This spring, Finland’s second city Tampere has been the scene of an interesting urban planning spectacle. Or probably ‘drama’ is a better word to describe the turmoil around the city’s ambition to move on to the second phase of its experiment for temporarily transforming Tampere’s main street, Hämeenkatu, into a transit-only zone. The first phase was initiated last summer by cutting off the street’s eastern half from private cars. Access was left to buses, taxis, and logistics vehicles. The rationale behind the entire experiment is to prepare Tampere for the introduction of a new tram system in 2018 or 2019. Its arrival would make the transformation permanent.
The goal of the second phase is to slim down the now unnecessarily large space for vehicular traffic and to widen the sidewalk to add more people-space such as parklets, event stages, and room for terraces. Generally, the point is to set the scene for how the street could be like if the tram gets built. The budget for all of this is not high, only 70 000€.
I’ve been very excited about this project because it represents exactly the kind of stuff Finnish cities should be doing today. But what happened next was a bit unexpected.
When the second phase of the experiment came in front of the Planning Committee for approval, they voted against it. This was preceded by an uprising against the entire Hämeenkatu experiment, mainly generated by a group of business owners outside of the project area as well as a demographic who are difficult to budge from behind their steering wheels. The main arguments against the experiment are that it has and will continue to make Tampere’s city center less attractive because limited access for cars leads to congestion and less parking spaces. Even despite the fact that just in 2012 a new 972-lot underground parking garage was opened directly underneath Hämeenkatu.
And it’s not just the loss of car access that’s believed to push customers away. Also the idea of giving more space to people has been viewed as a dangerous avenue towards actually inviting more people to use the street. According to critics, this is likely to result in increased malicious behavior and thus is a public safety concern. The recipe for prosperity would be to stop with the nonsense and put cars back on the street.
Wow. As incredible as some of these arguments may seem, the sentiments flared up and began to amplify through social and conventional media outlets. Eventually they swam into the political decision-making process. But the attack against the experiment doesn’t necessarily mirror the current state of the main street.
To my experience Hämeenkatu has never been nicer and always when I’m in Tampere it’s full of people. I’ve never heard anyone not go there – or into the center more broadly – because of the transit street experiment. Furthermore, an interesting fact underlying this debate is that research suggests that business owners in city centers often know little about their clientele’s travel behavior. When tested about the degree that entrepreneurs in Tampere and Turku knew how their customers travel to the center and their establishment, they got it all wrong. It was strongly believed that an overwhelming majority (ca. 2/3 or more) of customers arrived by car compared to the segment that came with public transport, bicycle or by walking. But when researched, the numbers were pretty much the other way around.
Nonetheless, it wasn’t far that the entire experiment went to waste. Luckily Tampere’s Mayor Anna-Kaisa Ikonen stepped in and showed her leadership skills. She interfered and took the plan to be reviewed by the City Board. This time it got approved and this summer Tampere will be able to enjoy an even better Hämeenkatu. Or fundamentally, at least we’ll be able to tell whether this is all nonsense or progress after all. The good thing is that the experiment is low-cost and easily reversible if it turns out to be a death spell for the attractiveness of Tampere’s city center.
This disagreement about whether to build Tampere for cars and traffic or for people and places could actually have taken place in just about any Finnish city council. It captures the spirit and problems of contemporary urban planning and policy. The big picture is that our cities are undergoing a huge shift from outwards sprawling growth patterns towards welcoming inwards-oriented growth. This is greatly thanks to a new generation entering the housing and job markets, the changing nature of work as well as the pressing environmental and economic consequences of suburban sprawl.
Like Tampere’s efforts to introduce a tram system and Hämeenkatu’s experiment shows, cities have slowly began to react to the changing circumstances and are aligning their strategies to serve new sets of citizen-needs. Needless to say, I find this fantastic. But like Tampere’s example also shows, my concerns lie in the practical dimension. Putting those forward-thinking ideas in plans and getting on-the-ground results is no bootleg maneuver. Far from it. Big ships turn slowly, the saying goes.
The truth is that there is a hefty generation divide in how the younger end of the age pyramid perceives urban life compared to the groups towards the top of the pyramid. Also, the modernist planning system doesn’t easily deliver anymore. Maybe it does for out-of-town greenfield projects, but definitely not when the focus is on intensifying the existing urban fabric. Endless bureaucracy featuring numerous evaluations, shallow public participation processes, and, significantly, the firm idea of planning until every last detail is fixed, all sum to lengthy, expensive and stalling planning projects.
Things may be slowly progressing in the right direction, but for a long time it’s simply not easy to build the necessary political, financial, and/or civic support to push forward projects that aim for long-term change and transformation.
But what if we didn’t just put our hope in the big stuff, but started to challenge the status quo with the small and simple?
