Tactical Planning as an Approach to Improve Urban Walkability in the Era of COVID-19

by Aynaz Lotfata, PhD

Brooklyn, New York / image: Robinson Greig on Unsplash

Aynaz Lotfata is an Assistant Professor of Geography and Urban Planning at Chicago State University, Illinois. Her cross-disciplinary research focuses on environmental justice and urban wellbeing. Her studies demonstrate the integration of principles from various disciplines such as urban planning, geospatial sciences, and statistical modeling to address socio-environmental planning problems that are interconnected to landscape architecture and urban design. We are delighted to have Aynaz share her ideas about increasing walkability during the pandemic from an urban planning perspective.
– Sara Hadavi, Associate ASLA, Urban Design Professional Practice Network (PPN) leader and Landscape Architecture Magazine Editorial Advisory Committee member

The way urban planning and design practice responds to urban transformation comes with shifts in focus. Rather than taking the development of cities as the outcome of predefined decisions, the urban change is reflected as a process shaped by a wide variety of uncertainties, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. At the heart of this reflection, planning practice tackles the issue of how to be synchronized with evolutionary dimensions of cities, and how to to strengthen cities’ “adoptable capacity” (Rauws & De Roo, 2016).

Exploring the adoptable capacity of cities leads urban practitioners to value informal responses that influence productions of urban changes and organically proceeding paths of the spatial and functional organization of urban space.

The different forms of urbanisms—tactical urbanism (Lydon and Garcia, 2015), temporary urbanism (Ferreri, 2015; Andres, 2013), chrono-urbanism (15-minutes city; Moreno et al., 2020), do-it-yourself urbanism—are highlighted in the literature as alternative forms of urban space production. Actions are taken in the short-term by people while at the same time the adoption of these actions into the practices of urban design seems to have a key role in these forms of urbanism. These approaches resemble urban acupuncture (Lerner, 2014) where targeted local interventions work in a complementary way to have an overall positive effect. Notably, Colin McFarlane considers both informalities and tactical environments as channels of learning to cope with cities’ complexity and to facilitate their adaptability; and taking them as learning practices, he suggests that they offer a critical opportunity for progressive urbanism.

Meanwhile, these approaches lead us to turn our attention towards the informal endeavors or ‘tactics’ of city-making, since these practices could quickly address local issues and come up with in-situ solutions for urban problems in often extremely difficult circumstances. Here are Sharon Wohl’s categorizations for different initiatives:

  • create juxtapositions: developing novel spatial connections that draw together a variety of individuals
  • probe lightly: undertaking low-risk investment explorations before committing to permanent actions
  • explore widely: pursuing multiple spatial potentials quickly and nimbly

While they imply a lack of control over urban space production, they are regarded as initiators of self-organized processes in the sense that they are the result of different local initiatives (Silva, 2016). They may take the form of playful interactions that have flourished as a collaborative city-making initiative.

These tactical interventions that are integrated into the design and planning of urban environments as a form of planning leave room for testing urban transformation as it potentially emerges within more resilient, innovative, and durable solutions to urban problems. Practically, planners and practitioners provide opportunities for the transformation of an urban site that is provisionally tested before committing to large-scale investments. As McFarlane argued, they benefit from collaborative and dialogic urban learning alternatives, and aid in preventing dominant planning arrangements that structure urban learning processes and maintain dominant urban discourses.

As the COVID-19 pandemic fosters interactions among people in different ways, these productive, rapid responses made by individuals during the pandemic restrictions remind us of the necessity of placing urban tactics on the urban agenda of cities. The productive power of individuals gives direction to adapt and evolve urban space’s capacity. Urban space has been continuously in a cycle of functional alterations and differentiation.

image: thom masat on Unsplash

Urban Tactics During COVID-19 Pandemic

Informal Tactics (i.e. street music and other spontaneous activities)
The lockdown encourages people to relocate spontaneous activities by taking advantage of non-utilized open urban spaces, such as schoolyards.

