Share on Social

Episode 57 guest Mike Lydon and Tony Garcia

Mike Lydon and Tony Garcia of Street Plans introduce Tactical Urbanism and how the process of trialing small, cost-effective changes in a community is sometimes more important than the finished product in creating lasting change in communities.


Cohen: Josh Cohen
Lydon: Mike Lydon
Garcia: Tony Garcia

Cohen: When drawings aren’t enough to convey the impact of a proposed change to the urban footprint, Mike Lydon and Tony Garcia of Street Plans help create temporary, tactical ways for the community to physically experience spaces, taking community engagement to a new level. You’ll get an intro to tactical urbanism coming up now on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.
F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: Mike Lydon and Tony Garcia are the cofounders and principals for The Street Plans Collaborative. They are planners, writers, speakers, and advocates for livable cities. Together they wrote Tactical Urbanism a few years ago and then a series Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action, Long-term Change, which dives into more details and case studies on ways communities can create more livable cities. Welcome to The Movement, gentleman.

Lydon: Thank you.

Cohen: Let’s start by introducing your firm and sharing what you mean by tactical urbanism. What is it, and what is it not?

Lydon: Well, our firm, Street Plans, is now just over 10 years old, and we focus on public space and transportation projects largely. But we’re urban designers and architects in terms of our planners, in terms of our background. So we approach a lot of projects in various ways based on our skill sets and our interests. But I think more than anything Street Plans is really a vehicle of changemaking, that we’re really about thinking how we work better between cities and citizens to kind of insert ourselves as both advocates for more livable communities and neighborhoods. But we have the technical knowledge and resources and capacity of obviously an urban design firm, so we marry and build bridges between community groups and advocacy organizations with more formal planning and urban design channels.

Cohen: Tactical Urbanism is such a catchy a name. I love it. And, in fact, one of my listeners actually wrote in to tell me that we should have y’all on the episode, so they really enjoyed reading it. So maybe take me through what tactical urbanism is. You know, I think you define it in a very specific way, so I’d love to make sure I understand exactly what you mean by that.

Garcia: To build off of what Mike was just saying and to answer your question, most of our work or at the beginning of our firm a lot of our work was just planning. And our background is as planners; we create documents, master plans, drawings. And oftentimes those drawings and those plans don’t convey what the real feeling is that we’re trying to get across to the user, whether that be an elected official or somebody from the community. Drawings don’t necessarily convey how you’re going to feel in a space.

Cohen: Hmm.

Garcia: Great drawings might, but it’s different when you show a rendering on a screen than actually being in a place. So what we like to say is that tactical urbanism allows people to actually physically experience spaces prior to any big investments being made. And so the very specific definition is that it’s an approach to city building that uses low-cost, short-term materials in an effort to catalyze long-term change. And that really is—it’s a way of catalyzing that long-term change without spending a lot of money and moving beyond what we have on paper.

And so in many ways actually both of us are New Urbanists; that was our background, our intellectual and our philosophical background. And so this is really just an extension of that methodology where, you know, the quote-unquote “propose-and-dispose” way of doing charrettes where we do sketches, sketch after sketch after sketch trying to get at some sort of outcome. This is a way of doing that in real life in real time with the people who are actually going to use the infrastructure. And that in itself is a powerful methodology. Just having people involved in that process is powerful even more so than the finished product almost. In many cases the finished product is almost an afterthought for many people.

But for those people who are not involved in the actual creation, seeing an image of something that was actually physically built and is actually in the ground, that’s reality, that’s a hard thing to argue with. And then it allows us to measure the impact of that infrastructure. And, I think, when we talk about this we like to say, you know, “As planners, we should have humility and understand that we don’t know all the answers; and we frequently don’t.” Architects and engineers and planners, all of us in this general profession, we make recommendations that we hope are right, but maybe sometimes they’re not. And this methodology allows us to actually field test whether things are right or not. And so you have to go into it with an expectation and an openness to fail.