Conveniently, the Hämeenkatu episode coincided with my discovery of Mike Lydon’s and Anthony Garcia’s Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change, a great book focusing on how little, low-cost, often immediate, and temporary interventions can help plant the seeds for those big 21st-century-urbanism ideas to dodge the opposition, and eventually materialize as permanent change. It’s an approach for citizens, city governments and as well as for example developers or non-profits to “hack the city” and “disturb the order of things in the interest of change”.
Lydon and Garcia link Tactical Urbanism with the above-mentioned contemporary circumstances that affect urban development, but additionally also to the rapid rise of the internet, social media, and, above all, the growth of a DIY culture among younger citizens. Indeed, the concept of Tactical Urbanism is inseparably married to the phenomenon of a rising number of self-confident young adults who are keen on taking part in planning processes as co-producers, not just as distant participants.
That said, Lydon and Garcia also underline that Tactical Urbanism is not synonymous with all dimensions of DIY Urbanism that take place in cities (like e.g. pop-up street art). The common umbrella for Tactical Urbanism initiatives is that they are powered by “a movement based on a positive vision for the future”.
For citizens this means that Tactical Urbanism is a way to inspire their local governments to embrace change; to underline and call out for updating outdated policies that serve another era or to show what is possible using different methods. Cities on the other hand can use Tactical Urbanism within their planning processes to reach out to and inspire their citizens. This means using temporary pilot projects to bring planning concepts for people to touch and experience physically.
Process-wise, a key idea is not to just make use of acting small, but also applying the open-ended philosophy “build-measure-learn” instead of the current top-down planning philosophy “design-present-defend”. For cities this means that long-term city development should begin to think about co-creation, fast prototyping and testing out new methods boldly.
A very well-known example of a city-led Tactical Urbanism intervention is New York’s Times Square transformation from car-friendly to people-friendly. After increasing pressure for giving more space to people in the traffic-congested square and debates over whether closing streets in the area would lead to gridlock in the city and cause people to go elsewhere, the city’s administration decided to try what would happen if they did remove cars from the area. Overnight, much of Times Square was cut off from cars and filled with cheap foldable chairs.
The result? People loved it. And by collecting data through the different phases of the project, the city learned that the restructuring led to less congestion, shorter travel times, less accidents, more pedestrians, and eventually upped Times Square into the top 10 of world’s most valuable retail destinations. And perhaps most importantly, as everyone was able to see and experience the results for themselves, support to make the temporary intervention permanent came on its own accord.
A cool example of bottom-up Tactical Urbanism comes from the Netherlands where Rotterdam‘s new Luchtsingel bridge got built using crowdfunding. Following Rotterdam’s city hall not being able to improve the walkability of a run-down but start-up-filled quarter between busy thoroughfares due to budget constraints, local advocates decided to act. They generated a plan for a wooden footbridge and set up a crowdfunding system to begin its piece-by-piece completion by selling planks. Donors got their name or message engraved on to the plank(s) they purchased. Rotterdam’s city government eventually pitched in to finish the project because it got chosen by citizens to receive city funding and support.
Finland’s Bottom-Up Buzz
The obvious link between my project example from Tampere and the one from Times Square means that Tactical Urbanism is a very relevant concept for Finland, too. Finnish cities have admittedly been doing plenty of experiments within the urban planning realm throughout the country, but I’ve haven’t seen any transformation success stories.
A lot of interesting stuff is however happening on the citizens-led front. Although, so far not so much around urban planning. But the cultural sector has certainly benefited from a recent influx of citizen-instigated initiatives. The often-cited Restaurant Day is probably the most known of them and it nicely displays characteristics of Tactical Urbanism.
The engine powering Restaurant Day came from a frustration to the inflexible policies around restaurants, and especially mobile restaurants. So in 2011, a handful of people just decided to open their own pop-up restaurant for a day without asking for permission from the city and invited others to do the same. The first Restaurant Day was carried out with 45 restaurants. Almost exactly one year ago, the number of participating pop-up restaurants peaked at 2724 in 35 countries. And what’s interesting is that the inauguration of Restaurant Day pushed Helsinki to ease their policies around food trucks (that are now present at every event) as well as it has led to a number of jumps from just-for-fun pop-up restaurants to real restaurants. Restaurant Day has not only made the city more fun and sociable, but it has also been a powerful tool for putting Helsinki’s and Finland’s policies around restaurants and food in the spotlight.
So far, to my knowledge, there aren’t any Finnish citizens-led ‘tactical’ projects that relate directly to urban planning and that would have taken on-the-ground forms (I believe Park(ing) Day was tried once). But things may be changing quickly. The explosion in online discussion forums shows that people are clustering around the subject. All of Finland’s three biggest cities Helsinki, Tampere and Turku have thriving online communities on Facebook to discuss, exchange and advance ideas in urban planning. Especially in Helsinki and Tampere there are big groups that also have a clearly defined goal of supporting denser and more urban city building.
Following these developments, also a couple of more or less substantial tactical initiatives have emerged. They are not the same kind of hands-on stuff many projects that get defined as Tactical Urbanism are (at least not yet), but they’re nevertheless still direct attempts to shake the system from within by using the same tools planners are.
