2020: A Year without Public Space under the COVID-19 Pandemic

Tactical urbanism as a crisis response and as mobiliser for systemic change

Thursday 3 September 2020  /  Series 5 (September) - Webinar 1

>>> Speakers and agenda
>>> Programme of our COVID-19 initiative


The webinar was initiated and hosted by Luisa Bravo (City Space Architecture / The Journal of Public Space) and Hendrik Tieben (Chinese University of Hong Kong). This webinar is part of the series “2020: A Year without Public Space under the COVID19 Pandemic”. This webinar brought together scholars, practitioners, and experts from Turkey, Mexico, Italy, India, and New Zealand and focused on the tactical urbanism projects, bottom-up social interventions, and mobility strategies for our future.


Insight from Speakers

Graeme Hanssen, Human Power Initiative, Yasar University, Turkey

Sustainable urban mobility was not an issue back in the days when streets were vibrant and thriving with activities sustainably and organically. People were able to occupy the streets and public spaces. These were however replaced by cars and pollution, the causal link is obvious under the pandemic, Graeme however questioned whether the lockdown could act as an effective mobiliser for systemic change. Sales of bikes skyrocketed as the public became fearful of taking public transport, while municipalities responded by increasing bicycle lanes and opening up streets. Tactical urbanism seems to have become the driver for systemic change, yet on the other hand, some started to question the fairness of extra bike lanes, others started to advocate the old way. Graeme argued that the sudden increase in bike lanes does more harm than good for sustainable urban mobility. Cycling can be dangerous and there is an increase in cyclists fatal accidents as the lanes are added. New bicycle lanes will not alleviate urban mobility problems if we don’t change the vehicles we use and recognize the value of human power that is sustainable and resilient, and has powered cities for decades. Solutions to urban mobility should not be binary, and automobile manufacturers’ mindsets also have to change.  Graeme felt that systemic changes are only possible if we think outside the box and change the types of vehicles we use, only then would we achieve car-free city and require interdisciplinary collaboration to transform public space to encourage future mobility solutions, and tactical urbanism would then become more effective. 


Antonio Lara-Hernandez, Institute of Mobility and Urban Territorial Development in Yucatan, Urban Resilience Research, Mexico

Antonio started off by defining “temporary appropriation” as “the temporary act in which people use public spaces to carry out individual or collective activities other than the purpose that the space was originally designed for” (Lara-Hernandez and Melis, 2018), for instance, streetside football watching, altar, cooking, and places for remembrance all take place on streets temporarily. Mexico’s unemployed population reached 12 million after COVID-19 hit, a serious issue in a country of 126 million people (Forbes, 2020). Antonio examined the case of street vendors in San Francisco de Campeche, a city with a typical Spanish grid city centre, having 250,000 inhabitants approx. The COVID-19 emergency led to restricted local market access, causing that many people were also afraid of heading out. Antonio further zoomed into a neighbourhood in the capital city and observed that in the selected area (1 km radius from his house) of study there were only 2 street vendors in the area before the COVID-19 outbreak. However,  weeks after numerous street stalls started to appear selling fruits, bread, furniture, balloons after the lockdown. The emergence of new street vendors and services could be attributed to the conjunction of circumstances such as the lack of access to market during the lockdown, and the surge in unemployment. By mapping the new street vendors, a pattern of 200m radius distance between vendors is discovered. There is a peculiar and remarkable self-regulated socio-ecological landscape, forming a bottom-up strategy and an emergence of temporary appropriation. Antonio suggested that this kind of bottom-up claiming of the streets shed light on the direction of the human-centred city. 


Rossella Ferorelli, Municipality of Milan / SMALL - Soft Metropolitan Architecture & Landscape Lab, Italy

Rossella observed that the term “tactical urbanism” has only been categorized for not more than a decade, and is loosely defined as “short-term actions which are able to achieve long-term change”. In general, it would test, criticize and reflect on urban phenomena, to react quickly and solve issues that normally require institutions to tackle in the long-run. The bottom-up approach is typically used by citizens to kickstart bypassing the institutions, and with the aim of activating permanent institutional and transformational change in the future. 

