For African cities, ‘tactical urbanism’ has its limits

In Accra, a bicycle vendor has set up shop at the sidewalk in the area of Mamobi.

It was a few years ago that the framework of tactical urbanism, a concept particularly promoted and popularized by U.S. planning design firm Street Plans Collaborative, gained traction, particularly in the United States and European contexts. The idea of tactical urbanism refers to locally led, low-cost and short-term built environment interventions aimed at improving local neighborhoods and public spaces. Since the inception of tactical urbanism in Western cities as a deliberative citizen-centered framework for (re)appropriating spaces a few years ago, the concept has grown globally to refer to a wide range of interventions: The most recognizable examples include the creation of street furniture and chairs from low-cost materials, guerilla gardening in abandoned sites, street vendors and food truck vendors in underutilized public spaces, as well as once-a-year Park(ing) Days (short-term parking space-to-park conversions).

In the guide Tactical Urbanism: Short-Term Action, Long-Term Change, the authors, also the leads of Street Plans Collaborative, write: “Improving the livability of our towns and cities commonly starts at the street, block or building scale. While larger scale efforts do have their place, incremental, small-scale improvements are increasingly seen as a way to stage more substantial investments. This approach allows a host of local actors to test new concepts before making substantial political and financial commitments.” The Tactical Urbanism guide’s authors trace the local citizen tactical phenomenon to 16th century Parisian mobile booksellers who set up temporary shops near the Seine each day to make their sales. French cities were also the inspiration for the formation of theories and perspectives on everyday urbanism, including for both Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau (the original urban theorist who coined the term “tactical urbanism”). Working from this theoretical grounding, many planners and designers aim to engage global south cities, using these ideas of Western-inspired tactical urbanism, to support and engage bottom-up public space projects.


“Where is tactical urbanism in the African city?”

Where is tactical urbanism with respect to public space appropriation and revitalization in global south cities, particularly African cities? Some see it as a new and innovative framework with which to engage participatory and bottom-up planning to improve public spaces. For example, in 2016, Masters of Landscape Architecture student Frank Kleinschmidt won an innovation award for his dissertation Street Tactics, which focused on “both the theoretical and physical relationship between the issue of spatial inequality and the contemporary movement of tactical urbanism” and subsequently pointed to tactical urbanism as a potential solution for tackling spatial inequalities in the areas of Woodstock and Salt River in Cape Town, South Africa. Engaging tactical urbanism principles, the thesis argued, provides a formidable opportunity to address spatial inequalities, including informality in public spaces. 

There is the perception that tactical urbanism hasn’t become popular in African cities in the way it has around the world. “Why don’t African cities have tactical urbanism?” asked a European UN-Habitat planning and design representative to a group of African public space activists at a meeting last year on safe and vibrant public spaces. The question generated frustration. It seemed to speak to an expectation that tactical urbanism would – or should – manifest similarly in cities of the global south as it does in the global north, and with all of its attendant colorful aesthetics. It spoke from a European perspective that positioned global north cities as the centers from which rich experiences of ingenuity, creativity, experimentation and development disseminate to global south cities. A perspective that assumed that tactical urbanism, once applied, could and should be used to make similar gains in African cities. It also blatantly disregarded the wealth of bottom-up, community-centered activities that already do take place as part of everyday community life in the African city – including urban informality.


Moving forward: Re-framing the discussion

Observations from across West Africa’s cities – and beyond – demonstrate urban informality as bottom-up attempts to adapt urban spaces in environments where government planning fails to recognize communities’ needs, falls behind, or seeks to de-legitimize. Everyday “informal” interventions – many of which are already innovative, low-scale, citizen-centered initiatives – are uniquely tied to the historic past of these evolving human settlements, or strategically carried out as opportunistic elements in the city’s present. However, these interventions are too often framed as marginal activities or even urban threats to the city’s envisioned modern urban future.

The opportunity therefore is in first, recognizing the exclusionary history of town planning and city government regulations that created strict designations of formality; second, studying and appreciating the array of everyday spatial appropriations informed by the needs of community life and already taking place at the ground level; and third, supporting and creating more inclusive and participatory design, planning and intervention frameworks that embrace the various levels of the urban knowledge, experience and agency. Addressing informality (which requires also addressing formality) in the African city can’t and won’t be resolved by embracing another external framework (such as tactical urbanism). There is a brighter future in embracing what already exists and then working with local actors to increase their agency and scale up their everyday innovations.


Working in context

Informality was borne out of the imposition of formality. Dating back centuries, shared community spaces have been central to everyday community life in the traditional West African context. Traditional public spaces, including open plazas, major and minor open-air markets, narrow pedestrian passageways and wider avenues, as well as communal family areas, served a critical unifying purpose: These were multifunctional sites of public life and the spaces of cultural, social, religious, and commercial activities, reinforcing community-building, heritage and identity. In the article “Traditional Planning Elements of Pre-colonial African Towns,” Kwabena Amankwah-Ayeh describes key elements of traditional African design: The public squares of the Sokoto Caliphate were spaces of communal prayer, for example; in Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti Kingdom, narrow alleys and broad avenues connected existed along multi-dimensional royal plaza with evolving celebrational, political and commercial functions. In ancient Yoruba towns, walls and narrow roads connected dwellings, plazas, and other land uses. Among the Igbo of eastern Nigeria, shared family spaces provided places for community building and social cohesion.

Open spaces for culture and social life were a hallmark of many traditional African settlement designs, but were not a part of the colonial and post-colonial modernist planning approach. The imposed European urban planning forced shifts in the usage of public spaces – away from socially produced meanings and personal associations (spaces for prayer, spaces for commerce, spaces for community cultural events, etc.), toward abstract and impersonal physical spaces (such as sanitized streets and sidewalks, an ideal still sought after by some African city governments). The colonial city sought to design away the essential functions, activities and meanings of these spaces and everyday community life through town planning. Through colonial town planning and design, the colonial city came to embody foreign ideals, structures and urban logic. As a means of survival, urban citizens have forced their essential activities into the street, the sidewalk, the unused vacant area – a method that scholars have referred to as “familiarizing” urban spaces when studying Brasilia, Brazil and Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Today, city dwellers live out their lives in city streets and sidewalks by appropriating these pavements for their own everyday uses: street vending, social and recreational activities, street art festivals and traditional processions, social spaces created through makeshift and temporary street furniture under trees, funerals closing down streets and taking them over. These forms of urban intervention aren’t new; they are happening all the time. In addition, although in most global south cities informality is the norm, it is still often framed as marginal. Citizens’ activities are self-innovated and self-financed. While tactical urbanism is focused on creating something new, an inclusive future for African cities is grounded in recognizing and embracing what is – and moving from self-financed interventions to scaled-up, government-recognized and supported improvements.