Cohen: Boy, I love that. And I feel like there’s a lot of elements of agile software development that are baked into that as well and human centered design and so forth, a lot of these concepts that I think are getting a lot of traction now more broadly than just in planning and design. I love to see that kind of illustrated there. Give our audience just a couple of examples. You don’t have to go into a bunch of detail, because I think we want to cover that maybe in a little bit more detail down the road. But just maybe a couple quick, easy examples of how you’re making that kind of real in that way, maybe a recent tactical urbanism project that you worked on to make this a little bit more real for everyone?

Lydon: Sure, I’ll jump in. So I’ll just talk about the City of New Haven, Connecticut where we’ve been doing quite a bit of work where we’re currently engaged in a phase two of a project which is focused on creating safer streets for cycling, walking, and taking the bus primarily. So it’s a master plan that will be the outcome of all of our work there, but we started the project in phase one last summer with actual pilot projects that we would install as part of community engagement. And we focused on the six most underserved areas of the city to bring planning to folks that don’t always necessarily have time or get exposed to the best investments or best practices of urban design and planning at the citywide level.

So we installed six intersection makeovers over three weekends. And that wound up being about 20,000 square feet of space reclaimed from these intersections for safer walking, cycling, and bus stop enhancements. And it was all used as a platform to do upfront community engagement and test the methodology locally, learn from that experience, and then take those learnings and those relationships that we built with, you know, nearly 100 volunteers in six communities into the next phase of actually doing the planning and design work.

So we’re able to build an audience, build a capacity both within the city and in these communities, and build a hunger and a thirst in other places around the city for the same kind of approach. And so we’ve got kind of a running head start now with the planning and design work that we feel is much better informed from the work that’s already been done to date.

Cohen: So in that 20,000-plus square feet that you took from those intersections in three weekends, what were some very specific things that you did to make things easier for walking and biking and transit? Just to really paint that vision for us.

Lydon: Yeah, so in New Haven, you know, it’s a great old New England city, and so there’s very old streets and very strange geometries where five, six, sometimes eight streets come together into a single place. And that’s very harrowing to really navigate no matter how you’re getting around. So what we try to do is take skewed geometry, you know, where streets meet at funny angles and we try to normalize that geometry using paint and planters and bollards and things like that. And by narrowing up the lanes and tightening intersections we can create much more intuitive spaces for people while shortening the distance for people to cross on foot, to provide better access to bus stops where they exist, and of course improve cycling where people are the most vulnerable, which is when they’re approaching and going through an intersection on their bicycle.

So, you know, very specifically for transit, as one example, we were working this neighborhood where we did a—on all four corners we did big curb extensions that were painted these bold colors, but the bus stop itself had a shelter that was kind of under-cared for and was based on a very wide sidewalk, in fact. It was almost like a little mini plaza. So we wound up cleaning up that plaza, painting all the pavers, which were about two-feet-by-two-foot square pavers, all these various colors. We replanted a planter that was not being taken care of, you know, just beautified the spot to really celebrate that wide sidewalk and that place, which was in front of a bodega, as a community gathering space, as a transportation hub, for walking, for taking the bus, etcetera.

So we were really just trying to beautify and make that space a little bit more special and pay attention to a spot that is just part of everyday life in this community and doesn’t necessarily get thought of as something that could be improved. And so we went out and just did that one day.

Cohen: I love that example too because, you know, there’s countless numbers of those little community places that we interact with every day or could interact with every day. And so I love taking that and really making it into something. Well, it already is something, but, like, making it more clearly defined or appreciated maybe is another word to talk about that.

I also love what you talk about as kind of combining these pieces together, like the engagement with the urbanism. I think that’s really, really fascinating. I’m going to want to think through that a little bit more, but I really love what you said so far on that. Tony, let’s maybe turn to you. I’m curious about if there’s been a particularly rewarding project that you’ve worked on over the course of your time with Street Plans or maybe even before and why it was so rewarding.

