OPENING STREETS, CHANGING POLICIES: Creating Space for Neighborhood Revival and Transportation Reform

Movement building requires organizing activities and programs that have inherent value and meet people’s immediate needs while also raising their awareness of the importance of larger reforms and putting pressure on relevant officials and power brokers to implement those changes.   It’s a tricky combination to achieve.  Providing free breakfast to low-income kids, for example, makes access to good nutrition more affordably available but doesn’t necessarily force the commercial food system to change.

In recent years, enthusiasm for Open Streets programs has spread among progressive transportation, community renewal, and other advocates wanting to change the way cities use their largest physical asset, the space normally devoted to car traffic and parking.  The excitement has its roots in the CicloVia program started nearly 40 years ago in Bogota, Columbia, where over two million people, nearly a third of the city population, come out for a few hours every weekend to play, exercise, do yoga, dance, walk, run, bicycle, enjoy endless vendor offerings, and simply hang out with each other along nearly 76 miles of car-free roads. (The roads aren’t “closed to cars”, they are “open for people”!)   Open Streets are now held around the globe including at least 90 US cities.

OPEN STREETS ARE PEOPLE PLACES

Open Streets are neither a block party nor a themed festival, neither a concert nor a parade, neither a race nor a party – although it’s a bit of all of them.  Open Streets events are an opportunity to experience  a new use of public space—a temporary reclamation of our streets for non-motorized activity. Open Streets events create a long enough stretch of safe road that kids and adults-everyone- can (at least for a few hours) get a good workout by jogging or cycling, moving between nodes of activity along the way.   They are usually run by cities, service agencies, and advocacy groups – often by a combination of all three – and funded by a similar combination of public funds, foundation grants, private donations, and corporate sponsorships.

In the USA, New York’s Summer Streets, run by the city Transportation Department, opens 7 miles of mid-town Avenues for three Saturdays in August and attracts over 250,000 people each time.  In NYC, local business district associations can also bid on the right to host one of the two dozen “Weekend Walk” events each year.  Los Angeles’ CicLAvia, organized by a non-profit group, opens about 10 miles of road twice a year for about 100,000 participants.  San Francisco’s Sunday Streets, is hosted by an advocacy coalition in cooperation with the city and rotates around the city each month, with additional “Play Street” and “Healthy Saturday” events regularly closing a couple neighborhood blocks and Golden Gate Park roads.

It’s not just the big cities:  IndianapolisSt. LouisChicago, and dozens more in the Mid-west and South have events.  Atlanta Streets Alive, organized by the city’s Bicycle Coalition, had over 80,000 people at its last event with “no significant musical performance, arts festival or sudsy brouhaha that attracted these people; instead it was the absence of something, a four-hour reprieve from the vehicles that choke Atlanta’s roadways and wall people away from each other.”

Boston, too, has an Open Streets initiative called Circle The City (CTC), hosted by the Emerald Necklace Conservancy and run as a partnership with LivableStreets Alliance(full disclosure:  I served on the CTC Steering Committee on behalf of LivableStreets), Boston Collaborative for Food and FitnessBoston Cyclists Union, and the City of Boston.  While much smaller (and less funded) than other programs, over the past two years CTC has organized five Open Streets events, each about a mile long, in Franklin Park (with the Franklin Park Coalition),  in Jamaica Plain, on the Kennedy Greenway (with the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy), along Huntington Avenue (with the Fenway Alliance), and most recently (and successfully!) along Blue Hill Avenue (with the Sustainability Guild International).  Start-up funding came from the Barr Foundationand Blue-Cross of Massachusetts Foundation and the City of Boston, and for the 2013 initiative there was support from the Solomon Foundation.

THREE IMPACTS

It feels like a movement.  In fact, the US-based Alliance for Bicycling and Walking has adopted Open Streets as one of its strategies for urban transportation reform.  But besides providing a good time what do these events actually accomplish?  There are probably three types of outcomes: Community Building, Modeling Alternative Street Usage, and Creating Momentum and a Constituency for Change.  Which outcome actually occurs and to what extent depends on local circumstances.  And while it’s not yet clear if it all ends up leading to real reform it sure is fun and gets lots of people outside together doing much-needed physical activity.

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COMMUNITY BUILDING

Open Streets is a useful, if short-term, community building process – at least when it is done in the middle of a community with a lot of local involvement.  In Boston, although downtown is beginning to be repopulated it still remains more touristy than residential, so it’s not surprising that the downtown Greenway event was the least attended while also being the most disruptive of traffic.   In contrast, the original CTC happening in JP and the most recent on in Roxbury were full of both neighbors and activity.  The extensive outreach around Blue Hill Avenue by the Sustainability Guild, the City of Boston, and the CTC staff convinced nearly 80 community groups, churches, and businesses to set up booths or lead activities.   In an area too frequently known for violence, drugs, and gangs, Circle The City was a hugely significant positive statement that people from all the surrounding blocks could safely and peacefully share their common ground.  We heard repeatedly that it was the first time in many people’s memories that a festive coming together like this had happened in their neighborhood.  People kept saying that they were thrilled and that they wanted it to happen again.  Successful repetition will significantly increase the value of the CTC events.  However, like all good movement-building activities, the long-term value of Circle The City to this community depends on how local organizers are able to build on it.

