Click here for the edited and condensed, print-only version of our interview with Mike Lydon,
a Principal of Street Plans, and the creator/primary author of the Open Streets Project and the globally acclaimed series of literature on Tactical Urbanism. The 2016 International Open Streets Summit will be held August 18-21 at Portland State University.
Blight: To start, tell us about the Open Streets Summit that’s coming to Portland later this summer.
Lydon: At its core, it’s a summit of cities that are doing Sunday Parkways-type events—traditionally called ciclovias. The Open Streets Summit is something that our firm has helped organize for the past three years, so our fourth summit will be, as mentioned, in Portland, in August of this year and it’s an exciting event. It started in Minneapolis back in 2013, it was really meant to be a bit more of a hands-on focused training, at the time we had about 50 people show up… and so basically we’ve seen growth every year, from Los Angeles in 2014 to in Atlanta last year we had about 125 people come and have to really make it more of a formal conference, and so this year we’re hoping to achieve nearly 200 people at the conference, which will be cohosted by PSU and PBOT and IBPI and TREC, and not only are we expecting more growth domestically but we expect to have more participation from leaders in Central and South America who have done a much better job at scaling up the size, the frequency of open streets, what they call ciclovias, in their countries and we’ve had some international participation in the past from London, South Africa, Canada, we had a speaker last year from Guadalajara, but you know we’re really trying to open this up and have translators at the event and all that so it’s exciting. I think Portland is going to be the perfect… Sunday Parkways will be a great initiative for attendees to experience during the conference.
Blight: It’s primarily attended then by city planners, more of an institutional function? Or for bike activists?
Lydon: It’s a real mix. It’s definitely cities who are paying for or helping to plan and organize open streets but also the advocacy organizations and the activists that also co-organize or lead the way or are interested, honestly, in bringing an Open Streets program to their city and they come to the conference to learn, they come back to their hometown or city and be better prepared to advocate with city leaders, the counselor or mayor, the parks department… yeah.
Blight: How did Street Plans come about, and then Open Streets as an extension, and Tactical Urbanism?
Lydon: That’s a good question. So it’s all related, as you can imagine. So I was living in Miami for a few years after graduate school, where I was working for a planning and design and consulting firm in the city and was part of pretty large-scale urban design and building projects in Miami and I was really excited by that but also a little bit frustrated with the scale and the importance of these projects and then the commensurate scale of public participation. There’s a huge effort to involve the public and I think the city and the team did a good job overall but there was something that was really missing about people being able to physically understand what did a walkable city mean, like why do they want… and so through my advocacy work we decided to have the city’s very first Open Streets in the fall of 2008 and the short story is the city at that time was ranked one of the top 3 worst cities to cycle in in America. And because the mayor was quite progressive at the time, he wanted to change that so we thought that Open Streets would be a really wonderful way to kick off a whole new approach to cycling in the city. And as a volunteer I got to help plan that, and then seeing the thousands of people in the streets of Miami for the first time on bikes was very powerful and it brought to life a street particularly in the middle of downtown that at that time was quite lifeless on the weekend. But also just to see like people understand through experience what their city could be. I got hooked on that, so the short story is that I soon thereafter left the firm that I was with because the city asked me to write their very first bike master plan in 2009 so I first started Street Plans.
Then the Open Streets project was really a side research project because I already had started some of that research and looking at examples from around the country and the world for Miami, and then we got really hooked on the power of it, seeing more cities doing it and so as we were researching more and more of these programs were being organized at that time. So we partnered with a nonprofit in 2011 to get a grant to produce the Open Streets project, which was then the kind of best practices clearing house and organizer of the summit for 2013, and then going back to Open Streets is just seeing this powerful transformation of, you know, the city for a day but really people’s hearts and minds that I found powerful, so really starting to see how cities were beginning to do some of this work like in New York City but also [as an] advocate around 2008, 2009, 2010 where I was [working on] a lot of really, really effective short-term projects, sometimes with permission, sometimes without, and it was kind of a cool movement that I was able to observe, research and take some part in but really understand the involvement [with] these activists in Dallas doing Better Block and the city of New York doing Power of Transformation projects along Broadway, so a very similar kind of short, quick, effective way to communicate and build political will for long-term transformation.
