Tag Archives: Tactical Urbanism

The Power of DIY Urbanism: How a Group of Skateboarders Changed the City

There’s a lot of talk nowadays (this blog included) about how bottom up movements have become more important in shaping and solving problems of the 21st century city. The drivers behind the trend include the rise of the internet and social media: It has become very easy to mobilize people around any issue. In addition, access to information has been democratized, making top-down governance models seem outdated and inefficient in their responses to today’s urban challenges. People are taking the initiative to improve their surroundings themselves.

While we’re experiencing all kinds of fascinating Do-It-Yourself (DIY) urbanisms or Tactical Urbanisms emerge in our cities, we, typically, just manage to see a snapshot of their activities. Many initiatives also fade away as soon as we hear about them. It’s rarely easy to get a nuanced understanding of the projects or evaluate their full potential in bringing change.

Sometimes it’s not easy even if you’re on the inside. I often get asked to elaborate the impact of my DIY urban planning activities and it is, indeed, a difficult task. I’ve tried to single out some tangible outcomes, but, as with most “activisms”, it seems that the greatest impact happens in places that are not visible nor measurable.

Tikkutehdas DIY by Pirkanmaan Kaarikoirat
Tikkutehdas DIY, the skatepark built by skateboarders for skateboarders, in the making. The group behind this project and many others is Kaarikoirat Skateboard Organization and their work can be best followed via their Instagram account @kaarikoira. Photo credit: Niklas Pedersen/Kaarikoirat Skateboard Organization

Luckily, there are also exceptions. Such as the work of Kaarikoirat Skateboard Organization (Pirkanmaan Kaarikoirat Ry), a group of skateboarders who have proactively built their own skatepark instead of waiting for the city’s administration to deliver new skateboarding infrastructure. I’m grateful for having met them because their story is a unique window for examining the changing landscape between top-down and bottom-up processes. While DIY skateparks are not a new phenomenon as such, the one of Kaarikoirat managed to start an unexpected process of change that improved the quality of life for their peers and beyond.

So, if you’re right now pondering whether you should proceed with your own idea to bring positive change in your city, continue reading. Kaarikoirat have proved that it is possible to make the city better for everyone even when you don’t have any power, resources, or allies to begin doing so.

Worlds Apart: Tampere and Skateboarding

The setting of the Kaarikoirat story takes us to the early 2000s and the city of Tampere, Finland, where the local skateboarding scene was rolling away in an atmosphere of frustration. The dissatisfaction was due to a lack of proper facilities for practicing skateboarding. The sport had gradually become a popular pastime among the Finnish youth, but the network of skateboarding infrastructure was scarce, too generic, and poorly laid out.

The city’s officials had little interest in building skateparks. Nor did they have any real pressure, expertise, or guidance in doing so.

Hallila Skatepark
Hallilla Skatepark is an example of how city-led skateboarding infrastructure development can look like. In many cases, the expanding gap between the local government’s business-as-usual activities and societal progression provides a fruitful breeding ground for DIY urbanisms. Photo credit: City of Tampere.

At the time, the local skateboarding scene was made up of fragmented and organically grown groups. And the Finnish Skateboarding Association was largely non-existent (they were founded in 2003). Consequently, there really wasn’t any organized lobby to pressure the city to do a better job. Only quiet pleas for improving the situation that got largely ignored or deprioritized.

The Kaarikoirat group was one of the fragments who occasionally tried to stress that the city could step up their game. During travels and studies around Europe, the guys had learned about the more advanced state of skateboarding culture and facilities in other countries. They knew how things could be. And new ideas kept pouring in all the time via social media. That was the new normal with different lifestyle scenes. For instance, Swedish DIY enthusiast Pontus Alv’s movies promoting self-made skateparks spread across the world like wildfire to inspire a whole generation of skateboarders.

From Dissappointment to Tikkutehdas DIY

Fast-forward to 2008, and things, suddenly, took a sharp turn for the better. Tampere’s officials revealed an extensive plan for skatepark development. The frustrating years of sending complaints had paid off, it seemed.

The excitement was, however, quickly replaced by disappointment and anger. Nothing was done to implement plan. As swiftly as the plans had emerged, they got buried by other projects deemed more vital.

Waiting for the city to act began to look like a waste of time.

