Temporary public realm changes

Social distancing requires high streets to reimagine and change their physical spaces. How can places encourage people to respect the measure but also access the reopening businesses and services?


This article has been created by independent experts on behalf of the High Streets Task Force. It is not intended as Government guidance and we have not sought approval for it to be so.



To ensure that public spaces are as safe as possible, temporary changes need to be made to the physical environment. Local authorities can access the Reopening High Streets Safely Fund to do this, in line with government guidance on Safer Public Places.

So, how can we quickly adapt public space?

This is a challenge for local authorities and other place leaders, both in terms of the legal and planning frameworks for action, and creatively in reimagining spaces that are typically hidden or underused.

Dr. Steve Millington of the Institute of Place Management looks at the theme of tactical urbanism which provides an approach to this challenge via its ethos of community-led and low-cost place-based interventions. 

10 point checklist for temporary public realm changes 


1. Safety

The primary driver of temporary measures is to manage social distancing and promote safer environments within town centres and high streets. However, Transport for London advises careful consideration when deploying barriers between people and traffic. Indeed, TfL research suggests the removal of vertical impact barriers can promote slower driving speeds and better driver behaviour, consequently lowering pedestrian injuries. The Landscape Institute, in a forthcoming technical note, argues the temporary deployment of plastic red/orange and white barriers might create a false sense of security, promoting faster driving speeds on streets where temporary barriers do not offer the same level of protection as permanent installations.  In some cases, therefore, it may be safer to close the entire street to traffic.

2. Adaptability

A key quality of Tactical Urbanism is adaptability. This is important, not only during the current recovery phases, but also in the long-term to enable places to adapt to changing trading conditions, but also to help manage other potential disruptions to high streets and town centres.

This may mean thinking about the capacity of places not only to roll out temporary measures, but also their ability to quickly adapt and repurpose them. For instance, much of the temporary infrastructure put in place is designed to follow guidance on 2m social distancing, but how quickly could such measures be reconfigured or moved should the guidance change?

Streets, for example, do not necessarily have to be closed 24 hours a day. Gehl, for instance, calls for “dynamic rebalancing”, with consideration of how streets can be quickly adapted to allow for more walking, biking and running as and when needed.

So far, temporary measures installed in UK centres focus primarily on pavements and roads, but Tactical Urbanism also invites consideration of other sites for potential for place-making interventions, which might help to manage social distancing in relation to capacity and flexibility. For instance, WH Whyte’s classic 1980 study “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” draws attention a “huge reservoir of space yet untapped by imagination”, underused spaces, which might also be repurposed through temporary place making. These could include vacant lots, car parks, quiet side streets, back alleys and service areas, loading bays, and inaccessible green and open spaces (roundabouts, verges, space beneath flyovers, underpasses, and viaducts).  There is now a growing compendium of examples demonstrating how such spaces can be brought into effective use. A good example is the use of shipping containers to create retail and markets, temporary office space, and shelters. Bruntwood’s Hatch in Manchester, for instance, created a flexible space for independent businesses and performance on an underused site beneath a flyover.


3. Walkability

An emerging concern about managing social distance on high streets relates not just to manage queues outside stores, but also pedestrian flow and movement in and through town centres. Even where pavements are wide enough to enable people to pass by safely, there can be multiple obstacles, which create pinch points, such as lighting posts, litter bins, bicycle stands, bus stops, traffic signage, advertising boards, together with pavement sandwich boards put up by local businesses. This street level paraphernalia can have adverse implications for many users on the high street, by creating pinch points and blocking lines of sight. Now, they also present an added hazard, by taking up space which might otherwise accommodate queueing systems, or by disrupting pedestrian flow and forcing wary citizens to step out into the roadway to avoid passing to closely to others, creating another potential hazard. Removal of clutter to create more room on existing pavement space may also reduce the need to put in more disruptive schemes involving road narrowing/closures. Where problems exist, some items can be quickly removed quickly, such as, commercial advertising boards. Others might prove difficult, but the issues invite us to consider street design post-recovery in terms of their capacity to be adapted for social distancing and other potential disruptions. 

The reality is that in the short term, decluttering may be difficult. However, places can also consider other measures, which might improve the permeability of the centres to manage both pedestrian capacity and flow. Quickly undertaking an audit, for example, can assess spaces amenable to rapid repurposing to create new pedestrian routes. Identifying blockages, such as fences and gates, or enhancing alleyways and service spaces can allow for the creation safer, well-lit and welcoming routes. Simple signage can alert people to these alternative pathways, or the time it might take to walk to a key destination.