Rossella tried to answer the question of whether a typically top-down city can learn from bottom-up approaches, without seeming to be demagogic using the case study of Milan. Milan did not have a strong culture of public space, with cars, constructions and buildings occupying most of the open space. Over the last few years, some processes were however initiated to reverse this and regain good relationships with public space. One of the most successful examples is “Piazze Aperte”, in which an internal agency of the city worked with the municipal team, in collaboration with Bloomberg Associates and NACTO’s Global Designing Cities Initiative. The project typically transformed linear street types in the urban areas into bi-dimensional square-like flat spaces that can easily be used by citizens. Light paintings and furniture were used and mostly achieved by voluntary help of the citizens, who developed a major sense of belonging and realized how the spaces can be used. The first cycle of the project showed encouraging numbers with a great increase in pedestrian areas and furniture. More importantly, citizens’ feedback was mostly positive. Rossella highlighted the second cycle of the Piazze Aperte programme, which aimed at full “convergence between top-down and bottom-up approach”. There was an open call for citizens to team up, choose a site, propose the change, and suggest the priority of sites transformation in the city, while being aware of some kind of limitations to interventions due to financing. There were a total of 52 areas suggested by the organizer, but citizens could propose other areas. A lot of citizens took part in the call, resulting in 15 extra areas and a lot of high-quality solutions. Interestingly, citizens and activists realized the need to ask for the help of designers to produce the solutions. All solutions would be implemented in priorities in the future.

The pandemic presented a choice between pulling back in fear and pushing forward with curiosity. Learning from other cities, Milan in March 2020 announced the quick realization of 35 km of new cycle lanes before the end of the year. Open Streets strategy is also now adapted, with the principles of pedestrianization and active mobility. 


Pritika Akhil Kumar, Co:Lab, India

Referring to UNESCO’s definition of public space, Pritika introduces public space as the backdrop of social interaction, sense of belonging and place, recreation, mental and physical health, civic participation. In India, increasingly, public space is more of a commercial space (like a mall) or spaces for transportation (like busy streets). The spaces are crowded, chaotic, filled with cars and infrastructural elements, and have no space for citizen-citizen interactions. Malls are considered as public space, but are not open to all and the rules of engagement are too well-defined to allow for spontaneous citizen interactions. There are some nicely planned riverfronts in tier 2 and 3 cities, but in bigger cities like Chennai, rivers are all polluted, void of active public life and deteriorated, with only the urban poor living along these rivers. Indian cities are mostly highly cramped, with open space per capita far below the minimum requirement of WHO and other global cities.

Pritika further iterated the definition of tactical urbanism: “approach to neighbourhood building that uses short terms, low-cost, and scalable interventions and policies to catalyse long-term change” (Street Plans Collaborative, n.d). Pre-pandemic tactical urbanism projects in India largely focused on street reconfigurations in collaboration with nonprofits and local municipalities. They are mostly temporary and last until the “paints wear off”. Pritika considered these efforts fairly unsuccessful as they leave citizens disconnected or at best, momentarily distracted. During the pandemic, a lot of artworks emerged in the urban realm to create awareness for social distancing. Looking forward, the challenge of COVID in India lies mostly in the lack of sufficient public space and cramped living conditions in informal settlements; going outdoors is dangerous and it is difficult to exercise social distancing. Often overlooked, public space is needed to get out for our physical and mental health. Pritika suggested three types of responses: 

  1. Adapt and reconfigure existing spaces to make socializing, civic and political actions safe again;
  2. Transit towards active streets to encourage active travel options;
  3. Appropriate new areas for public space – for example, abandoned historical buildings through community-led interventions in the form of seating, play equipment, community gardens, mobile classroom and not modify existing building fabric, ultimately creating a network of public spaces.



