What happens when you gather four tactical urbanists in one room for a “Death Match”-style debate asking, “Is Small Big Enough?” You get a choir. The panel at the Flux Factory’s discussion last night was equipped with “smackdown cards” to challenge the views of their opponents, but they all agreed more often than they disagreed, that the small scale actions at the root of tactical urbanism—and this years US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Spontaneous Interventions—are just fine. What emerged from the packed house was a highly polished discussion, where minor differences were exposed, ground down, and made smooth.
The panel consisted of designer and critical activist of DSGN AGNC Quilian Riano, tactical urbanism guru and Street Plans Collaborative principal Mike Lydon, Hester Street Collaborative director Anne Frederick, and planner and co-founder of Change Administration and DoTank:Brooklyn Aurash Khawarzad, who will all be participating in the Biennale next week, and was moderated by the Flux Factory‘s Douglas Paulson and Christina Vassallo. Each brought a nuanced perspective on the importance of small scale urban interventions.
In determining how to evaluate tactical interventions, Khawarzad started the debate by suggesting that simply making an effort is a success in itself, that asking people to think or build or do something in a different way can make an action successful. “Cities are going through a discovery phase,” he said. “Engaging in public space is making something happen.” Others disagreed, arguing that more should be required of evaluating interventions. Frederick said that any action must be evaluated on how it responded to needs identified by the surrounding community. Others suggested that the actions must amount to or lead to something larger to be successful and criteria should be set beforehand to weigh against the results. Lydon pointed out that one of the main goals of tactical urbanism is for “small scale action to lead to long-term change,” which means a strategy and goals must be considered. “Doing is good, but the action can still fail,” Lydon said.
All agreed, then, that failure is an important part of the small-scale process. “Failure is the game,” Riano said, taking a jab at the planning failures of the past that have helped to give rise to the popularity of tactical urbanism. “Failure today is our system’s inability to get over what happened in the 1950s,” he said. Lydon noted that that large-scale mistakes of the past—like overbuilding the suburbs—brought horrible results that are difficult to undo, but failing with small scale actions tends not to cause harm and can serve as a learning process for adapting tactics to individual situations.
While the panel delved further and sometimes disagreed on the details of meaning, gentrification, and politics, they again merged on the value of working with existing power structures such as municipal governments to affect change. The panel quipped that yarnbombing might not bring long term change, but working to change the rules can help turn pop-up parks and parklets into a lasting public space policy.
As the panel packs up and prepares to leave for Venice, you can weigh in on the value of the tactical actions being presented as part of the Spontaneous Interventions pavilion at an online debate at the Philip Johnson Glass House website going on over the next 10 days.