See also

Manual for Streets provides existing guidance on good street design, with central message declutter where you can

Manual for Streets 2 includes guidance on reducing street furniture and keeping footways clear.

Street Design for All outlines the different approaches and practical application of street design principles.


4. Accessibility

With growing evidence people are beginning to use their nearest centre within walking distance, encouraging them back to the high street, it may also mean addressing issues regarding accessibility to the centre from adjacent neighbourhoods or entry points. Decisions made decades ago to encircle many town centre with multi-lane ring roads, effectively cut-off pre-existing walking routes for people living nearby. So far, few measures have addressed this issue, but through Tactical Urbanism there are examples of how places have attempted to reconnect places by addressing the challenges created by busy highways, awkward footbridges, and unwelcoming subways. A great example can be found in Cities for People’s case study of Ottawa, demonstrating how low cost interventions can rapidly transform an unwelcoming space beneath a flyover. In Sweden, social lighting experts Olsson + Linder have developed a reputation for transforming awkward and unwelcoming sites through simple but effective lighting schemes. However, another underused resource are routes along canals and rivers. Although many places have begun to bring urban waterways into their regeneration strategies, many remain underused and underserved. Pop-cafes along such routes, for instance, may take pressure off town centres and encourage more people to use what might be unwelcoming and underused routes. See, for example, Future of London’s Making the Most of London’s Waterways.

In addition, there appears to be evidence people are cycling more, as roads became quieter. With restrictions on public transport likely to remain in place for some time, cycling offers potential to attract people from a wider catchment into centres, and for some, it may be the only feasible method of getting to work. In addition, with home delivery becoming more important, micromobilities and last mile logistics are also a consideration. Many measures are already in place to create more space for cyclists, but as we move to recovery, there needs to be greater consideration of how the upsurge in cycling might be sustained. A good start point is Sustrans Design Manual (2014) Handbook for cycle-friendly design. Perhaps overlooked, however, is cycling storage capacity, especially as cyclists also need to social distance. Simply creating new bike stands on pavements will add to street clutter to become a potential nuisance for pedestrians. Again, tactical interventions can help. For example, the average UK parking space is 11.5 sq.m. As the image below demonstrates, one car takes up the same amount of space for a dozen bikes. 


For many users of high streets and town centres, however, car access will remain the only viable option. With streets becoming closed to traffic access, places might also consider the relocation and establishment of temporary drop-off / pick up zones at key entry points, to minimise need for private traffic to enter centres, together with new taxi ranks. Amsterdam, for example, has already trialled such initiatives. In addition, walking routes between peripheral car parks might be enhanced through temporary measures and signage indicating walking distances and times. However, some vehicles require access to carry out essential maintenance, deliveries, street cleaning, and attend emergencies. Compatibility with these needs remain an important consideration. In addition, people with limited mobility will require parking close to essential services. 


5. Activity Hours

Although there are many good examples of temporary measures to promote social distancing, guidance and practice only predominantly assumes daytime usage.  Although such schemes may work well in the day-time and in good weather, if restrictions on social distancing continue, their utility will quickly be undermined as the nights draw in and normal British weather is resumed. 

As IPM research demonstrates, adjustment to activity hours is an activity well within the control of local partnerships working collaboratively with their traders.  Interventions like this presents an opportunity to exploit the early evening and late-night through schemes that might encourage use after dark, to provide a way of relieving pressure at peak times, and potentially reducing excessive queuing times.

Consideration needs to be given, therefore, to how measures that manage social distancing on high streets will work in the nocturnal environment, especially when anticipating the reopening of pubs and clubs, although let us not forget that many essential and key workers, and others working late, already face a challenging environment when navigating centres at night.

Well-designed temporary lighting schemes may contribute to reviving the evening economy and hospitality sectors and provide additional time and space to manage social distancing.

As the Light Collective’s Guerrilla Lighting initiative demonstrates, transforming places at night does not necessarily involve expensive lighting installations.

6. Communication and collaboration

With many places now entertaining ideas and practices from Tactical Urbanism, it is important not to forget the approach developed by Mike Lydon and Andy Garcia of Street Plans Collaborative, who advocate for greater collaboration between planning and design professionals, decision makers, and communities affected by planning decisions. This is especially important given concerns voiced by local traders and people about temporary measures affecting high streets and town centres.

