that parklets and flex space were a good use of public space and “anecdotally, people stated that they enjoyed having fewer vehicles around town space and the ‘Community Feel’.”

Source: Jackson Hole Chamber. A photo of the parklet in front of Jackson Drug, a soda fountain in downtown Jackson Hole, Wyo.

North Dakota Pop-Up Demonstrations (Multiple Locations)


As part of North Dakota’s Statewide and Public Transportation Plan (ND Moves), the ND Department of Transportation provided consulting support to several communities for pop-up demonstrations – or ‘small scale, low-cost, short term demos that reflect the spatial implication of design concepts to gauge the community’s reaction prior to full construction.” Nine communities participated in the program with populations ranging from 2,000 to 70,000 people. Through these pop-up demonstrations, NDDOT enabled localities to engage and educate their communities with inexpensive design treatments related to the ND Moves program. Some of the demonstrations included: curb bulb outs (extensions) bike lanes, buffered bike lanes, back-in angled parking, roundabouts, sharrows, road diets and landscaping and/or street furniture. Projects were scheduled from April until August – about 5 months from initiation to implementation and post-evaluation. The actual installations could be up to one block length, from one day to one month, and located on any roadway.

Source: NDDOT Flickr. A mini round-a-bout and decorative high visibility crosswalk at 1st St NW & 3rd Ave NW intersection in Mandan, N.D.

A key takeaway from the demonstrations was the public interest and dialogue around the changes. The public reaction was immediate, as demonstrations were usually installed in less than one day with a low capital cost. The ability to show, not tell, allowed the public to provide feedback depending on the mode of transportation they experienced a demonstration in.

Rails-to-Trails COVID-19 Streets for Social Distancing Dashboard


The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), a non-profit that ‘reimagine[s] public spaces to create safe ways for everyone to walk, bike, and be active outdoors’ released an online dashboard of street closure/modifications as a response to COVID-19. These ‘open streets’ are/were temporarily closed to give communities a space where they could safely engage in active transportation. While these projects do not directly aim to serve as a first/last mile solution to public transportation. They provide an opportunity to engage a community to re-imagine their ‘public realm in a different way, which helps build broader political support for undertaking more permanent pedestrian, bicycle, and/or other livability improvements.’ (Tactical Urbanism Vol 1) The dashboard, last updated in September 2020 demonstrates that open streets programs can be found in communities of all population sizes.

Why does this matter for community transportation in rural areas?


If you are a provider of public transportation, you know that the journey of a transit rider often begins as a pedestrian or cyclist. Infrastructure that leads your passengers to the bus stop is as important as the stop itself. The question of how we can connect public transportation networks to other modes for a more seamless multimodal journey is a critical one with layers of accessibility, equity, state and local policy, and funding.

Tactical urbanism is one of many tools to experiment and understand changes in our built environment, especially ones that support walkability and bikeability. Tactical urbanism can show up in your community through a transit agency or transportation department spearheaded project, like the ones I mentioned above. It can also start informally – have you ever noticed makeshift seating at a bus stop? The Tactical Urbanism Vol 1 defines that as ‘chair bombing’, which is the act of removing salvagable material from the local waste stream and using it to build public seating.’

The benefits of tactical urbanism interventions also extend beyond transportation – re-imagining our public spaces can have co-benefits like encouraging physical activity, spurring economic development, and providing a place for people to build social connections. The examples above demonstrate coordination across different municipal departments and services, and participation from local businesses and community members. Transportation has a unique role in the fabric of our community, and plays a role in connecting us beyond getting us from point A to point B.

Has your small-urban or rural; agency or municipality explored (or implemented!) tactical urbanism or quick build projects? We want to hear from you! E-mail Marcela Moreno at moreno@ctaa.org.

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn

The Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) and its members believe that mobility is a basic human right. From work and education to life-sustaining health care and human services programs to shopping and visiting with family and friends, mobility directly impacts quality of life.