Tactical Urbanism and Its Discontents

Leave it to Neil Brenner to articulate this millennial planner’s long-time dissatisfaction with the tactical urbanism project. In his review for the current MoMA exhibition “Uneven Growth”, he asks “Is ‘Tactical Urbanism’ an Alternative to Neoliberal Urbanism?”, with the latter’s increasingly clear tendency towards economic polarization, environmental degradation, and the decay of vital public resources. The answer is at best muddled, he argues, without tactical urbanism’s serious reckoning with its relationship to the practice of power. To begin with some of his choice quotes (and please forgive the academ-ese on such an informal platform as this):

“Especially in light of the stridently anti-planning rhetoric that pervades many tactical urban interventions and their tendency to privilege informal, incremental, and ad hoc mobilizations over larger-scale, longer-term, publicly financed reform programs, it seems reasonable to ask in what ways they do, in actuality, engender any serious friction against the neoliberal order, much less subvert it.”

The problem is not only a question of scale, although the “acupunctural” approach favored by tactical urbanists seriously begs the question of how to scale up. Brenner persuasively argues that tactical urbanism can not just subvert the existing growth-first neoliberal order, but also, by internalizing a diminished role for public institutions, ironically reinforce it as well. To parse this with a simplistic example, will a well-designed parklet, trophy child of tactical urbanism, be so cheaply replicable that it can be reproduced on a massive scale? Will it also then draw attention away from public institutions, whose diminished economic and political capital led to a lack of adequate public spaces in the first place?

My personal problem with tactical urbanism (and other popular “urbanisms” to a lesser extent) is its general evasiveness about these questions, its shirking from the issues of “institutional (re)design”, and a consequent lapse into decoratism. Again, Brenner says it better:

“A number of the proposals circumvent questions of implementation entirely… [T]hey put forward relatively decontextualized design “solutions” to the pressing problems of megacity development—for instance, regarding water scarcity, insufficient land for housing, transportation bottlenecks, or issues of energy supply. Indeed, several of the proposals may be more readily classified within the rather familiar genre of dystopian design fantasies and technological prophecies… Because they bracket the formidable constraints associated with implementation under a neoliberalized rule-regime, these design scenarios remain at a purely hypothetical level—visions of an alternative universe that are utopian in the literal sense of that word; they are located nowhere.”

This sounds familiar because we see it over and over again in recent, well-publicized visioning exercises for the future, starting with the artificial sandbars, oysters farms, and pod structures of Rebuild by Design and the more recent Boston Living with Water. To be fair, interrogating the questions of “who pays, who benefits, who loses and who decides” is not part of the competition brief, but such questions are no less urgent and necessary than the fact of rising sea levels. To the credit of my colleagues at Utile, we did wrestle with the calibration between new public infrastructure and private investments on a new above-water ground plane. While we didn’t solve everything, I think we at least deserve being acknowledged for the intellectual seriousness of trying. Meanwhile, the strange absence of a strong socio-economic-political (not to mention legal and technological) premise is pervasive; are we designers working in an ahistorical time, where the future is just like the past, only with higher water levels and more abundant oysters?

Finally on a less angry note, it’s also important to acknowledge that there are urbanists out there whose work meaningfully asks questions about “[the] city of the future—its economy; its property and labor relations; its spaces of circulation, social reproduction, and everyday life; its modes of governance; its articulations to worldwide capital flows; its interfaces with environmental/biophysical processes; and so forth”. There should be more of them.

Hopefully, proponents of the various urbanisms, at least initially within the freedom of competitions and exhibitions, will more fully explore and give formal shape to the terrain of future possibilities, while keeping in mind that this terrain is not just environmental and technological, but fundamentally political too.