Tikkutehdas area
The area around Tampere’s Santalahti and Tikkutehdas (former match factory) was a kind of gray zone, left somewhere in between the public and private spheres. It’s undecided future gave room for many types of unsanctioned activities to blossom. For Kaarikoirat, this meant a possibility to build their skatepark without any interference from the city’s administration. The group told me that the police wasn’t bothered either, they just stopped by occasionally to check all is well. Photo: Mikko J. Putkonen

Sometime later, a self-help opportunity for Kaarikoirat to improve the situation emerged. The skaters stumbled upon a sleepy former industrial site on the edge of the inner city. It was one of those places where the original industrial activities died out or moved away by the 70s and other endeavors, such as artist studios, had taken over. Some of the gracious red brick buildings also stood completely vacated, waiting for distant redevelopment plans to materialize. This was the case especially with the plot of Tikkutehdas, a former match factory, that served as an unsanctioned graffiti gallery.

Junk at Tikkutehdas
The area around Tikkutehdas was rich with junk. Photo credit: Mikko J. Putkonen / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Experiences of thriving do-it-yourself skateparks elsewhere in the world combined with the mixture of available assets such as the obvious lack of any formal activities around Tikkutehdas, a flat piece of land where a burned-down building once stood, and a wealth of discarded materials lying around, led the group to begin imagining about the possibility of constructing their own skatepark. By the next summer, the idea of Tikkutehdas DIY was ripe enough to put it into action.

This is when the magic starts to happen.

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A snapshot of the grassroots skatepark development. Photo credit: Kaarikoirat Skateboard Organization / Tikkutehdas DIY Facebook Page

The guys had some experience of building small-scale ramps in school and their backyards, but no expertise in creating something of the scale of an entire skatepark. They also didn’t have any money. Despite these shortcomings, they launched a working process of “trial and error”, as they described it, to incrementally transform the area into a skating paradise. The examples from other countries provided important benchmarks to see what worked and what didn’t. Not to mention assurance that the project was feasible.

tikkutehdas DIY construction
Work, work, work. Photo credit: Kaarikoirat Skateboard Organization

Pulling together the necessary materials and additional funding (much came from their own pockets) was a creative project of its own. The group collected bottles and cans to raise funds, recycled suitable materials they found in the area, and contacted local companies for support. Fortunately, they came across plenty of like-minded people in different businesses who were open to lending a helping hand. For example, construction companies gave away leftover materials, a skateboarding brand allowed them to use a van, and one company donated 3 cubic meters of concrete.

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In later stages, the project got more ambitious. The group told me that at some point of the process they estimated they had used 20,000€ worth of material resources to build the park. Photo credit: Kaarikoirat Skateboard Organization / Tikkutehdas DIY Facebook Page

They also didn’t need to do the job by themselves. Other skateboarder groups and kids that hung out in the area joined to help. Kaarikoirat also managed to win the landowner on their side by assuring that nothing obscure was going on in the area.

Developing the skatepark became a meaningful and communal pastime for many: “One of the best things about our process was the feeling of communality and solidarity. We actually think that the skatepark project was a big factor in removing cliques in the local skateboarding scene and it brought older and younger skateboarders together.”, the group told me.

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Tikkutehdas DIY at its largest. Photo credit: Kaarikoirat Skateboard Organization / Tikkutehdas DIY Facebook Page

The Nudge from a Paper Tissue Brand

After a couple of summers of underground skateboarding and communal construction activities, an unexpected and game-changing sequence of events started to unfold.

It all began by a Kaarikoirat member discovering that a tissue paper brand had announced a call for inspirational community initiatives. They wanted to award the best one with 5,000 € and the winner would be chosen by the public. The group decided to seize the opportunity as the money would allow further expansion of their skatepark. Using social media, they mobilized the entire skateboarding community to vote for their DIY skatepark initiative. The prize was easily theirs.

But to be able to receive the money, they were required to establish an official association for the group. This practical byproduct later proved to be a useful tool for opening doors beyond money processing: It facilitated the group in advancing a dialogue with the city’s management. They, for example, were able to build a working relationship with the Deputy Mayor who was responsible for developing skateboarding infrastructure.