Garcia: I think most recently the most rewarding project that I’ve worked on has been a shared path and a mural in Asheville, North Carolina.

Cohen: That’s my hometown.

Garcia: Oh, is it? Good.

Cohen: Yeah.

Garcia: Well, this is on Coxe Avenue right in downtown, a former corridor—a quarter of that was formerly filled with auto-dominated uses. That’s really changed in the last five years—

Cohen: Wow.

Garcia : —a lot more mixed-use development, some of the great old buildings have been reused as apartment buildings, and new buildings are coming in, a lot of breweries, as you probably know. And so on a given evening, even Wednesday night there are a lot of people walking around. And there are just still an abundance of curb cuts that service properties that don’t need those curb cuts, and then the sidewalk just happens to be really narrow.

So we were contracted by an organization called Asheville on Bikes; they’re a bicycle advocacy organization. And they thought actually when they hired us that they were asking for a bike lane project. But during the course of the design process we all realized that what they didn’t need was a bike lane but an extension of the sidewalk and to really slow traffic. So that example starts showing that the methodology allows for flexibility during the design process and the client themselves might come to a realization during that process that, “Wait a second. What we thought we wanted because of our preconceived notions is not at all what we need.” And really that first phase where they realize that, didn’t have anything to do with tactical urbanism; that was just more of a New Ubranist process where we went and sketched things out and really evaluated what their needs were.

So the way that we do these projects normally is we’ll allocate a certain amount of money for materials depending on the duration and the size of the project. And this was intended to be six months to a year in terms of the duration, and it was about a third of a mile, so quite long for the type of work that we do and pretty long in terms of the duration. It’s already been in the ground for over a year now, so the materials, while they’re intended to last a certain amount of time at a minimum, they can last much longer. And so for that project we allocated $30,000. And I can share with you some of the photos. What resulted from that investment was just spectacular.

And I think we had—during the installation itself, we had about 70 folks come out for the installation, volunteers. These are not folks who were paid to do this work. And it speaks to the power and the messaging that our client had—they were a nonprofit—and their ability to actually get people to come out. But the thing that really was satisfying to me was to have this process originate from a community group and to have the sanction and the support and involvement of the city where the city had said, “Well, you know, this is actually a design process that we should be running, but you guys have funding for it. Do you want to take the lead on it? Go for it. We’re going to dedicate staff to it. We believe in what you’re doing. We’re going to back you up.”

And they have been phenomenal the whole way. The city engineer, the city manager, staff at all levels have been very supportive, easy to work with, which is not always the case. I mean, I think they are an example for cities around the country, to say nothing of Asheville on Bikes and their staff and their ability to rally the community. And so the other half of that success story is the data collection. And so there was a reduction in speeds because of the project. But we also worked with a partner of ours, State of Place. They have an algorithm that they used to quantify the economic impact and the return on investment of some initial investment that we made in materials.

And they quantify that based on a variety of metrics like walkability, bikeability, the existing retailers that are there, the existing base rents that are there. And they also found, through their analysis and the information that we gave them, a huge—it was something like $3.5-million return on investment for that $30,000 worth of funding for materials.

Cohen: So I find that really, really interesting. So, A, you have that huge ROI. Right? That’s number one. Number two, you have this support from the city, but it was kind of driven by the local advocacy group. And so I guess maybe where my mind goes with that is that why are we relying on the community groups to do this? Why aren’t the cities doing this? Because there’s clear ROI; beyond like the hard-data ROI, there’s all of the, like, really-hard-to-touch ROI like, “Oh yeah, how this place makes me feel, you know, beyond whether I spend money.”

Garcia: Right. Right.

Cohen: Like, how does it make me feel? So, like, why are we relying on these local nonprofits that have budgets in the six figures or maybe even less to do this when you have the City of Asheville, which is growing like gangbusters?