The first one of them is a project I’m involved in: a group of concerned urban planning activists called Urban Helsinki. Our idea has been to intervene in planning processes by drafting alternative plans to raise awareness about the needs of today’s urban living, challenge old planning ideas, and to call for more open public participation processes as well as clearer and more approachable ways of communicating plans.
The big achievement of our two plans, Haaganpuro and Pro Helsinki 2.0, has been in forcing Helsinki’s planners to reflect their thinking against ours and check the validity of their arguments for creating great cities. In the aftermath of our Haaganpuro project, I received an email from an architect within the City Planning Department: “Hopefully we’ll also start to be more receptive towards new ideas and won’t just hold on to ones once found good. The world is indeed changing quickly and few things are exactly as they used to be.”
Our Pro Helsinki 2.0 project has also other tactical aims. Firstly, it seeks to address a major issue in comprehensive planning: it is a very difficult topic to discuss about. Typically, things work so that the city drafts a plan which offers a suggestion for the future, and throws it out for public review. But the problem is that it can be difficult even for professionals to fruitfully comment on a draft plan when there is just one way of developing to discuss. So as Helsinki started to draft its new comprehensive city plan, we decided to offer an alternative, more urban, vision to compare against. Secondly, the plan is an attempt to help some of Helsinki’s planning ambitions move forward. With Pro Helsinki 2.0, we want to help the city gather support behind the good parts of their plan so that they don’t get watered down or ripped apart in political fights by city-building conservatives.
A newer citizens-driven tactical initiative comes from Tampere. Or more precisely, it’s hopefully the groundwork for many projects to come. In March this year, a group of activists from the local urbanist Facebook group decided to form their own association called Urbaani Tampere (yes, the word ‘urban’ is threatened with inflation) to have a more structured approach for spreading and defending urbanist ideas in the city. A key driver in Urbaani Tampere’s emergence was and is to help the city “win” discourses around its new densification plans in the city center. So far they’ve drafted and submitted position papers to some key projects and they’ve also entered the public urban planning discourse to highlight that there are also YIMBY feelings in the city. I’m very much looking forward to seeing if the emergence of Urbaani Tampere leads to the hands-on sorts of Tactical Urbanism initiatives. Please invite me to take part if you do!
Time to Step Out from City Hall
This takes us back to Tampere’s Hämeenkatu experiment. The project thankfully got saved by the Mayor, but an important question to ask is would things have gotten to that point at all if there was deeper outreach to the city center’s business owners? And equally importantly, could the planners have taken YIMBY parties who speak the language of quality urbanism, like Urbaani Tampere, to work with them?
In the context of trying to bring quality urbanism, these types of experiments haven’t really worked because there always seems to be shortcomings in coalition-building and/or programming. Last year we saw a policy-makers driven idea to pedestrianize a part of Helsinki’s Mannerheimintie get shot down using the exact same arguments that almost sank Tampere’s project. Another good example is Helsinki’s experiment from a couple of years ago to make Vaasankatu a pedestrian street. For one summer, the city removed cars from the street to see what would happen if it were pedestrianized. The result? Nothing happened. And I don’t really see what could have happened when you just remove cars from an ordinary side street. Had the city programmed the venture together with the local bars and restaurants and/or tested some cool street furniture, things could have been a lot different.
Mike Lydon and Andy Garcia agree. Their message is that cities should start getting more ‘tactical’ in their experiments by “creating programs that are accessible and allow for citizens, organizations and small business owners to take a leadership role in making change” (source). Lydon and Andy Garcia also note that city halls shouldn’t immediately shrug at bottom-up initiatives that emerge around issues that aren’t currently on the planners’ desks and/or are technically not permitted: “municipal government can and should work proactively with citizen leaders rather than crack down on their activity. Such projects are highly visible and should be considered a low-cost way to engage a wider audience of people.”
Based on my experience of getting ‘tactical’, recent talks with experts, and following today’s debates around many Finnish planning projects, I’m also quite confident that these suggestions for cities to keep their antennae up for existing or emerging citizens-led projects is a pathway towards better participation, collaboration and coalition-building between the formal and informal.
Following the hype around the modern DIY culture, I think it’s also crucial for cities not to believe that they can plan ahead and provoke citizen activism. Because that’s impossible. But cities can and should definitely encourage their citizens to push for change and then welcome it with open arms when and if that happens.
Lastly, Lydon and Garcia stress that Tactical Urbanism isn’t “the or even one solution for many of our most vexing urban problems” and that there is no ideal way for planners nor citizens to use the methodology. The scalability of ideas is a priority, but the bottom line is that Tactical Urbanism is an always unique method for people and authorities to join forces in thinking outside the box, discovering, testing and adapting new concepts, and, ultimately, making better cities.
Cities, start cultivating a culture of experimentation today!