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A summer day at Tikkutehdas DIY. Photo credit: Kaarikoirat Skateboard Organization / Tikkutehdas DIY Facebook Page

This gentle mingling had started to gradually evolve because, parallel to the construction of the Tikkutehdas DIY park and competition win, also the advocacy for pressuring politicians and the administration had been intensifying all along. For example, a petition requesting for new public skateparks had been launched. Collecting names had become much easier than before as the local skateboarding community were more unified than ever.

Finally, Kaarikoirat were approached by the media. The local newspaper had gotten interested in doing a feature about the group, thanks to their competition win and the interesting nature of the DIY project.

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The main newspaper of the Tampere area, Aamulehti, got onto the work of Kaarikoirat after they won in the paper tissue brand’s competition. Also editorials and stories in other media followed. Image: Tikkutehdas DIY Facebook Page

This proved to be a crucial turning point. Faced with growing dissatisfaction towards the city’s skateboarding policies and exposure of the situation in the media, Tampere’s high-profile politicians were cornered. They needed to react. This meant that the skateboarders’ long wait was finally over: the city’s leadership decided to do a complete policy turnaround, led by the Deputy Mayor.

A Remarkable Partnership Begins to Evolve

Thanks to the U-turn in policy, the city allocated several hundred thousand Euros for public skatepark improvement. The big development plans re-emerged on the planners’ tables. And this time to walk the talk, the city launched a landmark project to build a 1 200 sq. meter skatepark called Iso-Vilunen.

How, is the interesting part.

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Iso-Vilunen skatepark during the Manserama 2015 competition. Kaarikoirat were very much involved in the design of the park, ensuring the outcome will be top quality from the users’ perspective. Photo credit: Leo-setä/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Noting the success of Tikkutehdas DIY and Tampere’s poor track record in facility development, the city realized they understood nothing about good skatepark design. They concluded it’s better to include the proper expertise in their process to ensure a sustainable outcome. The solution was to invite a well-known skater consultant as well as Kaarikoirat to advise the city in the design and implementation of Iso-Vilunen.

The collaboration was a great success. Today, Iso-Vilunen is considered Finland’s best skatepark. Someone has even praised it to be the best in the Nordics.

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Iso-Vilunen skatepark and Manserama 2015. Photo credit: Leo-setä/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The amazing and fruitful collaboration facilitated the building of a new kind of trust between the skateboarder group and the city officials. More doors were opened. For example, one day the group spotted discarded roadside stones and got an idea that they, placed on an underperforming city center plaza, could double as an amenity for skateboarders and a way to bring eyes to an area known for unsociable behavior. The city implemented the idea. Kaarikoirat and the city have also cooperated in the organizing of Manserama, a big annual skateboarding event.

Piriplaza skating
Right in the middle of downtown Tampere is a park/plaza that’s surrounded by a parking lot and other uses that block access or pull people away from it. Marginalized groups typically cluster in these types of places. The site became known as “Piriplaza” (Speed plaza) within the skateboarding circles. Kaarikoirat managed to negotiate adding new skateboarding infrastructure to the plaza for increasing the presence of other users, too.

Remarkably, the decision to build a self-made skatepark eventually turned out to be a triumph for all of Tampere’s skateboarders. And there’s even more.

The communal experience of the Tikkutehdas DIY building process had sparked another interesting idea: What if Kaarikoirat repeated the process, but this time by also integrating unemployed youngsters into the construction of a new skatepark?

Proposal made and accepted. This new area of cooperation was launched a couple of years ago in connection to the effort for building an Olympic-size indoor skatepark in Tampere’s Hiedanranta area. In its first phase, the project employed more than a dozen long-term unemployed youngsters who shared an interest to advance a career in construction and developing skateboarding facilities. According to reports, 80% of them got employed afterwards. That’s something you don’t see every day.

Hiedanranta Kenneli DIY
To have great skateboarding facilities all year round, Kaarikoirat initiated a new DIY project to build an indoor skatepark: The Kenneli DIY. The site is again an industrial area undergoing reinvention. Photo credit: Kaarikoirat Skateboard Organization

Three Key Takeaways

The Kaarikoirat story shows how proactive and resourceful young citizens can stand up to shake the system, not only by complaining about the status quo, but by actively creating and proposing something better.