Garcia: Right. I mean, that’s a really good question, and we get asked that frequently. I think on the one hand you’re absolutely right, and cities need to take responsibility and adopt this methodology from the top down and allow this activity to happen from the bottom up. And I think part of it, as you might know as somebody who works with government, there is a fear of being sued. I mean, there is just the liability issue for cities to do anything new, is very difficult for them. And so as a barrier to entry, that is one that we face.

Often it’s also the city engineer. Which was not the case in Asheville who was very supportive, but the city engineers might often be the ones who are the most careful in terms of liability and the most hesitant to adopt this type of a methodology. But on the other hand the community group was uniquely poised in a way that the city is not to really rally the community. And if you think about people’s concept of us-versus-them when it comes to the government, having a neutral party like a community group be that arbiter of the design process might actually work out better in many cases because—well, in this case they had a clear intent, which is to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety. So they’re not really a neutral party, but they are more neutral than the government, some would think.

A cynical person would say, “Well, you know, a community group is probably the best representative of our interests,” but in this case, you know, maybe the neighborhood association would be that group. So I think it’s not a question of, “Why isn’t the city adopting these projects?” but, “What more can the city do to allow community groups to do this more?” And how can they internalize processes that make it easier for their own staff to actually do this work and for others to do that work as well?

Cohen: Yeah, definitely. So certainly I appreciate that context on Asheville and some of the good leadership that you’ve seen there at the city level. Mike, I’m curious from your perspective, who are some of the public-sector leaders that you’ve either worked with or that you have just admired from afar that get it? And what do we need to do to get more of them?

Lydon: [LAUGHS] We need to start voting ourselves into office. You know, there’s a lot of people that I’ve been able to work with and then, of course, admire from afar. I mean, I think, to answer the first part of that, you know, I really admire the team and staff over in Jersey City next to New York City. We’ve done a lot of work over there, and it’s interesting there. Got a young mayor; he’s in his early 40s. He’s really backing a number of very progressive initiatives from housing, to transportation, to public space, equity issues. He’s really pushing at the forefront statewide. And he has a team below him that are given the ability to push the envelope, and he backs them up as they are trying to really redirect the way that streets and public spaces are delivered in the city and, you know, what they’re for and who they’re for. And from the top down that shows how important leadership is, because then your staff is empowered to kind of carry out an agenda. And, sure, you’re going to have challenges and bumps along the way, but it’s a lot easier to do your job if you have somebody who is backing you from the top and pushing you as a staff member to take ownership over projects.

And so specifically have a client named Barkha Patel and Andrew Vischio, who one is a planner and one is an engineer who together comprise a very small team of really like five or six folks who are handling a lot of these issues citywide, which is tough. Jersey City is a fast-growing place. It’s one of the fastest growing cities in the Northeast if not America. They have been exploding the last decade. And their ability to just take the projects off the shelf and actually never let them be on the shelf and run with them, get them implemented, is incredible. And we finished a bike master plan with them last spring, actually before we even had it passed by council, and they were already on their way to installing five miles of protected bike lanes—

Cohen: Wow.

Lydon: —in the city before it was even adopted. And, you know, it’s that kind of speed at which they’re moving that is great. You know, they’re getting things on the ground. They’re using what we call kind of a quick-build methodology where the materials are all interim in nature, so you can tweak them and change some things. And they have based on performance and feedback and then will be reinvesting in those spaces longer term. So it’s just a joy to work with a small team of people who are just moving quickly, are transparent with the community, are really trying to bring people along into that process, but also not afraid to try things and make change that, I think, from our perspective as folks concerned about safety and equity and global warming and transportation options and livability, all these things kind of converge and come together in the street. And they’ve just been a joy to work with. Now, on the side of who I’ve never worked with but would love to at some point is Mayor Anne Hidalgo from Paris.

Cohen: Sure. Yeah.

