Tactical Urbanism

With Island Press and City of Palo Alto Library, we had a unique opportunity to host Mike Lydon, author of Tactical Urbanism, for an event in Palo Alto.  Mike provided inspiration to almost sixty participants.  


Mike Lydon was trained as a planner and his firm, The Street Plans Collaborative has offices in Miami, New York and San Francisco. As a young planner in Miami, Mike was inspired to create an Open Streets initiative, modeled after Bogota's Ciclovia, to help a broader community base understand the value of designing streets for people and promoting bicycling and pedestrian improvements. Later, when NYC began its Times Square experiments to reclaim public space for people, Mike was inspired to research the phenomenon in depth, launching Streets Plan Collaborative and publishing several Tactical Urbanism guides and toolkits, which led to the book Tactical Urbanism, co authored with Anthony Garcia.

During the first part of the event, Mike defined Tactical Urbanism, explained the history of the movement, and described the role it can play in connecting cities, communities and professionals to create long term change in an incremental ways.  Tactical Urbanism employs design thinking and lean startup methodologies to propose quick, low cost demonstration projects. Using several amazing case studies involving community individuals, civic agencies and neighborhood groups, Mike explained the process:

  • Hamilton Ontario architects launched an effort launched to make a key street intersection, next to a school and church, safer and more accessible for pedestrians. Using traffic cones, reflective tape and daffodils, in the spring of 2013, local architects created quick corner bulbouts to slow traffic around corners, and provide room for pedestrians, especially children and famililes to access. Real time information was collected about the installations and the feedback was positive and other neighborhoods wanted to do the same. Unfortunately, the city called the bulbouts unsafe and illegal.  The organizers launched a cheeky self-deprecating campaign about the city's efforts to shut down the project, and the idea was then "legalized". Within three months, 67 other guerilla intersections were installed and currently a total of 102 similar sidewalk/crosswalk installations have been put in. 

  • Somerville, MA had a plan to put in a public plaza at an odd intersection and simplify the streets. The community revolted, concerned about traffic and eliminating parking spaces. So the city tried a weekend pop up event, placing picnic tables and chairs on the parking lot and inviting coffee carts and food trucks.  One person stopped by, then several people, and eventually groups of people throughout the whole day.  After the food had sold out and the trucks left, a circle of people stayed and sat in a circle on the pavement talking to the wee hours of dawn.  The community feedback was unanimous - all wanted the plaza to be permanent.

  • Morgan Hill, CA wanted to find ways to make its downtown and the four lane road  more vibrant and pedestrian friendly.  Using traffic tape, they created a buffered bike path on one side, and a widened pedestrian experience on the other side.  Visitors then provided feedback, both positive and negative all along the downtown area, and it led to a six month pilot project, currently in progress.

Mike Lydon's Tactical Urbanism Presentation

Second, Palo Alto Forward identified a few existing examples of Tactical Urbanism in Palo Alto, and presented five challenges for attendees to discuss and brainstorm.  After fifteen minutes of discussion, many excellent ideas were generated. 


  1. No Pedestrian Crossing

    Design Problem/Goal: Signs to direct people to cross at one side of busy intersections are hostile and inconvenient
    What could be done:  
    Provide early cues to move people to other side of crossing
    Friendlier signs can be a colorful nudge to make proper path clearer,
    Hopscotch paths can make it fun.
    Alternative barriers could be plantings/trees/hedge,  wood sign, wood wall/barrier or a simple sculptural boulder
  2. Naked Traffic Circle

    Design Problem/Goal: Traffic calming measures like traffic circles are functionally ugly.  Can they be beautiful community assets and effective ways to slow traffic?
    What could be done:
    Can adjacent properties adopt it? 
    Act first and provide “sight” test. 
    Seasonal/temporary/rotating exhibits or public art in the center - temporary installations can reduce angst
    Mound or vertical element in the middle. 
    Stop signs at all corners. 
    Good looking circles can increase demand for circles. 
    Signage alternatives can include moving neon lights
  3. Bare Bones Bus Stop/Sign

    Design Problem/Goal: Bus and shuttle stops are unpleasant and lack information.  How can we improve this and make the bus/shuttle easier to use?
    What could be done:
    Interactive sign with hyperlocal cultural/historical facts and events. 
    Signage w/ diagram to indicate nearby attractions (library, school, etc)
    Like Paris or Stanford bus stops – clear signs with schedules. 
    Digital display for next bus.
    Folding chairs (metal) attached to pole for seating
    Free library nearby
    Trash cans
  4. Midtown People Zone

    Design Problem/Goal: How can this very popular neighborhood corridor and shopping area be a more people friendly and safer place?
    What could be done:
    Remove sandwich sign boards, add permanent signage or art. 
    Branding of center, street area re signage. More street trees & flowers. 
    People space near community garden behind buildings.
    Better Sidewalk paving and decorations
    Community Picnic between Baskin Robbins & Poetry- coordinate with a bike rally? 
  5. Geographic Heart of the City (Page Mill & El Camino)

    Design Problem/Goal: Could this intersection be a more social place and recognizable as the geographic heart of the city?
    What could be done:
    Pedestrian improvements for all crossings. 
    Food Trucks @ PA Square (increase events).
    Bike lanes on ECR & Page Mill.
    Bright paint @ pedestrian crossings.
    Pedestrian underpass that’s fun & well lit.
    Car underpass? 
    Pedestrian overpass? 
    Transit station in median.
    Celebrate the El Camino Bell or iconography of ECR. 
    Heart shape drawn at intersection to note geographic heart of city. 
    Kiosks w/before & after photos. 
    Wayfinding post to community services.
    Café at PA Square corner, with wider sidewalks and public seating. 
    Dig out Palo Alto’s El Camino plan and do a temporary implementation

Tactical Urbanism in PA 

We hope that everyone who had a chance to hear or meet Mike (and everyone reading this) will carry the discussions and ideas forward in their own neighborhoods and streets.  Don’t forget that small scale changes CAN lead to some longer lasting positive impacts.  Hope to see some pretty traffic circles, hopscotch crosswalks or an awesome community picnic at Midtown Shopping center soon.


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