While their experience represents a niche, the story is packed with extremely interesting dimensions that also very much relate to other domains of society and DIY urbanism. Here are three that I find especially worth mentioning.

The interaction between citizens and government in a changing world

Back in the day, neighborhood associations and other formal entities that represented residents served as key interfaces in discussions between city administrations and the public. Now, however, people are increasingly organized into informal networks around things they care about. These don’t possess an address for contacting them. Or any kind of conventional representation at all. As in the story of Kaarikoirat, these types of actors or movements are often “invisible” to the eyes of administrations and get ignored in official public participation processes. At least until they do something that forces the government to react.

Cities should update their public engagement strategies to also cover the “places” (e.g. social media platforms) where relevant networks are active. Furthermore, initiatives emerging from the bottom up more often need to be understood and treated as signals for the city to begin self-reflecting about whether it should actually join in.

Tikkutehdas redevelopment
These are the rubbles of Tikkutehdas DIY. The skatepark has needed to make way for the site’s redevelopment scheme. Within a few years, the area will be shaped by residential development and the grassroots activities will be a faint memory.

The shift to a problem-centric approach

In this story, progress and sustainable outcomes were achieved when focus was placed on all aspects of the problem itself: The shortcomings and the solutions for fixing them in a manner that includes everyone concerned into the process. In this case it was fairly straightforward, but the same philosophy should be applied in other domains as well. Complex urban problems cannot be solved without an integrated and collaborative process to address them. This will ensure that the relevant skills and expertise are included.

Terms like co-creation have recently emerged on the agendas of local governments and agencies. But are they really applied in practice? Cases like the one of Kaarikoirat paint a picture for self-reflection. A shift to this direction means saying goodbye to institutional silos and the control of (supposedly) all-knowing master planners.

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Kenneli DIY in the making. The public skatepark opened in 2017 and offers Finland’s largest indoor concrete bowl. I’m no expert but pretty sure Kenneli DIY is also Finland’s best indoor skatepark. A good question for the future is could Kaarikoirat (the content) and the city (the resources) manage it together in the upcoming years? Photo credit: Kaarikoirat Skateboard Organization / Kenneli DIY Facebook page.

The maturing cooperation

The third intriguing aspect of this story is the opportunity to observe the evolution of the cooperation when it matures. Generally, DIY urbanism is new and not very often do we see beyond the initial phases of different interventions. In this case, not only did the activists solve their initial problem, but they later applied their experience to help solve other problems, too. This story suggests that there is much potential in committing to deeper partnerships with DIY urbanisms. Working together can at best lead to completely new models for addressing urban problems. If this is the future, an important question to solve is how these partnerships will work out in a manner that is satisfactory for everyone. How do you manage to keep things fun and economically sound? Is it possible to maintain the collaboration platform after the original core group dissolves for whatever reason? Does the city have the courage to let go of any of the responsibilities that it traditionally has?

Finally, the big lesson the work of Kaarikoirat quite elaborately offers is this: Taking action on a small scale can bring positive change to the entire city.

The Kaarikoirat Skateboard Organization story was originally recorded within the scope of the EUrbanities project I’m affiliated with. We collected 20 cases from 9 European countries to develop a deeper understanding of contemporary participatory processes in Europe.

Main photo credit: Pirkanmaan Kaarikoirat / Tikkutehdas DIY FB page.

Could Europe’s Refugee Influx Trigger a Shift Towards Leaner Urban Policies?

The sudden need to make room for asylum-seekers may gather momentum for inventing new ways to solve housing shortages in Finland’s growth centers.

Urbanization is a highly transformative force in Finland. Our seven biggest urban centers are projected to grow by one million new residents by 2050 thanks to rural-to-urban migration, the geography of natural population growth and immigration. This means cities are facing a need to find strategies for realizing about half a million new dwellings already by 2030. Continue reading Could Europe’s Refugee Influx Trigger a Shift Towards Leaner Urban Policies?

Tactical Urbanism Can Help Cities Meet Changing Livability Demands

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.

A visalization of how Hömeenkatu could transform once the tramway gets built. Image courtesy of the City of Tampere.
A visualization of how Hämeenkatu could transform once the tramway gets built. Image courtesy of the City of Tampere.

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€.