So Tactical Urbanism came out of those observations, out of the various, the short document we produced at our firm, that we put up on the internet for people to access it, just giving it a [relevant] structure just kind of made it take off because this kind of stuff was very much happening at the grass roots in various cities, it’s just no one had a real language for it, or an understanding of what the connections were.
Blight: Tactical Urbanism is such a common term anymore. How did you arrive at that phrasing?
Lydon: I was looking at some of the work in New York. I read a blog post by a landscape architect who was documenting some of the changes that were happening on Broadway, and in his blog post he used the word “tactical” and at that moment it was like, oh wait a minute, it’s not just Broadway, all this stuff kinda seems like it’s tactical. I looked it up in a dictionary, the word, and saw a definition and saying it again, not just Broadway initiative but what is happening across the country, and so I added “urbanism” which is what this is and so, yeah, the whole idea is born from that blog post which I had mentioned in the introduction to when we produced our book so that was kind of the genesis of it. And at this point it’s really evolved from being more of sort of observing this to really developing seasoned tools, approaches, and activists, that cities and government can utilize to make our cities better places to work.
Blight: I was speaking with Nidhi Gulati about that, and we got to talking about the housing crisis here and how it ties in with public space and cities working better as systems. What about public space in terms of those individuals who are forced outside?
Lydon: I’ve worked in some context where that was a challenge but certainly not I think on the scale that you deal with out in the Northwest. I think what’s interesting is that so often decisions about policy, about things like zoning and design and planning get made in certain kinds of those groups, you know, all the power, and community spaces that are really made to be more comfortable to those who have time and privilege. And what tactical urbanism allows for is to be applied in this manner which, that’s not always applied this way but certainly it can be is how to think through, how to include not just concepts that get brought to people where people are, so it could be brought to where the homeless people are dwelling or to where people just live their daily lives or walk through space and by changing that context a little bit physically allows you to reach populations of people you don’t usually reach otherwise and give them the opportunity to really interact with it. So there’s a little bit more of a passive involvement or a direct involvement in actually to take these concepts and design this space with people who dwell in or pass through or utilize open space or public space and bring me the prototypes or physical responses to meet their needs, and that can then inform policy, inform decisions, inform design, and that’s really the power of it, as Nidhi said, that it’s not presuming to know everything going into a project, it’s about learning from what works and what doesn’t just by trying something out physically where people can observe it, interact with it, which is something you just don’t do in a conventional planning process.
Blight: Everybody considers public space differently. What’s your take on it after years working in this framework, and what have you found is most misunderstood about it?
Lydon: To me, the basic concept is that public space is everything between buildings, in terms of you can get down to the actually property lines and things like that but generally it’s the space between buildings which we all occupy in some manner over the course of our days throughout our daily lives, that can be sidewalks, streets, the actual parks and the spaces that are intentionally designed to be public, for public use, that are not just about moving people, but it’s about often times staying or playing. I think that’s the challenge, is that most people only look at public space as their neighborhood park and as their plaza or their square and to me one of the challenges that we have as planners is to broaden the concept of what’s public and how that space is used, so I think people would be very upset if they realized that the majority of Pioneer Courthouse Square was, I know it used to be a parking lot but then again became a space that was dominated by cars, would be really incensed by that. Now we have this misunderstanding that we think streets or sidewalks or parking lots are totally, it’s okay for that to be about automobility and that’s not exactly the public space. So I think there’s also some notions about ownership that if a dominant species on a street, like you’re driving down the street, kind of thing, you deserve your own space, you have your own space, that’s the natural order of things, and then we have to look at our intent, we have to question how we utilize this really, really important public asset and public resource, which are our streets that connect all these actual well-known public spaces like parks and squares.
Blight: You mention the intent, and questioning it. This issue explores the intent vs. reality of consequences—of say, as you mention, Pioneer Square. Any thoughts on designed public spaces that have not functioned as intended?
