Tactical Urbanism (Lesson Plan)

Prepared for UNC-Chapel Hill Seminar on Sustainable Cities
(Featured photo via Creative Commons)

What is tactical urbanism?

Tactical urbanism describes small scale interventions in the built-environment, with the purpose of improving the people & space relationship. These projects are often low-cost, implemented by localized communities, nonprofits, ngos etc, and serve as both experimental test sites and as seeds for future movements.
Tactical Urbanism is described by Streets Collaborative as featuring the following five characteristics:

  • A deliberate, phased approach to instigating change;
  • An offering of local ideas for local for local planning challenges;
  • Short-term commitment and realistic expectations;
  • Low-risks, with a possibility of high reward; and
  • The development of social capital between citizens, and the building of organizational capacity between public/private institutions, non-profit/NGOs, and their constituents.

(Almost) Synonyms:

Guerilla urbanism, DIY urbanism, pop-up urbanism


The term was coined in 2010 following a NextGen meeting in New Orleans. Mike Lydon of the Street Plans Collaborative followed up with the publication of “Tactical Urbanism Vol 1” to further define the term, put it in the hands of communities, and set it loose on society.

But examples from history, like medieval mobile libraries, suggest that tactical urbanism as a conceptual avenue for action has existed since the dawn of communal living. Environmental stewardship and localized problem-solving to improve living conditions seems to be a natural response when humans share a common space.  The people who live in and experience a space on a daily basis can be a vital resource for constant improvement ideas to city livability,

Today, tactical urbanism runs alongside the idea of master planning. Although the two seem opposed, bottom-up grassroot interventions vs. top-down implementations, cities and tactical urbanists can work together toward actualizing longer-term goals. Ideally, a local intervention can fit within a larger framework of change, and once proven on the small-scale, cities can choose to pursue designs initiated by their people.

Examples of Tactical Urbanism:

  1. PARK(ing) Day: Local residents rent parking spaces from the city and transform them into miniature temporary parks.

    — UNC’s Environmental honors fraternity Epsilon Eta regularly participates in Parking Day on September 15. The fraternity’s president Stephen Lapp describes it as a “way for participants to support public/open space by essentially renting parking spaces to be used however the user chooses. In this case, (Epsilon Eta) brought plants, seating arrangements, games and it was a space where people could have some downtime and enjoy being with friends.” Stephen also added that “the act of doing this also spreads awareness, educates, and advocates for increasing the amount of public space in an urban environment.

    — Residents of Copenhagen often petition the city for parking spots, and after transformation, the city may choose to allow the spot to stay as a permanently converted space. Giving space back to residents is a goal for the city of Copenhagen, and these projects help the city reduce cars in the city center and work toward this goal.
  2. Cooperative Energy on Samsø Island
    Samsø’s transition to carbon neutrality was thanks to the local efforts of residents to come together, hold meetings and forge cooperative models for wind-mill construction and ownership by locals. The island is now 100% renewable, and actually sells excess energy to mainland Denmark.
    A case study I wrote on Samsø Island’s movement to become energy independent can be found here: https://christicompass.com/2018/02/13/samso-island/

  3. Copenhagen Solutions Lab
    The Solutions Lab is supported by both the Municipality of Copenhagen and public-private partnerships to test smart-city solutions in small pilot sites to determine feasibility for city-wide implementation. Projects include smart parking, care of urban nature, waste management and measurement of air quality. 
  4. WalkRaleigh  
    Recognizing the potential for walkability in Raleigh, in 2012 a former urban planning student, Matt Tomasulo, posted 27 corrugated plastic pedestrian way-finding signs at three intersections, giving estimated walking times and direction to local landmarks and public spaces. Initially the signs were mistaken as city-issued, even by city staff. Finally realizing they were placed by a citizen, who hadn’t applied for an encroachment permit – the Planning Department was required to remove the signs.
    But Mitchell Silver, Chief Planning and Development Officer and Planning Director for the City of Raleigh decided to build on the positive momentum and worked with city staff to get the signs back up if they could be incorporated into the City’s way-finding system. To test this, the Planning Department prepared a proposal to use the signs as a three-month pilot educational program. Within three days, 1255 people signed a community petition that circulated online to support the proposal. City Council approved the pilot program.
    The project supported many objectives in the City’s Comprehensive Plan, and demonstrates the way even unsanctioned tactical urbanism can become a collaborative effort between citizen-led initiatives and officials to evaluate and improve policy and practice.




  1. Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action, Long-term Change.
    Published on March 1, 2012.
    * Read pages 1-15
    ** Then, looking through pages 16-50, find two case studies to learn more about and be prepared to discuss. Outside sources are welcome!
  2. “Transform Your City With Tactical Urbanism”
    * Watch: https://youtu.be/rhgkzQEpIaU


  1. Wohl, Sharon. “Tactical urbanism as a means of testing relational processes in space: A complex systems perspective.” Iowa State University.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In looking over the case studies outlined the reading, were there any that jumped out at you as particularly necessary or helpful to the local community?
    Did it seem easy to implement?
    Were there any that seemed more challenging – and why?
  2. Are there emergent technologies you can think of that could use tactical urbanism for evaluation and/or implementation? What could that look like, in your opinion?
  3. What are some ways social media can have a positive impact on tactical urbanism? Are there any negative impacts?
  4. We’ve talked about social capital previously – how do you think tactical urbanism impacts the social capital of a city? Are there some specific techniques that could be added to tactical urbanism that would help increase social capital?
  5. The grid system seen in the US is a result of top-down planning, ignoring local conditions. City planning can often be done behind closed doors and without public input. Are there situations in which you think tactical urbanism should be avoided?   


Get into groups of three and discuss something you’d like to see & potentially help implement here, either around campus or somewhere within the triangle, to improve a public space.


  • What is your proposed project?
  • Why is it important?
  • How would you start the process of implementation? What about getting local interest/engagement?  



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