The Tactics That Be: Contesting Tactical Urbanism in New Orleans

The stretch of St. Claude Avenue (LA-46) that coincides with the catchment area of St. Claude Main Street ­– one of four Main Street organizations in New Orleans – will soon be host to a number of “parkettes.” As a matter of the organization of public space, parkettes – like their cousins, “parklets,” “pocket parks,” “mini-parks,” etc.­ – are relatively innocuous. They stem from the Park(ing) Day tradition that Rebar – a design firm that specializes in the “re-imagining” of contemporary cityscapes – launched in San Francisco and which has since spread to cities across the US. They tend to be situated in proximity to commercial properties, contain plants and seating, and are chartered on the premise that anyone can occupy the space. Why, then, have these seemingly innocuous installations stirred such discontent amongst New Orleans’ downtown residents?

The St. Claude Avenue commercial corridor serves as a boundary for a number of New Orleans communities: the Marigny, the 7th Ward, St. Roch, the Bywater, and St. Claude/Upper 9th Ward – at the same time dividing and uniting these neighborhoods. Over the past five years, this stretch of St. Claude has become host to a number of art galleries, storefront theaters, and cafes that import beans roasted in Portland or New York. St. Claude Main Street and the St. Claude Arts’ District have promoted the Avenue as a vibrant new hub of New Orleans’ arts and cultural scene, specifically at some remove from its straightforwardly tourist counterpart along, say, Royal St. in the French Quarter.

When local historian and long-time New Orleans resident Christine Horn asked whether anybody really wanted “parkettes” along the St. Claude corridor, the discussion was never really about the small, designer installations in themselves. For Horn, the most outspoken critic of the parkette program, along with her neighbors and fellow long-term residents, the parkettes serve as a stand-in for the much broader, amorphous, and rather uncritically-received tactical urbanism movement.

Tactical urbanism is a particular articulation of “creative place-making” – an ethos that today shapes many local urbanist initiatives in cities across the country, praised by urban enthusiasts and idealists for its ability to catalyze “vibrancy” and civic engagement. “Guerrilla urbanism,” “pop-up urbanism,” “city repair,” and “DIY urbanism” all describe the same set of phenomena that tactical urbanism has categorically linked together. Guerrilla gardening, weed bombing, and “site previtalization”; pop-up retail, mobile vendors, and gourmet food trucks; pavement-to-plazas, intersection repair, and pocket parks – such are the “tactics” for reclaiming urban public spaces that tactical urbanism has canonized in its handbook. To Horn and her neighbors, the arrival of tactical urbanism to the Crescent City appears to be merely the most recent in a series of enterprises to transform public space in the likeness of those that the city would most like to attract: people with money.

Whereas previous initiatives to attract capital to New Orleans’ downtown neighborhoods may have proceeded under the banner of cultural sensitivity, tactical urbanism ups the ante by explicitly affording the promise of ongoing community input and engagement in order to keep new design – as St. Claude Main Street manager Michael Martin puts it – “indigenous” and “born out of on-the-ground conditions.” At least, it does so in theory. Community support and indigenous design, the logic goes, might mitigate some of the tensions inherent in neighborhoods undergoing rapid social transformation by gentrification.

Carrying out this promise in practice, however, is much messier. “The community” must be conjured, constructed, and represented, through various practices and technologies, which range from the focus group to civic media platforms for participatory urbanism. Horn’s critique is thus not about the parkettes themselves, but rather about the failure to accurately represent and meaningfully engage with the community during the planning process.

In May 2012, St. Claude Main Street, in partnership with the Bywater-based design studio Civic Center, received a $275,000 grant for their Arts District & Parkettes Program. The funding source, ArtPlace, is a coalition of foundations (thirteen of the nation’s largest: Ford, Bloomberg, Rockefeller, etc.), supported by six of the largest banks (Bank of America, Citi, Chase, etc.), and is overseen by the federally funded National Endowment for the Arts.

St. Claude Main Street’s programming for the ArtPlace grant consists of four parts, three of which will go “unseen” through investment in arts organizations and artists to develop organizational and personal capacity and place promotion. The fourth component is the parkette program, to be “based on programs in San Francisco and New York City where community organizations collaborate with property owners, the municipality, and residents to build small, public greenspaces along commercial corridors” by employing “tactical urbanism processes that will help us build resident buy-in and thus assure that the park designs will be respondent to how people actually use the space.”

At a community meeting in July 2012, St. Claude Main Street announced its plans for the grant-funded programming. Talk at the meeting, however, was not about how badly the Avenue needed parkettes, but rather about how to mitigate the forces of gentrification that have been so rapidly and dramatically transforming the neighborhoods along the St. Claude corridor.

What concerned Christine Horn most was that if the programming was premised upon the success of parklets in San Francisco as the representatives of St. Claude Main Street intimated, then shouldn’t San Francisco’s guiding principle of “pre-existing community support for public space at the location” apply? There is no answer to this question in the case of the St. Claude parkettes, since funding was allocated for the development of parkettes before the affected communities were consulted. The parkettes were, in fact, written into the ArtPlace grant application prior to any community meeting.

The problems that tactical urbanism must address do not stem from any spatial or design flaw, but that it presents its tactics sans strategy. Those who subscribe to this regime of small-scale spatial intervention must remember that even cheap, quick, and tactical appropriations of public space entail a level of responsibility to the public – especially when they proceed under the guise of “pre-existing community support” or “resident buy-in.” There is no spatial or design fix that can undermine the constellation of forces that conspire to rapidly and dramatically transform neighborhoods, or alleviate the anxieties borne of such transformations. There is only earnest engagement with and respect for those affected by spatial intervention.

As a design form that privileges the social life of small urban spaces, the parkettes are brilliant. But they are nonetheless a symptom of, not a reprieve from, a long failure to meaningfully communicate and engage with disadvantaged communities in the reconfiguration of public space.

Aaron Shapiro is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He studies cities, intellectual technologies of urban revitalization, and commodity aesthetics. In particular, he is interested in the transformations of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the city’s shifting demographics, the mobilization and engagement of new residents in shaping the city’s developmental direction, and the quantification of the region’s cultural economic assets and social entrepreneurial endeavors as evaluative techniques of urban governance. He can be contacted at