Lydon: The way that she’s been pushing that city forward in their public realm and policy improvements around transportation and mobility is very controversial. I have a father-in-law who is Parisian, and he is not always on the same side as the mayor but—so we have really interesting holiday conversation. But I think what she’s doing and the messaging that she’s putting out there around livability, about access, about public health is really inspiring. And I wish our own mayor in New York City was that progressive.

I wish we had mayors around the United States that were really all on that same page. She is really setting an example for the world, in my opinion, in a city that’s—you know, it’s very old. It’s tough to change cities that are that entrenched with history and streets and have a long kind of sensibility about what comprises their city and their public realm. And, you know, people have amnesia. They think that, you know, it’s always been cars on the boulevard. But, you know, they’re really proving now that you don’t always have to think about it that way. So, anyway, she’s been truly inspiring to me. And I love the fact that she’s a woman out there really leading the charge. And I think if we had more mayors that were in that same position we would be having much more sane policy and better cities for everybody.

Cohen: Sure. No, I love that. I love that. Tony, anybody come to your mind as far as on the public sector side that either you’ve worked with or that you’re admiring from afar that catch your fancy?

Garcia: On the city staff side, I think Janette Sadik-Khan is somebody that we both admire and, you know, wish she had a platform again to practice as a city official. I think she’s really the godmother of what we do. And more staff like her, I think, would be great.

Cohen: For sure, for sure. Well, both of you have mentioned housing a little bit. And, you know, I know that’s kind of the background with New Urbanism to some degree. And so one of the things I think about a lot is the siloing that happens between, you know, at least in the U.S. in most places where you have transit agencies that don’t have responsibility for housing and you have planning departments that don’t have responsibility for transit. And so I’m curious from your perspective what kind of ideas you have to better connect these two critically important and linked issues for success cities that in most places aren’t really connected or linked.

Lydon: Yeah.

Garcia: Right.

Lydon: That’s a huge challenge. Quickly I’ll just say that—yeah—the departmental silos and the different levels of governance. Right? So people think about housing as an immediate neighborhood or city issue, but really it’s a regional issue.

Cohen: Of course.

Lydon: And thinking about the region and where housing goes and connecting that specifically to transportation and transportation cost as a total picture of affordability and access is never really done comprehensively. And so, you know, I’ve read so many articles in the last five years that are so obsessed with the housing costs in San Francisco, in New York, in D.C., in Boston, places like that. And, sure, it’s expensive to live in these cities—I live in one of them—but my other understanding of the other side of the coin is that the transportation costs in these places is dramatically lower than sunbelt cities or more driving-oriented cities.

And so a lot of people don’t have that information. They don’t have that picture. They don’t understand how transportation costs and livability fit together with the housing picture. And I think we could be doing a much better job at delivering policies and tools and information to the general public around, “No matter if you’re living in a tiny city or a huge city like New York,” that where you decide to live and how the options for transportation are integrated into that, now that’s one big livability challenge. If we can’t link those things better with policy and programs and investments, then we’re ultimately going to be having these challenges in perpetuity. And very few cities are getting that at a comprehensive level, which is really frustrating.

Cohen: Hmm. Yeah, so really lumping those two together as far as how you’re kind of calculating that total cost and thinking about that total cost.

Lydon: I mean, New York is the, you know, not number one. It’s like, you know, in terms of being the most expensive it’s actually much more affordable than certain sunbelt cities, at least from the cost perspective of housing and transportation. There are other costs obviously—yeah—associated with living in these places, but generally those are two of the biggest cost burdens that families have.
And in New York we make a go of it pretty well because we don’t have a car; we don’t pay for that insurance; we don’t park it. You know, we have all these other options to get around, so it makes it more bearable. It’s why people with lower incomes can manage to stay in places like this, because they aren’t transportation burdened. And that’s a really important piece that needs to be better linked.

Cohen: Yeah. What about you, Tony? What do you think on that question of how to better connect transportation and housing and how important they are to our cities?

