Tactical Urbanism Forges Bonds and Strengthens Communities

Makeshift bus stop benches. Performance stages built in unused alleyways. Roads and parking lanes transformed into pedestrian-only zones. These are but a few examples of an evolving design trend known as “tactical urbanism.”

These tactical urbanism interventions — derived from city dwellers’ need for more usable public space — are often low-cost design solutions that address community desires and range in size and permanence. At its core, tactical urbanism is a design mechanism that empowers people to work together to enhance public space.

Citizen HKS, the firm’s public interest design initiative, is increasingly taking on new projects under the umbrella of tactical urbanism, most notably in Richmond, Virginia.

Local residents worked with HKS designers to create the elaborate wooden honeycomb structure for the parklet at Ms. Bee’s Juice Bar, learning design and building techniques they can rely on for personal projects and other public space improvements throughout Richmond.

In 2020, as COVID-19 created a prescient need for social distancing and outdoor spaces for dining and socializing, the HKS Richmond team partnered with Ms. Bee’s Juice Bar to create a pro-bono parklet design. Once completed, the parklet will offer space for patrons and others to gather, helping the small business foster community and stay afloat during the ongoing pandemic.

Building Capacity for Tactical Design

To learn how HKS can continue to work with communities and successfully implement tactical designs, HKS designers invited Dr. Jeffrey Hou, Director of the Urban Commons Lab at University of Washington, to share his experience and perspectives with us during the firm’s recent ESG in Design Celebration. The celebration is a series of educational events about environmental, social and governance topics such as equity and sustainability.

An expert in “tactical placemaking” — a broader term for tactical urbanism that includes design strategies in any public environment — Hou discussed the history and theory of tactical design. He said that while tactical placemaking strategies date back centuries, particularly in Asian cultures, professional design work and academic scholarship on the discipline has spread globally in recent years.

“In the past decade or so, nothing short of a revolution has happened in the field of planning, design and tactical interventions in the environment,” he said.

Hou described projects he’s been involved with that have yielded opportunities for people to create and participate in more enjoyable civic activities. In Seattle’s International District, for example, neighborhood residents transformed Canton Alley from a narrow, inactive space into a lively hotspot. Without resources to make spatial improvements, community members used what they already had access to when they sought to change the alley. They brought Mahjong tables out into the street and hosted social and cultural events there. An example of what Hou calls “placemaking by the people,” Canton Alley now features permanent physical design enhancements and regular community programs.

“Once people experienced the space, they kept coming back with new ideas of how to use it. There’s something about the alleyway space that makes people feel that they’re part of the neighborhood,” Hou said.

Tactical placemaking can be a vehicle for social change.

Beloved spaces like Canton Alley, Hou said, are created when tactical design is led by community members and incorporates a neighborhood’s existing identity and assets.

“By engaging and empowering people, by leveraging places in a neighborhood, turning limitations into assets, and by making connections between players who make important social and environmental changes, tactical placemaking can be a vehicle for social change,” he said.

Avoiding Tensions

Despite tactical urbanism’s many positive outcomes around the world, Hou has observed tensions in the development of tactical placemaking as a mode of design. For example, as pop-up shipping container markets rose in popularity, he said some corporate retailers and developers started to base their designs on them.

And as local governments realize the economic and social benefits of parklets and open streets, they have begun instituting programs and offices for formalized spaces and activities. While not inherently bad ways to improve cities, Hou says that these trends could compromise the core purpose of tactical design.

“If tactical urbanism becomes a narrowly defined professional activity, the potential for wider engagement with the public and opportunity for it to become a community-driven process becomes quite limited,” he said.

Hou believes that important work and discovery can still happen in all types of contexts and organizations, including at large design firms like HKS. He encouraged HKS designers to engage with communities and use tactical placemaking as a way demonstrate the potential benefits of projects.

“There are a lot of opportunities to facilitate change,” he said. “Reach out to community stakeholders…and be part of the changes that happen.”