Effective communications might also address some of the common misconceptions that closing streets to cars negatively affects local traders. Evidence suggests the reverse happens, as centres without cars tends to encourage people to dwell and linger for longer, putting more money into the local economy. Bogota, for instance, has been running car-free Sundays since 1974, with research suggesting this boosts the revenue of local traders located along the key routes. With reducing air pollution and increased levels of walking and cycling, research suggests for every dollar spent on improving Columbia’s cycling infrastructure, the public health system saves three. Even though many were sceptical, when Madrid closed its centre to cars over the Christmas period in 2018, takings increased 9.5%. Indeed, it has been shown that in cities with relatively low-levels of car usage, citizens without the cost of running a car save money, which they subsequently spend within the local economy. CEOs for Cities, for example, suggests this boosts New York’s economy by $19b a year. The evidence indicates, therefore, that car free centres not only impacts positively on the local economy but also on people’s health and visitor satisfaction.

Getting such messages over to those expressing concerns is, therefore, also part of the process. Thus, it is incumbent for place leaders to engage with their key stakeholder groups, which may help facilitate both the rapid installation and effectiveness of measures to manage social distancing. As the High Streets Task Force is beginning to document, places like Norwich have responded well to the current crisis, because they had existing partnerships in place to manage the crisis, and subsequently have formed new structures (plan ahead groups) to ensure their response represented various sectors. The effectiveness of Tactical Urbanism requires trade associations, market operators, BIDs, and community partnerships to be involved, ideally in the design and implementation of schemes. 

Another good example is the work undertaken by Night Time Economy Solutions to build broad cross-sector partnerships. In Manchester, for example, this brought together representatives of the hospitality sector, the police, NHS, transport providers, and city planners, to work on cross-sector solutions in relation to managing the city’s evening economy. This work led to establishment of temporary pop-up triage services in the city centre at peak times over Christmas, which helped reduce pressure on local A&E services, and to create safe zones for revellers, effectively mitigating problems before they escalated. Such networks will become especially important as social lockdown is eased, and as the night-time economy reopens it is essential to more carefully consider how to manage social distancing when alcohol is introduced into the mix.

7. Regulatory Flexibility

A key inspiration behind Tactical Urbanism lies in the frustration found within many communities who find local authorities slow to respond, or feel decision makers simply do not listen to them. In addition, the IPM’s engagement with town centre stakeholder groups across the UK over many years reveals many examples of local people wanting to do something positive for their high street, but who are defeated by a plethora of rules, regulation, byelaws, and complex form filling. 

Tactical Urbanism, therefore, is not just about physical interventions, but is also concerned with promoting greater freedom and trust in communities to self-organise and take responsibility for place making interventions and management. Although we have already seen some relaxation of planning rules to enable pubs and restaurants to operate as hot food takeaways during the coronavirus outbreak, there might be other areas within the remit of local government and BIDs, which could make life easier for people who want to take action and help to revive their high street. For example, following relaxation of controls on outdoor eating, Streateries are being deployed in the USA to help revive restaurants.

Rethinking byelaws, licensing, removing curbs on what can and cannot be done in public space, easing restrictions on streets and pavement use (where appropriate) to make it easier to operate open markets or provide outdoor seating next to pubs and restaurants, may all help town centre recovery. Measures to promote street activation and entertainment, together with festivals and events will be essential for recovery following relaxation of social lockdown. In addition, simplifying processes and bureaucracy for local businesses to access funding and support, encourages activities, builds trusts and collaboration, and help places to respond more resiliently to dynamic shocks as we are witnessing at the moment.

In Hackney, for instance, people have developed their own social distancing intervention to demonstrate what can be done quickly. Decision makers need to find a way of sanctioning such activities to enable local stakeholders take more responsibility.

8. Appearance

The Landscape Institute is already bringing attention to the design deficiencies of functional, unwieldly temporary interventions, which might become semi-permanent features on our high streets. The imposition of crowd control barriers, barricades, and fences may contribute to safety, but do not necessarily enhance the appearance of high streets. Indeed, they may negatively affect perceptions of centres by creating an unwelcoming environment.

If local people and users of high streets are to experience temporary measures for considerable time, then design and material qualities should also be an important consideration. Enhancing functional installations through creative and innovative place-making interventions to help soften the hard edges, might add distinction, and generally improve people’s experience. Ideally, design quality and appearance should be an early consideration in the planning process, but approaches under the Tactical Urbanism umbrella could be applied retrospectively.

One of the best examples in the UK is in Leamington, which features on the HSTF website as an exemplar of a creative, interesting scheme that does not distract from its primary purpose to create a safe environment. The Project for Public Spaces highlights the Intersection Repair initiative that demonstrates how ordinary streetscapes can be brightened up through imaginative interventions, which also add character and distinction to places. Back in the UK, City Dressing is already producing bespoke social distancing floor graphics to detract from the utilitarian nature of their purpose.

