Tactical urbanism: the art of giving workers space to enjoy the city

As the workplace extends from the desk to the district, the rise of quick, inexpensive, small-scale urban changes to create vibrant public spaces is set to have a growing impact on work and life in the city

Workplace strategists and designers have known it for some time. The workplace doesn’t stop at the desk or even the entrance lobby. The relationship with the surrounding area is increasingly important – meaning that urban space and workspace are set to become even more intertwined in 2020.

Such links are of special importance to the newer talent that all organisations are trying to reach – a study from Brickfields Consulting found that people under the age of 35 see their workspace extending beyond the office walls into the neighbourhood and wider city. Already we are seeing rooftops, balconies, building frontages, disused rail lines, yards and other urban nooks and crannies animated with plants, grass and seating to create integrated green spaces for a city’s inhabitants.

Insertions in the urban fabric

The experts call it ‘tactical urbanism’ – the practice of making quick, inexpensive, small-scale urban changes to public space to improve social connectivity and community engagement – and it will be more prevalent than ever in 2020 as a sense of localism emerges in response to the growing threat of global pandemic and inevitable restrictions on corporate travel.

New York has led the way in making small insertions in the urban fabric which don’t require big budgets or bureaucratic decision-making chains. Its Street Seats programme, for example, supports business owners who want to make improvements to their street frontage for public use. At a larger scale, the High Line in New York is a landmark of the approach and so successful that it is underpinning the growth of the new Hudson Yards business district.

Allied to tactical urbanism is the political commitment to ban cars from urban areas, so releasing spaces for communal use and greening them. Barcelona has banned cars in six of its superblocks – play areas and running tracks are emerging where the traffic jams used to be. Other cities around the world are considering similar moves.

Taking pressure off amenities

The point at which tactical urbanism touches the working life of the city is where things really get interesting. Local green spaces to rest or eat lunch take pressure off amenities in office buildings; they provide social connections to the wider neighbourhoods that many workers crave; they are also ‘neutral’ areas beyond corporate surveillance and can relieve stress. Some cities incentivise developers to build such spaces into their projects – these are Privately-Owned Public Spaces (POPS) and New York controversially has more than 500 of them.

Cities are full of temporary events – markets, pop-ups, festivals and so on– that work some kind of alchemy in bringing people and place together for a shared experience. They are distinctive and memorable, and they generally deploy flexible, low-cost, high-impact structures and tactics. The workplace industry has been slow to recognise it can learn from this phenomenon, but it is beginning to catch on fast.

Lightweight and light touch

Temporary events in the city bring the promise of richness, spontaneity and unpredictability to space during the working day – popular values under-represented in the corporate workplace. The principle of achieving maximum effects with minimum means – often creating great spectacles and experiences on a low budget – will appeal to hard-pressed real estate budgets. We can expect some of this lightweight and light-touch urban design to find its way back inside office buildings and campuses badly in need of variety and flexibility, animating atria and plazas and even enlivening large working floorplates.

At a time when businesses have to address two major challenges –  attracting new talent and managing constant change – could the small-scale examplars of tactical urbanism hint at a more flexible future? In 2020, we’ll find out.

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