Quasi-informal Tactics (i.e. outdoor restaurant, vacant lands conversion to urban gardens in collaboration with local organizations/power)
Outdoor restaurants and temporary gardens are examples of the temporary projects that popped up to help cities around the world live with COVID-19. These quickly-installed projects have met our changing needs for public spaces to walk, bike, and, of course, dine out to help businesses stay afloat.

A few examples:

  • Skiplets were installed in parking spaces as pop-up eating places in the Victorian towns of Queenscliff and Point Lonsdale in Australia.
  • Parking space becomes a pop-up eating area in Brunswick, an inner Melbourne suburb.
  • A pop-up parklet transforms the street in the inner Melbourne suburb of Ascot Vale.
  • Makeshift outdoor dining areas in Covina, Los Angeles, California. on January 25, 2021.
image: Robinson Greig on Unsplash

Formal Tactics (i.e. street were closed to vehicles and opened to pedestrians)
San Francisco, Oakland, and many other cities launched slow-streets programs to close some routes to through traffic so people could bike, walk and play in the roadways without fear of getting hit by a speeding car. In Los Angeles, the city added 50 miles of slow streets in 30 neighborhoods. New York City, Boston, and Austin, Texas, went further, claiming street space for temporary protected bike lanes in response to the huge boom in bicycle sales and demand for safer cycling routes. Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, closed off portions of roads near parks and lakes so people could safely enjoy the outdoors.

COVID-19 and the various measures and interventions to control its spread have strongly influenced how city residents relate to cities and public space. The COVID-19 pandemic led to growing momentum for very basic concepts of city-making such as the ‘15-minute city’ to support a deeper, stronger recovery from COVID-19. Even though the pandemic has led to restrictions, a 15-minute city seems to support neighborhoods’ civic character in terms of its residents and local agencies coming up with tactical solutions for their local problems, meaning that they become more open to taking action for their cities.


Andres, L. (2013). Differential spaces, power hierarchy and collaborative planning: A critique of the role of temporary uses in shaping and making places. Urban Studies, 50(4): 759-775.

Ferreri, M. (2015). The seductions of temporary urbanism. Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization, 15(1): 181-191.

Lerner, J. (2014). Urban Acupuncture. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Lydon, M. and Garcia, A. (2015). Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change. The Streets Plans Collaborative, Inc., 26, 36, 90, 171.

McFarlane, C. (2010). The Comparative City: Knowledge, Learning, Urbanism. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 34(4): 725–742.

Moreno, C., Allam, Z., Chabaud, D., Gall, C., and Pratlong, F. (2021). Introducing the “15-Minute City”: Sustainability, Resilience and Place Identity in Future Post-Pandemic Cities. Smart Cities, 4, 93-111.

Rauws, W. and De Roo, G. (2016). Adaptive Planning: Generating Conditions for Urban Adaptability: Lessons from Dutch Organic Development Strategies. Environment and Planning B: Urban Analytics and City Science, 1-23.

Rowe, H. (2021). Is temporary the new permanent? COVID street experiments open our eyes to creating better cities. The Conversation.

Silva, P. (2016). Tactical urbanism: Towards an evolutionary cities’ approach? Environment and Planning B: Urban Analytics and City Science, 43(6): 1040–1051.

Wohl, S. (2017). Tactical urbanism as a means of testing relational processes in space: A complex systems perspective. Planning Theory.

Dr. Aynaz Lotfata is an assistant professor of geography and urban planning at Chicago State University, Illinois, where the core of her research centers on environmental justice, urban wellbeing, and application of geospatial methods in cross-disciplinary studies. Her interdisciplinary research initiatives demonstrate the integration of principles from various disciplines such as urban planning, geospatial sciences, and statistical modeling towards solving socio-environmental planning problems. With two doctoral degrees: one in City Planning, the other in Geosciences, and teaching Human and Natural Resource Conservation, and Urban and Regional Planning, she is committed to promoting socially and environmentally just urbanism.

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