Today, one of the most popular initiatives regarding public space, participatory design and activism in the city is the so-called citizen urbanism or tactical urbanism. The approach proposes to trigger, through limited and low-cost interventions, long-term changes in public space, i.e. short-term action, long-term change (Street Plans, 2013).
The strategy used is to create temporary scenarios that make visible a specific problem and the formation of specific interventions to solve it, seeking to incorporate the community to give it relevance and promote its sustainability over time and, in this way, raise the discussion about the benefits of the projects for the quality of life in the context in which they are inserted.
Based on this mode of operation, and in order to facilitate its implementation, they have developed intervention guides that provide instructions for design, materiality and execution, in order to conduct and operationalise the entire process, from conception to construction. The first guide to tactical urbanism emerged in 2012 in the United States by planner Mike Lydon and architect Tony Garcia. Subsequently, new case-related publications have been added in Australia, New Zealand, Italy and Latin America. In 5 years alone, 10 publications have been produced in English and Spanish, compiling examples of urban interventions around the world. (Street Plans & Ciudad Emergente, 2013).
In terms of its implementation, it is a proposal that, by means of eye-catching temporary interventions, seeks to trigger changes in urban life. It is questionable, and even illusory, to think that the solution to problems related to public space, mobility conflicts or the need for services and equipment in Latin American cities can be solved through the painting of a pavement, pallet seats or a manual with application instructions. In most cases, these interventions are based on the basis of places of high concurrence and without activation problems. By operating in a reduced and privileged field of action, whose image of success is assured, the impact of actions continues without benefiting the most vulnerable sectors of the city.
As a private initiative, it could be valid as an articulation of private interests with the capacity to recover and improve public spaces or private spaces for public use (POPS). However, it is questionable when the public body decides to finance and emphasise urban interventions that benefit a few in privileged sectors with respect to their urban context. This situation contradicts the idea of promoting more democratic and equitable cities for all, since it is precisely the vulnerable communes, far from the centre or without facilities, that need to be intervened.
Beyond the possible discussion regarding the economic resources associated with these interventions, it is relevant to focus on their high media impact, as they shift public attention and create a false image that urban conflicts are being addressed and resolved when the reality is not that at all. Even over the success of some of these interventions in their specific environments, the notion that urban problems are being addressed can be detrimental to the equitable development of cities.
This way of operating - limited to punctual actions, designed under a monosectoral vision, typical of the public body, in which problems are approached from a single dimension - subsequently translates into partial and low-impact solutions. The urban and commercial trends of the moment, which perpetuate a subsidiary state model in which public space, transport and services are conceived as consumer goods, and the product of their high media traction, have made these operations attractive to a political portfolio that thinks of voters rather than citizens.
An urban design that seeks to recover public spaces on a small scale requires a global vision that considers the multiple factors that affect the quality of life in the city, in order to avoid partial solutions that do not articulate the complexity of the urban scenario. Therefore, however limited the interventions may be, it is essential that they respond to a larger strategy and projection, even if they can be materialised in phases or stages, as is done, for example, by the so-called urban acupuncture (Lerner, 2003).
With regard to the inclusion of civil society in these projects, which citizen urbanism claims to carry out (Street Plans & Ciudad Emergente, 2013), it is not clear whether there is really a methodology for its incorporation and it gives the impression that it is more a consultative process and neighbourhood animation than involvement, reducing this participation to its understanding as a spectacle in the city (Lefebvre, 1974) and in which the public body has fostered a clientelistic relationship with citizens in which the latter asks and the former gives (Auyero, 2004). Relationships of this kind risk inhibiting social organisation insofar as citizen participation is understood as an end in itself rather than a tool for the production of space and democratisation in decision-making.
It is paradoxical to empower the community with the benefits of a given project if these initiatives originate from the authority or from external agents in a top-down process that does not contemplate the active involvement of the people.
There are cases in which this type of project makes sense and is worthwhile, as long as it is framed in a given situation and context, without political ends or media abuse. In that case, tactical urbanism should be understood for what it is: not a model for comprehensive urban development, but a piecemeal way of building the city as a response to particular interests, mainly commercial, to intervene in public space, which is not sustainable if the city is to be approached as a right.
Consuelo Araneda holds a degree in Architecture from the University of Chile (UCH) and is an assistant in the Department of Urban Planning at the same university.
- Kayden, Jerold S. (2000), New York City Department of City Planning and Municipal Art Society of New York. Privately Owned Public Space: The New York Experience. Willy & Sons. Nueva York.
- Auyero, J. (2004). Clientelismo Político. Las caras ocultas. Buenos Aires.
- Lefebvre, H. (1974). La producción del espacio. (E. M. Gutiérrez, Trad.) Capitán Swing.
- Lerner, J. (2003). Acupuntura urbana.. Rio de Janeiro.
- Schlack, E. (2015). POPS El uso público del espacio urbano. El carácter público a través de la normativa. Editorial ARQ.
- Street Plans + Ciudad Emergente. (2013). Urbanismo Táctico 3.