Living Urbanism

To Build a Living Urbanism, Build Livable Streets by Mike Lydon by russellpreston

Image by City of MiamiThis essay is about communication, and making cities better—at least temporarily.

If you have friends who don’t readily self-identify as urbanists, but who inhabit cities, please ask them the following question:

What makes a livable street?

Depending on one’s life experience, expect this simple question to be met with consternation, indifference, an educated guess, and the occasional well-informed opinion. At least that is what I found when searching for answers within my peer group of city dwelling friends.

Admittedly, a sample of five well-educated, twenty-somethings is not statistically significant, but the answers I received may indicate how well we are connecting with a demographic that is generally worth reaching, if not highly sought after. For brevity I have chosen to share but the response of one.

Catching up with Jane

My friend Jane works as a production assistant on Hollywood movies and TV shows filmed in the northeast. A few years ago we compared job notes. Among other tales, she told me about driving Richard Gere to and from the airport between filming sessions.  I jokingly countered with a story about driving Andrés Duany to and from the hotel and charrette studio. Before I could finish she said, “Andrés who?”

Anyways, Jane lives in Boston’s North End where she is surrounded by much of what can go right in an urban neighborhood. She walks, takes transit, and lives in a 600 square foot apartment where she can smell fresh pasta being made from her window. Earlier this year she even lived on a small house boat docked in the Boston Harbor, because…why not? By all accounts, Jane is exactly what Richard Florida has been yapping about all these years—young, educated, cool job, loves bars. However, Jane would never call herself an urbanist, let alone know what that entails. Yet, when I asked her to define ‘livable streets,’ her specificity impressed me:

“A livable street would have two lanes of slow-moving traffic and streetlamps that are small and make use of LED technology, and not those tall, ugly orange lights. It would also feature free parking, because paying for that sucks. Oh, all the houses would have nice front lawns, too.”

Essentially, she described her own childhood home in a leafy Rhode Island suburb, only she adorned the place with better lighting. Clearly she doesn’t understand the high cost of free parking.  Nor does she seem to care that her livable street scenario is nowhere to be found in her North End neighborhood, which she claims to love. I figure that is par for the course, as the other city-loving friends that I interviewed also cooked up what we New Urbanists would call a strange brew of urban-rural dichotomies. Clearly there is a large disconnect, and I am wondering if it has been embedded generationally.

Living where she does, Jane may not be a typical American, but she is a typical Gen Y’er. Her parents were raised in the suburbs, and in turn, she was too. She is well-traveled and educated, and like so many of us she migrated to the city after graduating from college. However, she is still swayed by the allure of her childhood home. As such, her idea of a livable street is still keyed to a place more like the one she described than the one in which she presently lives. To be fair, that’s okay, and I know her boredom increases exponentially when at home. But how do we help those at least temporarily captivated by the city to see not only the benefits of living there as a young adult, but also the potential, and perhaps the necessity of living there long into the future?

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Most people are active learners. That is to say that in the age of the iphone, many Americans must interact with a given concept in real-time before they grasp that which is not immediately obvious. Thus, we as planners need to help citizens engage their built environment and each other to help them, help us make our streets, and by extension, our cities more enjoyable and sustainable.

One way to do this is by building cutting edge 21st century infrastructure that sets a pattern for other cities to emulate. 2008 was a good year for such projects: a bicycle sharing system launched successfully in Washington DC, auto-oriented Charlotte and Phoenix witnessed ridership on their new light rail systems greatly exceed projections, and New York City and Portland continued to reclaim space for pedestrians and bicyclists—witnessing 35% and 25% growth respectively in bicycle mode share. These examples show a trend towards more livable and sustainable policy choices, which help many Americans to change their daily behavior—whether they knew they needed to or not. Indeed, just as expanding roadways induces more traffic, creating better streets and public space induces more people to use them. Monkey see, monkey do.

There is just one problem. Many of the aforementioned improvements cost millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, to implement. They also occur in large, mostly progressive cities, and can take many years to plan and build. While they don’t have to be, such projects are generally more difficult to downstream to places like Paducah, Kentucky or Cheyenne, Wyoming.  So what can cities and towns of all sizes do on the cheap to keep national momentum moving forward; to increase local livable streets awareness, activity, and activism; to revitalize or advocate for a new urban center; and to increase the bonds of community that are so important in networking change?

