Formal vs informal settlements, bottom-up vs top-down urban development, tactical urbanism vs neoliberal urbanism. Different solutions moving in opposite directions. Which one is the right approach? It is estimated that in 2030 the world population will be 8 billion people, but unless major changes take place, two-thirds of them are likely to live as poor urban residents struggling to survive with limited resources.

Concerns over the uneven pace of growth are pushing the international community to rethink the role of city authorities and urban designers in the process of building liveable cities. Researchers and practitioners are often called to examine new possibilities and develop their proposals on the topic. In recent years, overlapping events like the instability of financial markets, the proliferating of environmental disasters and the rapid growth of most populous urban agglomerations among others have called for urgent responses. In this context, the inability of the local governments to deliver basic goods to its citizens – those already settled and the newcomers – has enhanced bottom-up actions. Groups of people filling the gap of formal institutions through circumscribed interventions relatively limited in time and space.

The spread of participatory and do-it-yourself approaches has become a new model of action aiming at sustaining citizens to regain control over the urban spaces that they use. It goes under the name of “tactical urbanism” and it’s often opposed to the more established top-down approach of neoliberal urbanism where public institutions empower private actors to intervene in the urban fabric. Yet, despite government failures and socio-environmental issues, neoliberal urbanism continues to be applied in urban development practices thus perpetuating the problems already mentioned.

The question here is to identify viable long-term solutions to be scaled-up. None of the two approaches from above can fully meet the requirements. Nowadays, tactical urbanism frameworks are the most promoted among practitioners, but when it comes to confront the new proposals with the variegated challenges of some megacities, they show all their limits. The broader vision that is essential to manage long-term interventions on complex and extended territories inevitably leads to a stabilized project defined by binding rules and territorial management: the traditional concept of planning.

There is not a right solution to solve the urban issue. Some might argue that the correct answer lies somewhere in the middle between the tactical and the neoliberal approaches. The truth is that probably we are nowhere near the right path and we are just wandering in a fog of confusion. It’s not a question of judging previous failures and then act the opposite way, but rather re-built a new way of approaching the study of urban processes and its transformation while taking into account the interconnected social reality we are now living in.