This year, I head over to Belfast in Northern Ireland to talk about their national Urban Planning Conference to feedback on our tactical urbanism work, especially the Rethink Re:Place Festival, you can read the whole speech, below.
My work revolves around social innovation, basically I design policy driver projects for governments and the public sector. I mix citizen engagement, research and digital design to ensure people are at the heart of their region's strategic direction of that subject.
Mostly this involves digitalisation, stuff like open data, smart cities and civic tech, alongside more community minded projects that cover anything from food poverty, disabilities rights, youth activism, NGO capacity building and more, as you can probably guess, running a small third sector organisation that works globally, there are many, many plates to spin - but I’ve got to admit to you all, urban planning has never been something that has floated into our line of work, that was until of course, Covid-19 stuck and ground us all to a halt.
I really believe 2022 is the year of the disruptor, we kind of have to be, don't we? We need to be malleable in a post covid world, we are going to have to hack and reprogram how we engage on some issues, sometimes you need to bring people to the table who think differently and come from different disciplines from you but hold that same passion for the betterment of our residents, they help you to see the world differently.
Arguably you have all had that mindset over the last few years, you have literally had to rethink your daily life, let alone how you work.
Today I would like to tell about a piece of activist and completely volunteer led work we ran last year on community led placemaking which I feel falls very nicely into the disrupter category, namely tactical urbanism, in a short while I will present the data from that work and I have to say, during this short presentation I will be throwing a lot of information at you, but don’t worry, all this is in readable form I will share with you later, along with some free tools.
My game is information, I don’t really want to stand here giving a throw away speech on an issue, I’d like to use this opportunity to pass on some collective learning. Obviously time is short, but I’d like to give you an overview from professionals based in different corners of the globe.
Nearly all of our work is with governments, from the UK to Colombia to Germany to Kenya to Brazil to Palestine, we ran a lot of virtual workshops at the start of the pandemic while we were deep in lockdown and even though the subject was on different policy areas, the subject of people, place and health were constantly raised in activities and there was a concern for available funding for community projects with rapidly shifting priorities.
With that in mind, I spoke to a lot of local council staff up and down the country, especially within the West Midlands where I am from on the subject of people shaping or influencing places and there was a common reply which was.
“There’s no money for urban planning mapping or engagement events.”
Personally I thought this was madness, at that time we were in and out of lockdowns, people were literally rediscovering where they live and saw it in a new light, on a personal note, I found places of beauty I didn't even know existed, I started to find a new found appreciation for where I lived.
Surely this is an opportunity to build on that momentum.
If that was a trend across the country, well, you would like to think, gathering that intelligence from people would be integral to how we can form a community narrative to shape our towns and cities post covid-19, since we have rigorously tested how we feel about our parks, streets and towns, what could be changed, made better or equally importantly, left alone.
We found what really makes our place on a hyperlocal level, from my point of view, that is an incredibly important data sample we can collect to improve how we work on a strategic level, even if it’s just holistically.
But, if there is no money, there is no money. You can’t argue with that from the standpoint of someone who works from a NGO perspective when talking to local government staff, but considering these conversations are with staff who work in some of the most deprived local authorities in England, it did give me a pang of anxiety.
In all honesty, first and foremost I am a social activist, I guess that is why I do what I do for a living as I mix that idea set with academic process, at that time I was doing a lot of work on designing mechanisms that ensure communities are engaged on certain issues, being tasked to develop various codesigned approaches I was facilitating policy hackathons with a range of people such as community actors, grassroots organisations such as tenants and residents associations, local NGOs and government workers - for those who don’t know what that is it, it’s a rapid prototyping session that kind of looks like a workshop, we learn about certain issues but the activities act as policy driver feedback that we can use for strategic direction of that issue, in layman's terms, it’s just a means to gather citizen engagement evidence quickly.
So I thought, could we take this mindset to placemaking somehow and in the absence of funds, are there processes we could use to engage local residents who are passionate about where they live to collect their views but also enable them, is there a way we can upskill these people and put some sort of power back into their hands but also support our local authorities and housing associations to keep the door of engagement open.