Take It To The Streets!

Bike Days Miami

Without the funds or political will to implement large physical change, cities and towns should consider temporary events that seed future policy change which can lead to widespread physical transformation. Indeed, in less dynamic communities, it is first necessary to capture the public’s imagination in real-time, build awareness about livable communities and climate change, and allow citizens to connect to each other and their community leaders within the auspices of a livable streets event. As it turns out 2008, was a good year for that, too.

Embracing Bogota, Colombia’s renowned ciclovia — a transformative event that closes 70km of the city’s streets to automobiles so that pedestrians and bicyclists may exercise and socialize freely — New York City, Chicago, Portland, San Francisco, and Miami successfully implemented their own versions. These same players underscore the upper echelon of America’s pattern cities. Yet, due to scale and cost,  such events may actually be easier to implement in smaller cities, which bodes well for livable streets advocates outside of major metropolitan centers.

Miami’s adaptation was called Bike Miami Days. It kicked off in November of 2008 with such success that Mayor Manny Diaz decided that the experimental event would be take place monthly, making it the first city in America to do so. Running through the month of May ( the summer hiatus due to unpredictable rain and heat), Bike Miami Days was nothing short of transformative for the city, which was named by Bicycling Magazine as one of the three worst in which to pedal.

With the rise of the event came a rise in awareness for the most glaring problems in Miami’s urban structure. Quite simply, closing downtown streets to motor vehicle traffic and spreading the word virally through blogs, facebook and the like, brought formerly fringe issues to the public in a very direct and meaningful way. Indeed, Bike Miami Days instantly gained traction with a wide demographic, as exercise, socializing and people watching know no class, creed, party line, race or age.

While livable streets events such as Bike Miami Days have been shown to reduce crime, and increase business, their real strength is in building community and awareness around the urban environment. They also prove the demand for the creation of better public space and livable streets. Learning this quickly, the City soon began to brand the event not as a bicycling-centric event,as it did out of the starting gate,  but as a community-centric celebration where bicycling is but one of the many healthy urban activities taking place.

For a city that is as fragmented physically as it is socially, the seven Bike Miami Days event provided a marvelous opportunity to educate residents about a myriad of city initiatives, but more importantly to build further community support for increased bicycling, walking, and public space facilities. And with the streets of downtown Miami and Coconut Grove becoming elongated public squares—a physical urban element sorely missing in the city—residents and visitors were instantly clued into what that might look like in Miami.

The dense network of social relationships to be derived from these type of events also combine with the economic benefits to create what author Bill McKibben calls the ‘deep economy.’ That is to say, the bonds of community may be overlooked in conventional economic analysis, but livable streets events can help form the foundation for good urban blocks, neighborhoods, and cities. Given the early success of American ciclovias, its readily apparent that there is still plenty of social capital to be found in our city streets—no matter the size.

Using the success of 2008 as a catalyst for more livable streets initiatives in 2009, America’s best cities show no signs of slowing.  New York City has boldly pedestrianized Times Square as part of their ongoing “Broadway Boulevard” project. Boston has announced plans for its own bicycle sharing system (are you paying attention, Jane?) and Mayor Gavin Newsom announced this spring that San Francisco’s Sunday Streets program will not only return, but will follow Miami’s monthly model between April and September.

In order to build livable streets, smart cities and towns without the immediate means to do so might consider starting first with a single livable streets event. Small cities may now learn the ropes from their larger brethren, and should be able to adopt their own version, as such events are a relatively inexpensive way to re-imagine the city and repurpose the streets, at least temporarily.

Moving Forward

I can say two things with confidence: One, livable streets remain a somewhat enigmatic concept for most. Two, our city streets clearly aren’t as livable as they should be. Otherwise, more of my friends might have mentioned the streets on which they currently live. Thus, continuing to educate more urban dwellers about the good they are doing just by living where they are is important. And what better way to communicate the myriad of possibilities already available in the built environment to the average citizen than to physically demonstrate that streets and cities should first be about people.


Mike Lydon is the founding Principal of The Street Plans Collaborative. He Encourages you to trade four wheels for two.

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