a) Economist Intelligence Unit (2011) Asian Green City Index: Comparing the environmental performance of 22 Asian cities. Siemens.
b) Hurley, A. (2020) “Design Hacks Will Dominate Coronavirus Recovery.” Bloomberg, Bloomberg, 23 June. www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-23/design-hacks-will-dominate-coronavirus-recovery.
c) Nobajas, Alexandre, et al. (2020) “Lack of Sufficient Public Space Can Limit the Effectiveness of COVID-19's Social Distancing Measures.” doi:10.1101/2020.06.07.20124982.
d) Street Plans Collaborative. “Tactical Urbanism.” Tactical Urbanist's Guide, tacticalurbanismguide.com/about/.
e) Tiwari, K. (2014) “How Green Is My City.” Ahmedabad Mirror, Ahmedabad Mirror, 9 May. ahmedabadmirror.indiatimes.com/news/india/how-green-is-my-city/articleshow/35633020.cms.
f) Town and Country Planning Organisation, Government of India (2014) Urban Greening Guidelines, 2014. Ministry of Urban Development.
g) Udas-Mankikar, S. (2020) “Formulating Open-Space Policies for India’s Cities: The Case of Mumbai .” Observer Research Foundation, April.


Boopsie Maran, Places for Good, New Zealand

Places for Good is a collaborative consultancy firm that focuses on community advocacy, creating spaces for free and for long-term use. It started with a liquor store in Boopsie’s neighbourhood that was meant to be a public square, she encountered numerous barriers to turn this place citizens bought years ago to its rightful state. 5 active neighbourhood citizens formed the core team, who created a design competition, and a venue that pulled 150 citizens together to judge the designs. The winning design would be voted and the budget required to transform the liquor store should be passed. It took the team 3 years to get the political will. Throughout these 3 years, Boopsie tested out ideas of tactical urbanism, with a trial of murals at the University of Auckland, and added seats by creating a parklet at the liquor store, making people realize the need and further gathering the political will. The long process has led to questions and realizations regarding users including the most vulnerable groups, their needs and behaviours, their commute and access, government officials who have jurisdiction over the space but disapprove plans without ever visiting it, and forming quality relationships through each adaptation. Activations are important to get proof of active spaces, to lure government agencies to visit the space, and to form a network of supporters. Boopsie felt that community engagement is followed by purposeful tweaks to places in order to improve user experience, each tweak leads to a more sustainable and permanent solution that boosts the sense of place, ownership, and pride.

Responding to the crisis of a pandemic, Boopsie pointed out four keywords - with purpose, organization, collaboration, and Whanaungatanga (foster belonging), and how organizations can be responsive by leveraging on the networks and resources accumulated throughout previous projects. Auckland was one of the first to roll out new bike lanes, and the readily available Auckland City Centre Masterplan and tactical urbanism experiences expedited and perfected the process, materials are also reused for the second lockdown and the future. You can build your response if you establish the relationships to get people active. Facing the crisis, Boopsie believed that practitioners have the experience to respond. Within the top-down system, it is important to hold the people together and to build trust, so that they would come back and volunteer for the projects again, growing the movement slowly each time. Last but not least, Boopsie reminded all that iterations should generate positive emotions, for good, make people feel good and sustainable.


Roundtable discussion

How do we make tactical urbanisms more successful and move forward in the crisis?

Graeme: People are fixated about what vehicles should be, stuck in the 2-wheel and 4-wheel solutions. The automobile industry offers the same and does not change its approach. We need to recognize human power and challenge the existing paradigm to regain the streets.


What are the recipes for avoiding possible residents’ opposition to tactical urbanism projects?

Boopsie: New Zealand is going to put up low-speed neighbourhood zones, introducing multi-modal barriers, what are the tactics around that?

