Tactical Urbanism: from food trucks to the world record potluck dinner?

by May 26, 2016Land Use Planning, Resilience

Reporting on an interactive event co-hosted by ULI and King County Green Tools, I wrote this blog post at the request of Urban Land Institute (ULI) Northwest. Once published, I realized that several parts of the event (not surprisingly) illustrated to the power of food and eating socially to engage community and activate more livable cities. For now,  I will be enthusiastically waiting for “the world record potluck” event planned in Tukwila (see closing paragraph for details below).

The second of ULI Northwest’s stimULI events featured Mike Lydon, author of Tactical Urbanism and principal of Streetplans. For the 40+ participants assembled at MG2’s Seattle offices on May 17th, this interactive event served up fresh ideas and a lively, engaging format. True to the experimental spirit of curiosity that distinguishes tactical urbanism from conventional “community engagement,” the event was a refreshing departure from the typical equation of powerpoint + talking head x darkened room = boring.

Well supported with snacks, sweets, and beer, our late afternoon exploration started with Mike Lydon surveying the global landscape of tactical urbanism. That was followed by a small group “design playtime” exercise to identify and outline a set local proposals. For the “third half of the show,” deputized participants made informal pitches to Mike and the re-assembled group.


Mike Lydon, Author of Tactical Urbanism

Bounding across the globe with examples, Mike touched on dozens of “short-term actions for long-term change.” More, he described the evolution of tactical urbanism as community activism that addresses the widening gap between “what we want and what we’ve got” in our cities. Mike reflected on its spread and maturation from its roots as playful streetscape tweaks, pop-up parklets and public spaces, and unsanctioned bicycle infrastructure interventions. To be sure, the toolkit of sidewalk chalk, spray painted stencils, planter boxes, shipping palettes and so forth is going mainstream, but only as one of three increasingly common approaches.

Mike classified the state of the art into three categories:

  • Unsanctioned guerrilla interventions;
  • Collaborative demonstration projects of community volunteers and public agencies; and
  • City-initiated, “phase zero” tests and/or previews of long-term/ permanent infrastructure or public space modifications.

Seeing the power of grassroots efforts to positively engage citizens in wide-ranging, small-scale interventions, Mike explained how cities now are beginning to value that creative power and intentionally accelerate substantive conversations between citizens and planning entities or public works agencies. It’s less that the magic has been co-opted, rather Mike described examples like Activate Auckland where “bottom-up” has met “top-down,” and are collectively creating iterative hybrids of action, then planning, and more discovery in-between. The various Departments of Transformation in leading cities only attest to that trend. In his assessment, Mike assured the group that the original, humorous tone and spirit of phenomena like the Awareness Cone (where people see, comment and share on social media examples of inaction, neglect and what’s broken in our public realm) are alive and well. Look it up @AwarenessCone.

Our assembled group then shifted roles from audience members to active “tacticians.” Some had come prepared to propose Seattle-area sites for consideration. After introductions and free-flowing brainstorming of possibilities, the groups landed on a set of proposals, then pitched them to the group for Mike’s feedback. Here’s a recap:


A team of tactical urbanists propose a food truck cluster to re-activate a barren streetscape downtown.

First up, several downtown office workers wanted to encourage wider neighborhood exploration during the workday. Inspired by the First Thursday Art Gallery Walk, they wanted to identify routes for walking meetings—as well as spurring discovery of other neighborhoods and destinations that are accessible on foot. While they intended to populate routes with chalkboards, Mike’s feedback was to consider adding more to the “kit of parts,” low-cost, components to manipulate, test or modify for mobile meetings and other incidental activities.

A group of designers pitched a food truck cluster to activate a windswept plaza in front of a downtown office tower. They noted how Portland’s food truck “pods” create critical mass and choices (rather than just a line of eaters who all dash back to their desks). Their hope was to “set the table” for meet-ups, lingering, and re-populating unused space. Mike observed they might help realize this vision by creating a “picnic set” of street furniture pieces to be provided, delivered and removed daily by food truck operators. This approach would simplify the necessary negotiations with building management—who may have little appetite to corral more folding chairs, trash receptacles, umbrellas and such.


Site photos helped make the pitch, aided by keen observation of conflicting land uses.

Well-prepared with a series of site photos, the third group’s consideration of a forlorn traffic circle led to a nuanced approach to a local street intersection just one block off the Stone Way commercial corridor. While new to the neighborhood, that group’s one local expert thoughtfully appreciated that truck traffic navigating to and from a commercial warehouse (for now, at least) had to share this space with kids, elders, and cyclists alike. With that limitation in mind, the thinking moved to ways that a remnant asphalt circle could be the start of a playful manipulation of the ground plane. Mike asked the group to consider if stories of mystery or humor could be the focus of a first community awareness-building and meet-up event. Could an enticing social media “campaign” catalyze a real-world, albeit two-dimensional expression shared on the otherwise-neglected pavement?


Renton’s downtown is a ripe opportunity to playfully reclaim empty street tree wells.

The Downtown Renton pitch demonstrated a very clear logic of deploying short-term action to initiate long-term change. Starting with 20+ empty street tree pits along downtown streets, the notion was clear: spark awareness and build constituency for urban forest re-investment. Ideas for “temporary planting” were as diverse as Festivus poles, bird houses, and historic markers were floated. Then, feedback emphasized the strategic opportunity as the city is just about to un-do the downtown’s one-way street traffic pattern. Such a level of disruption (and the plethora of surplussed “one way” signs available for re-purposing into movable chairs) could catalyze action by creative community assets, including the historical association and art students at Renton’s downtown high school.

In wrap-up remarks from co-sponsor King County Green Tools, Patti Southard emphasized the huge opportunity for tactical urbanism’s spirit and power to help the Seattle region’s engaged, affluent and advantaged populations (i.e., that afternoon’s attendees) to achieve greater inclusion and social equity. To that end, she described community-partnered events in South Park and Tukwila on the agenda for Mike’s current visit. Notable on that list is work underway to set a world record for the largest potluck, temporarily transforming a long-vacant lot on International Boulevard on August 13. Indeed such a huge, shared table seems a most fitting example of the opportunity and promise of tactical urbanism.


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Stephen Antupit
Stephen Antupit
Chief Creative OfficerMetroAG Strategies
In re-localizing and making more resilient regional food systems, Stephen Antupit curates partnerships, launches projects and interventions that nurture connectedness and grow “delicious green infrastructure.” His goal is to leverage food’s real power to feed more shareable communities.