Lydon: Gee that’s a good question. So I’m trying to think about projects and experiences that I could draw upon to answer that… You know, I think the work that we’ve done is really trying to change people’s perception not only, again, of what’s public but just the function of the space that’s not working well and that comes across in all sorts of ways. I’m thinking of a project that we did in Atlanta where it was about transforming the street between the curbs, but it was also about transforming the vacant lots and creating what was called a lifelong community so it was trying to be inclusive of not only of the residents of the neighborhood who were African American, definitely largely impoverished and under-resourced in that neighborhood and give them an immediate response to some of their community needs and desires that actually got built out in these spaces that we could kind of reappropriate. I’m thinking of a vacant lot that was for all intents and purposes that could be used publicly but no one had really approached the owner to utilize it a certain way which was actually a nonprofit organization that owned the land. So we had a Better Block-styled project there which was over the course of three days and one of the stronger elements of the project was that we took this vacant lot, we cleaned it up and then we programmed it with a variety of different events and things with the intent to try to appeal to not only to those in the neighborhood but to the people who returned to this neighborhood on Sundays for church who are basically the black middle class that have left the neighborhood, left that part of Atlanta, moved elsewhere with better resources, etc. and they come back for church.
And so we wanted to kind of catalyze those two populations and see what could work, and one of the things that we heard during our initial workshop was that there was a large tower of public housing for seniors that was within our project site and one of the gentlemen said to us, “Well I’m in a wheelchair, I’m unable… in our community to get across town but I really enjoy movies,” and so that became the inspiration for how do we create a movie theater, not just for this guy but, many people like movies and so it’d be great to put a movie theater on this vacant lot to bring that kind of a use to this neighborhood, to the project. And we really did get to do that, and it created a really lovely outdoors environment during the nice, warm spring nights, and a street that normally gets taken over by drug dealers at that hour we used for public purpose and was a direct asset for two days for people who lived in that public housing tower. So it’s like trying to figure out how you can make best use of the spaces that do exist, without having to transform them with hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars but just be like, look, this worked, this is really inexpensive, this is something that the city wanted to do, or a nonprofit wanted to do, or a city council wanted to do, they can actually program the space during summer months to work this way. It doesn’t have to be a special event that someone has to get involved like us, it could just be something that could happen and should happen to create this amenity and create this response to a local need.
Blight: When you mention Atlanta and New York, I think of my own upbringing in Central Florida and noticing the vast differences in public spaces upon moving to Portland, especially how much more functional it is in terms of public transit. I’m curious as to the common threads and takeaways you’ve noticed across the country, from Portland to Atlanta, elsewhere, be they differences or similarities in various cities.
Lydon: That’s a great question, I wish I had a really snappy answer for you. There’s basic principles of what draws people together, so for our standpoint, what would make a successful public space or open streets or something like that that we can turn and move very quickly no matter where we are, or for example you’re starting to see now… or you may be starting to see in Portland in the last few weeks with the PDX Transformation Department where you repurpose a street—whether that’s in South America or it’s in Portland or it’s in Central Florida, we can change the geometry of streets in real time to function better for people, and for drivers who are going now slower and therefore more safe, immediately. So there’s this common thread of geometry of space that works well.
And another example is you don’t want to go and put a parkway on a six-lane arterial road in Orlando because you know what? No one’s going to notice it, it’s not going to be effective. Usually if it’s transforming a 40-space, a 100-space parking lot in front of an Applebee’s parking lot or in a mall or a Wal-Mart or whatever, if you transform one of those spaces with a little parkway, it’s not going to make a damn difference but if you have a nice street that’s scaled to walking to begin with, it’s more narrow, maybe there’s two or three lanes of traffic, there’s two- or three-story buildings, all of a sudden you can do an intervention like that, it can make a difference. So when we think about commonalities, the responses can be very different but the common piece of it is they have to be commensurate to the scale of their environment and so that’s a principle that we work with very often, is that if we’re working on a big parking lot we’re going to need a much larger transformation to really make a visual and physical impact that alters the use of that space. I think that’s really important and what that underscores is it comes back to the principle of walkability and human scale, is that at the human scale you can make much more small and less costly changes to the public realm and it can make a really big impact and provide a ripple effect, and that’s harder to do at the scale of suburban sprawl.
