Q&A: Mike Lydon, Street Plans and Open Streets

By Amanda Schurr

Mike Lydon is 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. 

Blight Magazine: How did Open Streets come about, and Tactical Urbanism?

Mike Lydon: I was living in Miami for a few years after graduate school, where I was working for a planning and design and consulting firm and was part of pretty large-scale urban design and building projects. 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 was something that was really missing about people being able to physically understand what did a walkable city mean. Through my advocacy work, we decided to have the city’s very first Open Streets [event] in the fall of 2008—the city at that time was ranked one of the three worst cities to cycle in in America. As a volunteer I got to help plan that, and seeing thousands of people in the streets of Miami on bikes for the first time was very powerful—to see people understand through experience what their city could be. 

It’s just seeing this powerful transformation of the city for a day but, really, people’s hearts and minds. … Tactical Urbanism came out of those observations. The short document we produced at our firm [Street Plans] that we put up on the internet for people to access—just giving it a structure 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: How do you define public space, and what do you find most misunderstood about it?

Lydon: The basic concept is that public space is everything between buildings that we all occupy in some manner over the course of our days—the spaces that are not just about moving people, but it’s often times about staying or playing. Most people only look at public space as their neighborhood park or their plaza or their square, and one of the challenges that we have as planners is to broaden the concept of what’s public and how that space is used. We have this misunderstanding [about] streets or sidewalks or parking lots—I think there’s some notions about ownership, that if you’re a dominant species on a street, like you’re driving down the street, you deserve your own space, that’s the natural order of things. We have to look at our intent, we have to question how we utilize this really important public asset and resource—our streets, that connect all these actual well-known public spaces like parks and squares.

Blight: What have you observed about public spaces that work, and don’t?

Lydon: There’s this common thread of geometry of space that works well. You don’t want to put a parkway on a six-lane arterial road because no one’s going to notice it, it’s not going to be effective. 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, two- or three-story buildings—an intervention like that can make a difference. The responses can be very different, but the common piece of it is they have to be commensurate to the scale of their environment. What that underscores comes back to the principles of walkability and human scale—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.

Blight: Where do you see the Tactical Urbanism movement going?

Lydon: A lot of the work I have is very focused on building those bridges that I described earlier so that, how can a city proactively let go a little bit? But also be able to give shape and process so that citizens can continue to lead the way on evolving their neighborhoods and their public spaces. I think there’s a real value to looking outside the bounds of city planning for sure but, 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?” That’s exactly what we’re working on now, to build those tools and policies so that cities will be able to open up the planning process much more, to a much wider audience, and figure out where they can make better investments in neighborhoods. There just needs to be a lot more of a purposeful approach on behalf of cities to get these things done.

Lydon spoke with us in advance of the August 2016 event. Read the complete transcript of our interview by clicking here.