Finally, places leaders might take inspiration from Guerrilla Gardening. As research demonstrates, this relatively benign activity can help places improve the appearance on unkempt spots in public realm through informal community planting. A quick audit of sites for safe planting, and placing simple sign inviting people “it is safe to plant here”, might prove to be an effective way involving the community in improvement the high street. Fine Gardening has produced guidance on how this can be done safely and legally.

9. Inclusive design

Inclusive design encompasses a wide range of needs. A rising concern perhaps, however, is that whereas inclusivity is now a necessary part of formal urban design, such requirements are not necessarily a consideration in temporary schemes.

The RNIB, for example, brings attention to the safety of shared space schemes for the blind and partially sighted, which should be an important consideration when widening pavements.

Although we have seen the benefits of reduced car usage, closing whole streets completely to access may have implications for those who need to park near the facilities they need.

Measures to make cycling safer are to be welcomed, but remember this does not benefit everyone equally, when considering the demographics of those able to cycle. Cyclists can also present a hazard to pedestrians if schemes are not well designed.

As we have already seen, the re-opening of some major stores has led to people waiting in queues for several hours. Whereas we might admire the patience of these customers to stand in the heat for considerable time, for many people this is not option. The resilience of queue management systems, therefore, might be improved with consideration of opportunities for shelter, seating and even temporary toilet facilities. However, when considering the potential spread of COVID-19, additional features will also need risk assessing, which may well warrant strict cleaning and disinfectant routines. Nevertheless, more consideration could be given to social distancing measures that support the needs of inter-generational and mixed family groups. Indeed, the needs of younger people and children is virtually absent in current practice, even though some simple interventions can help, see this example from the UK.

Importantly, greater consideration is needed of how measures to manage social distance might contribute to people’s well-being, rather than detract from it. During lockdown, health and well-being professionals have brought attention to the importance of green infrastructure to reducing isolation and sociality. Place leaders will have to consider how this socialising in public space might be maintained for mental wellbeing, yet managed safely. The reality is that some high streets and town centres have ample provision with walking distance, other less so. However, greater integration of nature and greenery into schemes can have a remarkable effect. We perhaps need to go beyond a few relocated a few planters, to consider how tactical urbanism measures can create more substantial greening. Informal schemes such as the Depave Movement and Incredible Edible, and more localised interventions, provide examples of how this can be done quickly and cheaply while involving local communities. 

Going forward, places are advised to review The Landscape Institute’s Technical Guidance Note 03/19 on Inclusive Design in the Public Realm, and Transport for London, Temporary Traffic Management Handbook.

10. From tactics to strategy

Tactical Urbanism provides an opportunity to quickly trial new ideas and experiments in place making to see if they work. Through small-scale, low cost, and relatively risk-free schemes, we can monitor the impact and evaluate their impact, before making any commitment to major investment programmes. Central to Lydon and Garcia’s approach outlined in the book Tactical Urbanism, is the mantra “build, measure, learn”. First and foremost is the need to something quickly to restore confidence in our centres, but at the same time, lets also do something good, and it if works, keep on doing it! However, more significantly, tactical urbanism represents a change in approach to the planning and management of cities, whereby “decentralised, bottom-up, extraordinarily agile, networked, low-cost, and low-tech” underpin wider strategic change through reiteration and replication, on a street-by-street basis, to effectively reengineer the DNA of places. As Professor Nabeel Hamdi suggests, Tactical Urbanism involves “making plans without the usual preponderance of planning”. In summary, short term adaptable changes, can be the start of more fundamental long-term change.

A good example is how people are beginning to appreciate centres without incessant traffic noise and pollution. With fewer cars, places are becoming cleaner, quieter and safer. Cities like Milan and Oakland, have already seen the benefits, and are beginning to adapt short-term measures into permanent features, with Milan now repurposing 22miles of roadspace for pedestrian and cycle use only. Such measures may begin to help place reach other strategic goals in terms health, well-being, and becoming carbon neutral. Although we might get be carried away with what tactical urbanism has to offer, we must remember it is not a panacea for more structural problems, although it can help.

Auckland has been using tactical urbanism for a number of years and produced a helpful paper on its impact.

More resources:
Introduction to Tactical Urbanism

In this video Dr. Steve Millington highlights some example interventions that could be considered in the tradition of tactical urbanism, reflecting on how they might be adapted for other places and the challenges to doing so.

Case study:
Social distancing with flowers in Leamington

This case study uses the example of placing large flower stickers in the high street to demonstrate the 2 metre social distancing requirement in key areas of public space and around businesses. Stephanie Kerr, Executive Director of the BID, spoke with the Institute of Place Management to run through the initiative and its wider place making lessons for high streets reacting to COVID-19.