The second phase of Hämeenkatu's experiment is set to bring more people-space. Image courtesy of the City of Tampere/Aihio Arkkitehdit.
The second phase of Hämeenkatu’s experiment is set to bring more people-space. Image courtesy of the City of Tampere/Aihio Arkkitehdit.

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.

There's more parking space in the center of Tampere today than ever. P-Hämppi directly beneath Hämeenkatu offers 972 of them. And elevator access directly to shops and the street. Photo courtesy of Aihio Arkkitehdit.
There’s more parking space in the center of Tampere today than ever. P-Hämppi directly beneath Hämeenkatu offers 972 spots. And elevator access directly to shops and the street. Photo courtesy of Aihio Arkkitehdit.

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.

Tampere's main street Hämeenkatu and a winter-y atmosphere. Doesn't look so dead, does it? Photo credit: Erkki Ottela.
Tampere’s main street Hämeenkatu and a wintry atmosphere. Doesn’t look so dead or dangerous, does it? Photo credit: Erkki Ottela.

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.

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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?

Tactical Urbanism

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”.

Intersection repair is one form of Tactical Urbanism. The goal is to slow down traffic and upgrade public space. Image source: Flickr.
Intersection repair is one form of Tactical Urbanism. The goal is to slow down traffic and upgrade public space. Image credit: Greg Raisman.

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”.

I ran into several applications of the parklet concept in Vienna. Parklets are a popular form of Tactical Urbanism and the idea has spread around the world. I don't know the exact story behind Vienna's parklets.
I ran into several applications of the parklet concept in Vienna. San Francisco born parklets are a popular form of Tactical Urbanism to make streets more livable. The idea has spread around the world. I don’t know the exact story behind Vienna’s parklets.

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.

Times Square before and after its "pavement to plazas" transformation. Image courtesy of NYCDOT/Earthpowernews.
Times Square before and after its “pavement to plazas” transformation. Image courtesy of NYCDOT/Earthpowernews.

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.

Rotterdam's Luchtsingel footbridge. The structure is not just a bridge but a tool for making the area more nicer and more attractive for investors.
Rotterdam’s Luchtsingel footbridge. The structure is not just a bridge but a tool for making the area nicer and more attractive for investors.

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.

Restaurant Day seeks to transform Helsinki's food and restaurant policies as well as to make the city more sociable. Photo credit: Roy Bäckström.
Restaurant Day seeks to transform Helsinki’s food and restaurant policies as well as to make the city more sociable. Photo credit: Roy Bäckström.

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.

Our (Urban Helsinki) Pro Helsinki 2.0 plan shows how the city should be planned to make it more livable for 21st-century urban life. Image by Urban Helsinki.
Our (Urban Helsinki) Pro Helsinki 2.0 plan shows how the city should be planned to make it more livable for 21st-century urban life. Image by Urban Helsinki.

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.

Before Urbaani Tampere, people from the local urban activist community already organized themselves to support a plan for upgrading Tampere's football stadium. The project also includes building apartments around the stadium and has thus raised a NIMBY movement. Also local brewery has been mobilized to support the YIMBY movement. Image credit: Prohattutemppu.net.
Before Urbaani Tampere got founded, people from the local urban activist community already organized a movement to support a plan for upgrading Tampere’s football stadium. The project also has intensification aims and the stadium regeneration comes with apartments and offices attached to it. This has sparked a NIMBY reaction in the neighborhood. Last month, also a local brewery was mobilized to support the YIMBY movement. Photo credit: Prohattutemppu.net.

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?

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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.

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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.

Developers can also use Tactical Urbanism. This is a visualization of a temporary shopping center that will soon be built in Helsinki's work-in-progress neighborhood Kalasatama. It will serve as a "placeholder" until SRV will complete its mega mall complex that will serve as the center of the neighborhood. Sadly, the container city already looks like better urbanism than the awful mall. Image courtesy of Hansacontainers Oy.
Developers can also use Tactical Urbanism. This is a visualization of a temporary shopping center that will soon get built in Helsinki’s work-in-progress neighborhood Kalasatama. It will serve as a “placeholder” until SRV will complete its mega-mall complex that will serve as the center of the neighborhood. Sadly, in this case the container city already looks like better urbanism than the awful mall. Image courtesy of Hansacontainers Oy.

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!