The Huntington Avenue event was faced with more challenges, the first of which was the heat—most people will choose the shade of sidewalk trees over 90 degrees on the street.  The route didn’t quite reach to Mission Hill and the big cultural, educational, and medical institutions lining the Fenway Cultural District, while supportive, didn’t have much of a spill-over effect.  It’s possible that repeating the event in the same place, and collaboration with another Outside The Box arts program, could make it a must-do activity for the Metro region – a very worthwhile achievement and a real boost to both attendance at the adjoining cultural venues and the local economy but not the same as neighborhood community building.

ON-STREET ACTIVITY

Secondly, Circle The City clearly demonstrated that streets are more than parking lots and vehicular thru-ways.  The key was making sure that the “activity nodes” were actually located in the closed streets.   It takes careful and persistent nudging for people to get over being nervous about stepping into “car territory.”  At the Kennedy Greenway event, for example, most of the booths were set up on the wide sidewalks and the streets ended up mostly empty and little unused – much to the annoyance of the displaced motorists.  In both JP and Roxbury the on-street location of dance, food, drawing, and other activities drew people in.  This is not a new phenomena in Jamaica Plain which already has Wake Up The Earth and other festivals.  But an “open to all” non-ethnic event was a revelation on Blue Hill Avenue.  Once the cars were blocked off the first to discover the joy of stepping off the curb on to “forbidden turf” were the little kids on bikes who raced up and down laughing at their own boldness.  After the kids came the parents and the rest of their family, including the people getting out of church.  The music and kids-focused nodes attracted the biggest crowds.

Notably absent from all the CTC events, however, were “serious” bicyclists.  Cycling was, in fact, the best way to experience the entire length of activity spread out along each route.  The Boston Bike program set up well-attended kid’s activities, and some families brought their little kids’ bikes.  But fewer adults than expected were pedaling, possibly  because in contrast with the  Open Street events in NYC or LA  the routes were short.  And it is extremely easy to get out of Boston for long rides in the countryside, so there is less excitement about short, temporary in-town routes, even if they are car-free.

While CTC made a powerful statement on upper Blue Hill Avenue, it’s not clear that its message about the flexibility of streets as space for non-motorized activity was as loudly heard across the city as a whole.  Boston is famously full of street festivals – religious, musical, culinary – so Circle The City wasn’t as unique a phenomena as it might have been elsewhere, again partly because of its relatively short length.  In addition, while not nearly as developed as New York City’s Play Street program (which allows neighborhoods to keep cars off their streets on a regular schedule over the summer as well as invite a range of city programs to help activate the space), Boston is reviving its dormant Play Streets which allows one-time “opening” of a block.

SUPPORT FOR POLICY CHANGE

Finally, it’s not clear how much CTC can be leveraged to impact Boston’s long term transportation policies.  The City already has a Complete Streets Policy and a Bicycle Network Plan.  Heavily attended Open Streets events are a good way to spark conversation about the value of Complete Streets.  And there is a long haul from idea to implementation, a gap that is only closed through sustained pressure from a mobilized public – and (at least in Roxbury) Circle The City did activate local leaders who can probably be counted as allies in future city hall campaigns. And that is probably its most significant impact:  non-white and low-income areas will continue to get less attention until local residents find ways to make themselves effectively visible.  Having African-American and Latino participants in Transportation Policy fights will increase the odds that their concerns, their streets, will be addressed. But, once again, the long-term value of the CTC event will depend on how campaign organizers build on the connections and relationships that it created.

THE BOSTON APPROACH

Circle The City got its name because it originated as an idea to create a series of multi-mile road closures that would prefigure, and build support for, a car-free network for non-motorized travel around the metro area.  This vision of regional greenways has evolved into the GreenRoutes Initiative, a separate effort.

The CTC partnership, for a variety of reasons, instead focused on creating shorter-distance Open Streets events in a series of neighborhoods in locations that circled the city  — inspired, in part, by San Francisco’s “movable feast” of Sunday Streets activity.  But CTC retained the goal of using the public experience of car-free streets to help people realize that our streets could be used for something besides transportation and to build momentum for the expansion of pedestrian and bicycling facilities.  In addition, because of the central role of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy in the project, it added the goal of helping people connect to the city’s wonderful parks and to realize that every public park is available to every person from every part of the city.  And organizers hoped that people would come from around the city to discover the pleasures of each of the area’s where the successive events were held.

Because Boston requires street-event organizers to go through a complex, intimidating, and time-consuming permitting process – which CTC had to repeatedly endure because of the changing location for each event – a huge percentage of staff time (and therefore of budgetary funds) was absorbed in getting permission rather than marketing or outreach.  Still, except for the first event in Franklin Park, nearly 5,000 people attended each of the events, with the largest turnout on September 29, 2013 on Blue Hill Avenue where estimates ranged from 5,000 to 10,000 – not bad for an underfunded start-up.  It is likely that regular appearance in the same location(s) would lead to greater public awareness and attendance.  It is also certain that a larger budget would attract much more media and public attention.

In any event, Circle The City organizers is moving on, securing permits for next summer and looking for future funding, particularly sponsorships.  Anyone interested?

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Thanks to Jessica Parsons and Julie Crockford for their feedback on earlier drafts.

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Related previous postings:

OPEN STREETS: How Public Space Creates Civic Culture – and Democracy

OPEN STREETS & CYCLOVIAS: Creating Space For Urban Transformation

NON-MOTORIZED HIGHWAYS: A Regional Green Routes System To Connect Municipal Bike Networks, Sidewalks, and Parks

ACTIVE TRANSPORTATION CREATES HEALTHY COMMUNITIES: How To Use Your Roads To Lower Your Doctor (and Insurance) Bills

 

 

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