Garcia: Well, I think, one of the things that’s been overlooked over the past 10 years with the whole TOD conversation has been the role that state departments of transportation and local departments of transportation play in terms of how we design our streets and what the relationship is with the surrounding land use. Oftentimes I find the transit agencies get it; they are pushing for higher densities around their transit nodes. It’s the departments of transportations that are still stuck in the mindset of designing streets for cars and streets as highways even through densely populated, urban areas.

And so there is this huge disconnect. And I think it’s one of the things that has really driven the work of our firm and shifted us away from urban planning and towards transportation planning in that we saw New Urbanists and just the profession at large ignoring the space between the buildings, the street space, as being the driver of what happens in private property. And so you see a lot of TODs and a lot of great New Urbanism surrounded by highways or with, you know, highway infrastructure going through it under the guise of standards that are still stuck in the 1950s.

And so, to me, that still remains the primary front for our work, is changing standards that prioritize the movement of cars over pedestrians and other modes. And that includes, you know, bus infrastructure and other transit infrastructure. To me that’s all included in the same pyramid. You know, pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users, we’re already on the same side, so it’s the highway design that really needs to change. And the other thing I have to say is in terms of the conversation about—you see a lot of this on Twitter—the war on cars and the conversation about that, highway infrastructure is good, and highway design is good for highways.

Cohen: Yeah.

Garcia: Like, I think safety has improved for highways in general since the 1950s, so that’s great. It’s just gone way too overboard in terms of applying it to city streets. Our main street should not be designed like a highway, and that’s the real problem.

Cohen: Yeah. No, I think about that a lot, because I—and I’ve even had a similar conversation on the podcast in the past, which is, you know, there is a place for a pickup truck. Right?

Garcia: Right.

Cohen: It’s not going to be in Manhattan, but there is a place in Helena, Montana where that might make a lot of sense. Right? And vice versa, a tiny Honda Fit might not make as much sense in Helena or the outskirts of Helena, but it makes a lot of sense if you’re going to have a car at all in Manhattan.

Garcia: Right.

Cohen: So I think, you know, it’s just like it’s where the two meet is where there’s this friction point. Right?

Garcia: Right.

Cohen: And we have not, I feel like, from a regulatory standpoint thought about that at all or adjusted for that with the maybe exception of congestion pricing to some degree, but here in the U.S. that’s not yet a thing.

Lydon: Well, on some of these issues you should really pay attention to some legislation that’s being drafted in New York, and we’ll see if it gets passed. But there’s a really big push by a number of advocacy organization and leaders to, yes, focus on street safety in terms of infrastructure, “Let’s also focus on the vehicle itself and its design and its role in the city and how can we create better policy that lets consumers know that when you buy a pickup and your day-to-day commute is suburb to city or in the City of New York or wherever it may be, you are putting other pedestrians at greater risk than if you’re driving that Honda Fit.”

And at this point we don’t have that information. You’re not given that info. There’s no classification around that. And so there’s a senator here in Brooklyn, Andrew Gounardes, who is pushing that legislation right now to create classifications around vehicles so people will have a better understanding and more information about what they’re buying, what the impacts are, because at this point we don’t. And I think whether that’s the vehicle you drive, the street you live on, the housing you choose to rent or own, all these things are kind of linked together. We just as general populations of people, we don’t have access to the information we need to make better-informed decisions.

Cohen: Yeah, that’s a great point. Let’s maybe wrap up with this; where can our audience find out more about each of you and the work you’re doing?

Lydon: The internet. [LAUGHS] Street Plans, our website is, you know, obviously our website and full of information about our firm. We also have, which is where you can download most of our free guides. And we’re adding to that roster of best practices that we’re developing all the time, so that’s kind of an ongoing resource. And then, you know, look for us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the normal places. We’re always updating and sharing information and news and things that we’re working on and things that we’re inspired by.

Cohen: Awesome. Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining me. Tony Garcia, Mike Lydon, from Street Plans, thank you so much for joining me.

Lydon: Thanks for having us.

Garcia: Thanks for having us.

F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.