Which, it’s too bad because it makes it harder to fix…. And that’s when it needs fixing. Portland’s great but things needs fixing and changing in Portland, no doubt, but I think 10 miles outside of Portland is a lot more damaged than the core of the city so it’s just unfortunate that that’s the way these things work out, but that’s just an underlying principle that I think of suburbanism and walkability and I think of scale.
Blight: It’s interesting you mention that. There’s so much talk right now about the Green Loop, and in terms of the inner city, the central city, again going back to homelessness, the inner core vs. outer and people being forced out…
Lydon: Yeah, exactly, and one of the things I enjoyed about being on the jury for the Green Loop, which is not quite finished yet, but the initial criteria for that was, the questions that were asked of us is how scalable is this proposal? So when I was critiquing and looking through all the submissions, which was a really fun exercise, I took that really seriously… It’s like, how can North Portland and other places outside the city, how can these kinds of approaches be utilized, not just for the Green Loop but for projects that would support a healthy lifestyle, transportation, things like that in more challenging contexts? I think that was a really important piece of criteria that I hope my [fellow] jury members take seriously because they sort of speak to your point.
Blight: In looking forward, where do you see the movement going next, in how we approach public spaces?
Lydon: Well, a lot of the work I have is very focused on building those bridges that I described earlier so, how can a city proactively let go a little bit? But also be able to give shape and process to citizens that are acceptable so that citizens can continue to lead the way on evolving their neighborhoods and evolving their public spaces. And so we’ve worked on a number of projects recently where that’s been one of the key goals and designing, for one example, working in Burlington, Vermont, which I have a bike and pedestrian master plan there, but part of our scope was to actually create a demonstration project policy so that neighborhood groups, action groups, business owners, anyone in the city could like go to the city, and say, “Hey, I want to try out a curb extension with cones, or I want to do a protected bike lane or I want a plaza, I want a parkway,” all these little things that could be done by citizens and the city now has the power to say yes, and to possibly even fund those projects.
So I think there’s a real value to looking outside the bounds of city planning and process for sure but, also, we can’t take all the good things that can happen on the outside and if they’re actually to be called tactical they’re trying to achieve long-term change and to do that you always wind up back in the same place where you started rebelling against, which is, “How can we get the city to change its ways and make this easier?” Well, that’s exactly what we’re working on now, is to build those tools and policies and processes so that cities will be able to open up the planning process much more, to a much wider audience. … To see what’s working, what’s not, and figure out where they can make better investments in neighborhoods. So that’s where I think a lot of this work needs to go.
If you look at Open Streets, now in 125 different communities around North America, that’s phenomenal scaling. We had about 6 or 7 different cities in 2006 or 2007, so in roughly a decade it’s grown exponentially. But, that being said, if you are with X organization in a city and you approach your police department, your city counselor and your planning department, whatever, and you say, “I think we should do Open Streets,” they’re gonna look at you like, “Well geez, what kind of process and ordinances do we have for this?” You wind up wasting a lot of time and expense working off of processes and policies that weren’t designed for Open Streets, that weren’t designed for tactical urbanism demonstration projects, they wind up being really inefficient and really sometimes preventing a lot of great things from happening. So anyways, there just needs to be a lot more of a purposeful approach on behalf of cities to get these things done.
Blight: I would imagine Portland is relatively well off when you describe efforts like that.
Lydon: Absolutely. I point to Portland as a model sometimes for the birth of modern tactical urbanism because of… you know, Charlie Hales… way back in the day, he was commissioner when intersection repair first started to happen. He was like, “Wait a minute, let’s look at this, let’s not crack down… there’s something interesting going on here that’s entirely conflicting with our plans and policies, why aren’t we encouraging this?” where the city writes a very simple 2-page document or a 10-point document that says, “Alright, so if you meet these basic criteria, in this basic context, you can go out and do your own intersection repair project.” I think Portland is doing not just that kinda project but for any kind of livable streets project that you can imagine. It’s really opened it up, so that’s an early example where I think Portland can look to its history and say, okay, what’s the PDX Transformation Department doing? How can we look to our past … since we’ve done this before? Let’s [make] this much more of a thing, so it’s, then we can go out and play in traffic, so to speak.