HKS Brings Tactical Urbanism to Three Cities

In 2021, Citizen HKS also launched a firm-wide tactical urbanism design competition encouraging the firm’s global employee base to pitch tactical, sustainable projects that will improve public life in their cities. The ESG in Design Celebration concluded with a showcase of the competition’s finalists.

Zach Wolk, an HKS designer who moderated a discussion on the entries, said the competition rounded out conversations from the ESG in Design Celebration about carbon, the pillars of the circular economy, and being good stewards of social justice in our communities.

“In my mind, tactical urbanism can be an incubator and catalyst to study and promote these ideas in our communities,” Wolk said.

During the showcase, six HKS teams from Chicago to Singapore shared how they plan to deploy design concepts in their own communities and activate unused spaces. A jury comprised of designers from across the firm selected three of the teams’ designs to become a reality as official Citizen HKS projects, which comprise 1 percent of HKS’ billable hours each year as public interest design work.

Chicago-based Actspace intends to work with women entrepreneurs to give Uptown Chicago’s “junk spaces,” described as underutilized spaces under train tracks and between buildings, a newfound sense of purpose. The project will convert the junk spaces into “act scapes” with branding stations, book benches, hospitality tables, learning kiosks, and a yoga deck that will help businesses grow their clientele.

Design concept for ActSpace, which aims to convert small unused areas of Chicago into engaging multi-use spaces.

“Act scapes become objects scattered in the public realm that encourage the residents to interact both mentally and physically by introducing learning and wellness to everyday objects that you pass by on the street,” the Actspace team said in its presentation.

The team hopes their interventions will become symbols of activism across Chicago and inspire more entrepreneurs to work together to make their streets safer and more inclusive.

Bringing Communities Together

More than 1,000 miles away, members of HKS Houston plan to transform a tennis court into a dynamic community gathering place after discovering that there is little interaction between the various ethnic groups that live on Quitman Street just west of Houston’s Greater Fifth Ward.

Called Entrelazar, the project derives its name from the Spanish word for “interlace” as a symbol of bringing together people from different backgrounds. In a pilot program, the team will strip away the court’s fencing for a short period of time and invite the community to participate in outdoor socials, art installations and games there. If residents agree to a more permanent intervention, the Entrelazar team will selectively demolish portions of the court and add greenery around it. A local artist will reimagine the court’s surface, transforming it into a mural that offers visitors a new way of experiencing the space.

The design for Entrelezar centers on a tennis court transformation which will open up the space for cultural activities and building connections within Houston’s Greater Fifth Ward.

“The hope is that once all of this is done, we’ve established a [new space] for various modes of activation and occupation,” said HKS Senior Architectural Designer Jason Fleming. The HKS team hopes the center will become part of the community’s diverse daily routines, with students practicing soccer after school and community members sprucing up salsa dancing skills in the evenings.

Creating a Ripple Effect

Into the Light focuses on addressing Singapore’s housing crisis, with the goal of humanizing an issue that often falls under the public radar and calling attention to the challenges that homeless individuals face in their daily lives.

Singapore HKS plans to place its tactical urbanism intervention – a parklet with potted plants, a couch and facts about the city’s homeless population – just outside its office to highlight its commitment to addressing homelessness.

“Individuals and families slip through the cracks,” the HKS Singapore team said. “It is up to the social services, private entities and most importantly, the community, to step in as safety nets.”

The Into the Light parklet will be located outside of HKS Singapore office, raising awareness about the country’s homeless population and showcasing solutions.

Jurors for the tactical urbanism competition said each team’s desire to share local stories and inspire people to walk away with a call to action, resonated with them as they evaluated the finalist projects.

“The audience comes and goes, but a story is powerful because it can carry on,” said HKS Art Director and competition judge, James Frisbie. “A story passes from person to person and for that reason, [these projects] are very powerful.”

Architect Amanda Rosenfeld, who is active in HKS’ sustainability initiatives, added that all the finalists get to the heart of what tactical urbanism is all about.

“All three of these projects are so dynamic; they’re not just located within one space but the creation of them has a ripple effect through the community,” Rosenfeld said.