And if I could find that magic ingredient, would that be?
Then I came across tactical urbanism…. But, before we go on, for those who aren't sure what it is…
Tactical urbanism consists of low-cost, temporary changes to a built environment, usually in cities, intended to improve local neighbourhoods and city gathering places. Perhaps most importantly it can be done cheaply or at no cost, by almost anyone.
Essentially, it’s the cool, punk-rock loving cousin of placemaking - the multi-faceted approach to planning, designing and managing public spaces. Placemaking capitalises on a local community's assets, inspiration, and potential to create public spaces that promote people's health, happiness, and well-being, it can be as small as creating a tiny sitting space on your neighbourhood corner or as big as turning a decommissioned jumbo jet into a community centre, which actually happened in Bulgaria, making your own signs and putting them around your town which highlight culture spots and how far they are to walk to or maybe you can get your knitting out and decorate those ugly bollards on your street, again, which is an actual thing, it’s called yarn bombing.
Residents are the ones with the lived experience that give all the important answers, and they should be included at every opportunity and given the space to be creative, they know all the stories and get the vibe of their street, I’m sure we can all agree on that.
So, initially we thought we’d take this ethos of our rapid prototyping events and create a downloadable workshop that explains what tactical urbanism is and how to use it with practical examples in easy to understand language with a series of activities that can help facilitators to gather intelligence for low cost project ideas, so that was put out and we encouraged our local government friends to run it for themselves.
But then, it generated a bit of interest after it was covered in Inside Housing Magazine and Local Government News. I was approached by a bunch of students from the University of Birmingham to see if I could include them in a project on this issue.
Just in case you are wondering, on your screen is the word map from all our tactical urbanism events, we asked participants what tactical urbanism means to them for the icebreaker.
In essence, and I guess that is why I have been invited to talk to you today, Rethink Re:Place Festival was born.
This was a virtual festival looking to celebrate all things tactical urbanism with the aim of passing on the knowledge that tactical urbanism is something we can all do at neighbourhood level, from moving a few chairs and plant pots into an urban area to create a parklet, to making seed bombs to help our native insents (which is a form of guerilla gardening, which is something I am very much into at the moment) to simple techniques that beautify or turn attention to our neighbourhoods.
The sum of it was to showcase that in the face of financial issues, we can still have a say in how our place looks and works, regardless if you are a government worker looking to gain insight or you are an activist who would like to influence your local government or housing association, and if you like, force them to do something about it, depending on what side of the coin you are on.
We put together a whole bunch of engagements which we released over one week in February.
Unfortunately I only have a short time so I’m restricted to what I can share you, but let’s give you a quick rundown of what we did but don’t worry I’ll give you the info you need to access this later:
Interviews: Our volunteers interviewed industry leaders who are working in the tactical urbanism sector, here we wanted to concentrate on their advice and shine a light on some of the mistakes they have made in the past and their learning process from that - we interviewed a range of leaders, but to name a few, Claire Davis, Specialist Urban Design at Auckland Council in New Zealand, the designer behind the highly influential tactical urbanism Biscayne-Green project in Miami, Mike Lydon who literally wrote the book on tactical urbanism and much more.
There is some great insight on tactical urbanism so if you are interested in learning more, there are loads you can learn in these videos.
Children: Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá in Colombia, which is home to arguably the world's biggest public tactical urbanism project where once a week the roads of the city are only open to cyclists, once said: “Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for everyone.” We took that to heart during the design process and wanted to design something children could get involved with along with their parents. This was set out as a virtual lesson where children were the mayor of their own city and had to design an area.
This lesson is still available with downloadable resources if you’d like to run it with your little terrors, this was especially successful with parents who work in placemaking.
Workshops: we ran a series of virtual workshops with Council staff in the UK and Canada to look at how we can encourage community-led tactical urbanism projects from the government point of view. I'll whizz through some pulled out data highlights.
