The Community Resilience Reader combines a fresh look at the challenges humanity faces in the 21st century, the essential tools of resilience science, and the wisdom of activists, scholars, and analysts working with community issues on the ground. Today we're sharing an excerpt from this new book.


According to Michael Berkowitz, “Cities can’t just build resilience out of thin air—they need the right tools to do it.” So-called tactical resilience is the application of the tactical urbanism methodology to projects that do not just make cities better places to live, but that specifically address communities’ resilience challenges. Tactical resilience provides ways for local residents, businesses, and community leaders to collaborate with their local governments in developing the projects with the most potential to build the resilience of neighborhoods and, ultimately and by extension, of cities. The following case study is an example of how tactical resilience works in practice.

Why We Test: Learning to Learn in Burlington, Vermont

Burlington, Vermont (population 42,000), is a small university city known throughout the United States as a forward-thinking community. The city’s mobility outcomes reflect its values: 30 percent of Burlingtonians walk, bike, or take the bus to work (which is high by North American standards). This number is not representative of the quality of active transport infrastructure, which is seriously lacking across the city, nor the city’s hopes to get many more people moving without a car.

PlanBTV Walk Bike—a project that my planning and design firm Street Plans did with the City of Burlington—is a response to these challenges and serves as Burlington’s first citywide effort to improve walking and cycling. Specifically, the project aims to eliminate all deaths and serious injuries caused by traffic incidents while increasing walking and doubling cycling and transit use by 2026. All told, the plan aims to cut the number of driving trips by half.

Achieving these outcomes will be difficult, even in a politically supportive environment. Thus, the plan places a strong emphasis on high-impact, high-priority investments that can be delivered at low cost using citizen-led demonstration and city-led pilot and interim design projects. The key to this approach is helping all Burlingtonians understand how their short-term actions can translate to the long-term transformation of city streets.

To this last point, a low-cost and iterative approach seemed to be missing from the city’s project delivery toolkit. Given the limited resources in a city of Burlington’s size, the emerging opportunity became even more obvious when we learned that local citizens, advocacy organizations, and neighborhood groups were already lobbying the city to allow them to implement street safety demonstration projects as a tool for public engagement and education. Although the progressive-minded city government wanted to say yes, there was no city-sanctioned framework for them to do so. Given Street Plans’ experience and the timing of the PlanBTV Walk Bike, the Public Works Department asked the firm in 2015 if it could write both a policy for the city to allow the demonstration projects to take place and a guide for citizens to show them how to initiate the demonstration projects legally.

The process kicked off with a big round of public engagement activities and the development of the city policy and the citizens’ guide. A month later, we worked with Local Motion, a local active transport advocacy organization, and with the Department of Public Works to develop and implement four demonstration projects along some of the city’s busiest streets. We had three weeks to plan the projects and a total of $4,000 for materials.

Source: Street Plans

Source: Street Plans

These projects set out to accomplish two things. The first goal was to engage thousands of people in conversation about creating better walking and cycling conditions by allowing them to physically experience bike and pedestrian infrastructure not currently found in the city. The second goal was to test the city policy and citizens’ guide to ensure that it worked for everyone concerned. For maximum impact, the projects were organized in partnership with an arts festival called Art Hop, and Open Streets BTV, an initiative that closes streets to automobile traffic so that people may walk, run, bike, or skate; in other words, they can do anything but drive a car.

Over three days, the team implemented two colorful sidewalk curb extension plazas to alleviate foot traffic that often spills into a highly trafficked street during Art Hop. Three innovative bikeway types and intersection treatments not currently found in the city were added to streets intersecting the two-mile Open Streets route so that people of all ages and abilities could experience safer cycling infrastructure. At each project location, staff set up a tent and gathered feedback about the temporary street designs. A survey gathered hundreds of additional responses, and traffic and speed counts helped us understand the effects that the demonstration projects had on traffic flow.

In the end, we found that people liked the temporary street design changes and wanted them included in the city’s regular plans. We learned about details in the designs and the planning process that needed adjustment for future permanent installations to be successful. We engaged hundreds of people who otherwise would not have taken part in the conventional planning process. In addition, the city government learned how quickly it could respond to these types of projects; indeed, within a few weeks, the Department of Public Works went back to the demonstration sites and used long-lasting materials to make some of project improvements more permanent .

Source: Street Plans

Source: Street Plans

Scaling up the demonstration project, similar thinking is now being applied to a yearlong, city-led pilot project testing two different types of bikeway barriers along a major corridor in Burlington’s northern neighborhoods known to be a dangerous street. The results of this test will also help the city learn which design and materials work best. Overall, the city government is now integrating these experiences into its regular planning process. (As a bonus, the success of this project inspired Local Motion to invest in a digital “Pop-Ups and Demonstration Project Toolkit,” supported by a mobile trailer full of project supplies ready to be deployed to unsafe streets around Vermont.)

Everyone knows that urban sustainability can be built into streets physically: think stormwater bioswales, LED streetlights, bicycle lanes, and transit stops. As the Burlington case study demonstrates, however, changing the interaction between local government and citizens from one of simply listening to one of hands-on collaboration can open up opportunities for experimentation, learning, and relationship building, all of which are essential parts of effective community resilience building.

What is next?

The growth of tactical urbanism—and tactical resilience—has come at a fascinating if not daunting moment in time. As rapid urbanization continues, one thing is clear: as we continue to grapple with the twenty-first century’s environmental, energy, economic, and equity crises, the burdens on human, economic, and natural resources will only grow. To build their resilience, communities have to do more with less, with do being the operative word.

To build their resilience, communities have to do more with less, with DO being the operative word.

Tactical resilience holds promise as a way to educate and empower community members to take action. To achieve real lasting outcomes, however, this model of collaborative government-citizen relationship cannot be relegated just to small-scale neighborhood projects; it must spread throughout the city and be applied to other aspects of government responsibility. Tactical resilience on its own cannot solve the enormous challenges that communities face in the twenty-first century. It can, however, get planners, designers, engineers, and elected officials out of their offices and back into the streets with people, where the foundation for social, political, and economic capital is built. It can cut through bureaucracy and break big plans down into manageable projects using many, many small actions that test concepts with quick feedback loops. It can also help cities and citizens collaborate proactively to learn what is needed to sustain high-quality public spaces, to achieve zero-fatality streets, and to simply create engaging, healthier places to live together.

From the outside, working with community members on small projects may seem like an inefficient, hopelessly messy way for a modern city to get things done, but inefficiency is often necessary to create space for the redundancy and experimentation critical to system resilience. Grassroots and neighborhood-scale initiatives are experiments, and multiplied across a city and across the country, they collectively embody important resilience-building functions like diversity, modularity, feedback, and social capital. With a nod to “Carlson’s law,” the resilient city will not be orderly and neat; rather, it will be chaotic and smart.

The Community Resilience Reader: Essential Resources for an Era of Upheaval is available now, and you can snag a 20% discount with the code 4READER if you purchase your book from Island Press.

(Top photo source: PlanBTV Walk Bike)


Related stories