Rossella: The most important tool here is the 10, 20, 30 zones to control car speed. Specifically,  new 30 areas are instituted around the borders of the projects. Car users have to understand the new set of rules, people have to be aware of the change, and at the same time, the design has to allow easy iteration. It is a very difficult task - multiple iterations have to take place, to work with citizens along the process to collect feedback after the intervention is realized, to comment on the effectiveness of the transformation, and to help adjust errors and unpredictable effects. Examples of complaints from car drivers are the design of curbs, visibility of pedestrian crossings, comprehensibility of new signals. A lot of effort was poured into the process of adaptation and iteration to make each project work, but this is also the very value of tactical urbanism. Projects are experimental and consensus cannot always be met. 

Pritika: It is important to involve designers with local knowledge as well as local citizens in the design, enabling a process of co-creation.


Are these projects mainly funded by the municipality or are there alternative funding sources?

Rossella: The projects are mostly funded by the city, but other agencies also contribute. For example, the European Institution of Technology dedicates to active mobility and COVID emergency responses.


Tactical urbanism seems to be most effective when there is intense bottom-up participation, what is the role of local government then? Can factors like election affect the initiatives? Has it changed over the pandemic?

Boopsie: Local boards have a huge role to play in terms of funding small projects (under $1000), but they require grant proposals. Ideally, not-for-profits act between the government and the community and hold all the relationships and disperse funding from the government. In San Antonio Texas, the government and the not-for-profit are able to share an office with full trust and transparency. 

Antonio: Design can only solve a problem to a certain extent, cultural factors can change hugely how people use a space, people and place change over time, especially after COVID.

Rossella: Only 3 colours (white, yellow, blue) are seen in most of the projects as they are existing materials the city can reuse. When the intervention took place in a neighbourhood of unique historical character, detailed explanations about the temporary nature of the project were met with aggressive responses as citizens didn’t accept the colours and thought that it would affect their historical character. A quick technical approach to solve the budget problem could trigger a cultural problem. In future projects, the city tries to involve people in choices, not just in design, but also in this kind of language issue. It’s always better to under-design a place than to over-design it, you can always add more but it's difficult to reduce things.

Pritika: Designers easily become a part of the top-down system and decision-makers but rather, we should be facilitators and managers of people’s expectations and balance that with the requirements of other stakeholders and agencies. Community-initiated projects that contact designers themselves and form collaborations are typically more successful. 


Have any traffic impact assessments been done before tactical interventions?

Rossella: Measurements are in place to compare the before and after with indicators such as the increase in the number of people who use the space, the duration of the usage. To respond to COVID, we are trying to employ a more automatic way of measuring by putting sensors along new bike lanes to measure the number of uses, trying to assess the impacts like air pollution. These should however be measured over a long time, ideally, car drivers choose not to use the cars anymore in the long term.

Graeme: While data gathering is essential, we do not have pre-existing valid data regarding automobiles and cyclists. Once we start intervention, we have to realize and ensure data gathering is at the centre of this from the beginning so that trends can be observed. One worry that has emerged over the pandemic is how people perceive well-demarcated bicycle paths to be for everybody and have the right to use it for walking and other activities.


Final remarks from the speakers

Boopsie: Look at it with the lens of the Maori, the children, vulnerable groups, migrants, and then see if it is sustainable, and a path to permanence. Look at it with all these lenses before you start the projects.

Graeme: Sustainable urban mobility has the opportunity to bring greater diversity and connectivity for different users and have them involved in sustainable urban fabric, if we think beyond binary solutions

Pritika: We have fixed notions and ideas of city and public space. Given the context of India,  there is a need to reimagine what public space and tactical urbanism could be in such densities. Also, we should not be stuck between either top-down or bottom-up, but to try to create more synergy among stakeholders. 

Rossella: Don’t believe the narrative of opportunity but the narrative of advice; take pandemic as the final advice from nature. And to act quickly, one of the possible ways is tactical urbanism.

Antonio: The reality is only a few colleagues cycle to the office, which reveals how challenging it is, but we are on the right side and getting there step by step.


 Shibuya crossing, Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Ratapan Anantawat on Unsplash