These are screenshots taken from the report, don’t worry, again I’ll share this later so you don’t need to try and read them.
The first activity prompted ideas about how local governments could encourage tactical urbanism in their local area, participants said raising awareness about it via campaigns, running micro projects, involving schools and elderly groups, running hyperlocal groups events, using tactical urbanism to increase local understanding and increasing capacity by removing any regulatory barriers, providing good open data and supplying community assets.
For the second activity we provided participants with a scenario of how we can support CSOs to create a lasting legacy from their tactical urbanism project. The main headlines were, offering training, working with them to secure funding, providing practical support such as backoffice, breaking down those silos that Councils have that we all know and love and helping them to build networks.
Hackathon: Following on from the workshops, we ran an international policy hackathon with the goal of reaching an audience from a range of backgrounds and disciplines. This meant that, through our activities, we could gather feedback from participants with diverse perspectives on tactical urbanism and placemaking.
Over 150 people turned up which provided an excellent opportunity to pool their expertise, developing valuable insight to inform policy direction. The hackathon brought together community activists, students, academics, policy officers, and urban planners - all united by a common interest in driving urban change and imagining a brighter future for public spaces. Their differing understandings and experiences of tactical urbanism and community development were reflected in the findings from our activities.
Technically, during lockdown we had some forced tactical urbanism practises put on us and the first activity explored what procedures we’d like to keep and it wont shock you to see the results, walking and cycling, more fluid access to greenspace, keep thinking local, capitalise on the sense of community and using our communal spaces to socialise more.
This is when it gets a little more interesting and where the rapid prototyping ethos comes into action, for the second activity, and this was a big one, was to create a tactical urbanism road map, obviously we can’t go into it in detail but let’s quickly share at least some feedback.
Part 1 was informing and engaging, there are some obvious ones so let's pull out the different feedback such as promoting the inclusivity of tactical urbanism and what it might look like in more diverse communities, running live demonstrations and workshops in parks and other community spaces and creating tactical urbanism minded volunteering opportunities.
Part 2 shined a light on realising impact which includes 3 areas, some of the good advice here was using digital media like videos to improve visibility, signposting and awareness, alongside increasing community confidence in projects by demonstrating how they can create successful outcomes.
Part 3 talks all about lasting legacy, to pull out a few of the key thoughts, these were, embed legacy, durability and exit strategies into the design process from the start, make use of existing projects, networks and organisations, ensure that the project is self-sustaining or has plans for ongoing maintenance and funding, and finally, make it part of the community, include wider beneficiaries using digital media.
There was also one final small activity I’d like to mention where participants created a declaration to engage letters that they can send to local decision makers to encourage their buy-in to projects.
Phew, so that’s that!
Let’s face it, we aren't going to emerge from the pandemic quickly, the onicrom variant is testament to that and with other priorities such as a very real possibility of a mental health crisis let alone the constant stress of energy price rises it’s clear our councils and housing associations have far more priorities but with less money going around.
But as we can all argue, be it our sense of community, our local identity or space for our own personal mindfulness it’s so important we keep our residents engaged, even if it is just a stop gap until we can turn the corner and tactical urbanism can help us achieve that, even if it is just used as a means to engage.
So finally, I’d like to share a free toolkit, this is basically an amalgamation of the original workshop we designed, the ones we facilitated over the festival and the hackathon all squashed into one, when you click download you’ll find a zip folder that contains a guidebook which will give you all the info you need, a presentation you can flick through, a manuscript that guides you through each slide along with promotion aids such as a blog you can edit and share, an edible poster, images to share on social media and even eventbrite tools, the report and roadmap is in there too.
If you are struggling to fund urban planning related outreach activities I encourage you to download it and run it in your community, you can download it at new-union.org/rethinkreplace.html
We all have the capacity to be disrupters, in the most positive of ways, and I believe tactical urbanism is a tool that can help us on that ethos.
So I’d like to thank you for your time and wish you all the best, stay safe, thank you.