Reallocating road space through tactical urbanism

by Dr. Charlotte Halpern and Francesco Sarti, Sciences Po, Centre for European studies and comparative politics, Paris

In the context of the COVID 19 crisis, the city-as-place approach gained new momentum as part of efforts to ensure safe distancing, accommodate demands for public space and reimagine the post-pandemic city.

Among the repertoires (i.e., lobbying, protest, social media, politicization, etc.) used to make these claims visible and to influence decision-making about road space reallocation, specific attention was given to tactical urbanism.

Tactical Urbanism covers a vast number of temporary, small-scale actions to transform urban spaces, including shared gardening, pop-up plazas and reclaiming street space for urban life. It is not, strictly speaking, a new idea. As a repertoire of street space contestation, it draws on the pioneering work by Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehl and Henri Lefebvre to promote neighbourhood-based interventions and planning by doing.

It constitutes one of the ways through which residents and local communities can effectively challenge politicians, technicians, real-estate developers and business groups, by demonstrating that some problems deemed to be insoluble, such as the pedestrianization of a high street, the development of cycling lanes or the transformation of a parking place into a public space, are feasible. In those countries where the promotion of active modes was predominantly led by urban activists, tactical urbanism became instrumental to challenge car-centric urban planning.

Rua Nova Do Carvalho, Lisbon, in the Cais do Sodre area. The street was dubbed as “Pink Street”, or “Rua Cor da Rosa”, following an intervention that started in 2011. Credits: Salarko / Shutterstock.

What is new, however, is the growing interest of urban authorities for this repertoire, as an opportunity to strengthen transport governance capacities and transform the function of urban road networks, including those still owned and managed by national authorities.

Strategic alliances are formed with civil society organizations to encourage bottom-up interventions. Legal and political battles are being fought against national authorities. In Paris and Milan, road space has been systematically reallocated to support open plaza programmes. In the London Borough of Hackney, small-scale access regulation measures encouraged the development of new streets’ uses and prepared for the deployment at the city level of the Healthy streets approach. In Amsterdam, the “woonerf” (Living streets) historic tradition is constantly being enriched to accommodate claims for social justice.

Findings from the work done on street space contestation in Malmö, Lisbon, London, Constanta and Budapest confirm the strategic role of tactical urbanism to provide room for experimentation and learning.

Urban authorities in Europe are expected to increasingly rely on this repertoire as part of their mobility strategies and in some cases, such as Paris and Copenhagen, this might contribute to transformative and long-term changes.

Yet, findings also suggest the shortcomings of an approach that mainly consists of highly visible, small-scale interventions. The ability to transform small-scale experiments into a legitimate city-wide strategy for road space reallocation depends, ultimately, on sustained efforts to enhance policy resources and strengthen urban governance.

This article draws on the report edited by Charlotte Halpern and Jenny McArthur, Roadspace reallocation. Streetspace as contestation. Deliverable 2.3 with annexes, MORE project, 2020 (available in PDF here).

Contact: Dr. Charlotte Halpern: