When a City Closes the Streets to Cars, It Opens Streets to People
If you ask the average American if they’d like to see a street closure on the street leading to their favorite restaurant or park, the answer will likely be, “no!” If you gave the average American the option to walk or drive, they will generally choose to drive. However, these sentiments are slowly changing. An amazing trend is sweeping our nation: cities are beginning to see the transformative power of open streets programs.
The Power of Open Streets
If you look at any city in the world from the sky, the largest public space is always the streets. Streets are designed for one purpose: to get vehicles from one place to another. Open streets programs transform those streets into meeting places, art installations, and parks, by closing them to cars and opening them to people. For anyone who has experienced the power of open streets firsthand, the sense of joy and freedom can be overwhelming. You would never tell your child or grandparents to play in the streets. You would never plan a picnic in a street median. You would never lay down in the middle of the road and take a selfie. But when streets are open, they are safe for everyone. Thousands do exactly what they’ve been told not to do their whole lives. Through open streets, people meet each other as equals. Participants see parts of their city they may have not visited in the past due to lack of accessibility, lack of curiosity, or negative perceptions.
Seeing is Believing
In 2014, I was fortunate to spend three days in Guadalajara, México with 880 Cities (Toronto, Canada based nonprofit) and its founder Gil Penaloza. My task was simple: attend the open streets training provided by 880 Cities and provide feedback on the value and effectiveness of the three-day experience. As a former nonprofit and current recreation professional, I had heard my share of sales pitches and attended many trainings. What Mr. Penaloza was saying seemed too good to be true. How could the simple act of closing streets create sustainable happiness? How could allowing people in the streets have such an impact? On Sunday, I jumped on a bike and experienced the power of Via RecreActiva. I stopped on an uphill crest to see a street filled with people as far as the eye could see – 300,000 individuals biking, walking, or running; the young and the old; the able and disabled. Everyone was smiling and experiencing the freedom of traversing 40 miles of car-free streets.
Yes Way, San José!
When I returned to San José, I immediately reported to the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services (PRNS). “We need to start an open streets program,” I exclaimed. In 2015, the 10th largest city in the United States launched their open streets program, Viva CalleSJ. Led by PRNS, Viva CalleSJ has averaged over six miles of street closures traversing some of the most iconic neighborhoods, business districts and parks in the city. San José has done a great job of reimagining its public spaces. Viva CalleSJ creates miles of linear parks.
The Transformation of a City
Viva CalleSJ has connected organizations and community members who engage their city leaders. Through numerous subcommittees, business leaders, community advocates, interdepartmental agencies, non-profit agencies, art groups, and park advocates can provide input on program delivery that improves every Viva CalleSJ event. Open streets provide a new canvas on which to paint a unique programing masterpiece with something for everyone. Watching crime drop, air quality improve, healthy active communities emerge, and economic impact drives cities like Los Angeles to institute a monthly activation. Bogota and Guadalajara both operate every Sunday of the year.
If You Close Them, They Will Come
In the first year, the expected Viva CalleSJ attendance was 10,000 participants. Event attendance surpassed expectations when 35,000 people explored six miles of city streets. In 2016, 100,000 people played in our 6.3-mile linear park. In 2017, Viva CalleSJ went big with 7.3 miles of open streets and pioneered a collaboration with Niantic Inc., the makers of Pokémon Go. In six months, Niantic developed a Viva CalleSJ-specific game experience in partnership with the Viva CalleSJ team. On September 17, 2018, 130,000 participants from across the Bay Area and around the world came to San José to participate in Viva CalleSJ.
Every city in America could benefit from a vibrant open streets program. There will be challenges with launching the program. There will be opposition to closing streets to vehicles. But something amazing really does happen during those first hours of the inaugural event that can change even the most cynical of critics. Cities and communities come to life in ways long forgotten. People come out to play and enjoy the sunshine, they speak with strangers and neighbors, they see beautiful art, and they see their city through a new lens. Many will visit neighborhoods and communities they have never visited before. Open streets gives the streets back to the people, and empowers residents to think boldly about what their streets can be when they are open and safe for all.
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