Doing Good in DUMBO: Meet The Street Plans Collaborative

The Street Plans Collaborative (Street Plans) is an urban planning, design, research, and advocacy firm with an office at Green Desk in DUMBO and another in Miami. Street Plans aims to improve cities by creating high quality mixed-use spaces and promoting compact, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. You may know their work in NYC from their partnerships with organizations such as Streets Blog on advocating for alternative transportation, Transportation Alternatives on plans for bike safety on Queens Boulevard. They also collaborate with the Alliance for Biking and Walking on the Open Streets Project, which is the organization behind Summer Streets.

We spoke with Mike Lydon, Principal at Street Plans, about sustainable urban planning, the growth of tactical urbanism, and the challenges that are faced when transitioning into people friendly cities.

What is the Street Plans approach to improving the urban environment?

We work with cities, developers, and non-profits to make places more friendly to people. This means we do a variety of things, but mostly focus our work, research, and advocacy on how to better plan  the arrangement of buildings and the design of streets to make walking, biking, and socializing not just possible, but easy. Like many other firms in this business, we don't sell ourselves as dispassionate consultants. We're change agents, and we give a damn. Those who hire us know we care very deeply about making cities more livable.

Tell us about The Smart Growth Manual and how it's been received since being published in 2010.

While The Smart Growth Manual received accolades from our professional colleagues, we didn't write it for them. There are already plenty of books for those people, full of wonderful theory and jargon. Instead, we wrote this book for all of the advocates, volunteer planning board members, and politicians who often have the final say in shaping the quality of growth in small towns, suburbs, and cities across the country. Thus, the positive comments we've received from this group has ultimately been more gratifying than those we've received from the profession.

What are the greatest challenges you face when looking at a city to improve on public spaces and transportation effectiveness?

One of the greatest challenges we face is a cadre of outdated standards, practices, and laws that have very little to do with how places actually work. In particular, there are a small number of hot-button issues (parking, traffic flow, density) that constantly make building more people-friendly places a huge challenge. Many of these challenges are festooned with dogma and outdated practices that don't correlate with how people's preferences, especially those younger generations who desire walkable neighborhoods where driving is an option, not mandated. We have a long way to go yet, but we're making progress.

You've talked a bit about "tactical urbanism." Can you give a quick definition and some examples of it around NYC?

Yes! In short, tactical urbanism is an umbrella term we've given to numerous methods seeding longer-term change with short-term action. We've written a couple of different guides to such a projects from around North America that are available as free downloads. Many times, tactical urbanism projects start as unsanctioned efforts, developed by citizens who want to change their own neighborhoods. We've tracked how bottom-up change create lasting, sanctioned change. This happened enough times that many cities are taking the hint and developing their own 'tactics.'

In New York City, we've seen city-sanctioned efforts embrace short-term pilot projects that test physical changes with temporary materials before committing to long-term investment. Many of the new pedestrian plazas in New York City exemplify this tactic, and cities around the country are starting to undertake the same strategy. Indeed, spending $30,000, not $3 million, helps us learn how to incrementally tweak the final design and roll-out of projects. It's iterative, like software versioning, and it saves a lot of money while building political support for positive change. DUMBO's Pearl Street Triangle, the first of its kind, is right in front of our office. It's a great example and will eventually be a permanent space, without all the green paint.

With the creation of a Greenway in Brooklyn, the upcoming Bike Share and the plan to triple bike commuting in NYC by 2017, how do you see NYC evolving as a bike-friendly city?

New York City has done a lot in recent years, which is impressive—bike sharing in particular will change how people fundamentally move about the city.  Yet, there needs to be a whole lot more enforcement of the traffic laws, particularly for those driving motor vehicles, as they are they present the greatest threat to the majority of New Yorkers who don't own cars.

As for education, people in general—whether driving, walking, or biking—need to know more about sharing space. This can start at a very young age with school-aged children and move to driver education, and on to programs that teach violators how to conduct themselves more civilly. This is what happens in the world's most bike-friendly countries, and we are a long way off from achieving that.

Mike Lydon CNU-A, is an urban planner, writer, and livable streets activist. Before founding The Street Plans Collaborative, he worked for DPZ, the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition, and Smart Growth Vermont.