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

The importance of the two Circle The City events this summer – July 14 on Huntington Ave. (“Avenue of the Arts”) and September 29 on Blue Hill Ave – go beyond the ability to walk, bike, roll, dance, play, eat, and hang out on car-free streets.   It’s more than the zumba, street games, yoga classes, vendors, music and participatory arts activities, and multiple miles of safe space for family-friendly cycling, strolling, and hanging out.

Yes: Circle The City is about good, clean, healthy fun.  It promotes local businesses and connects neighborhoods to nearby parks.   It helps promote discussion about how we can best use our largest publicly-owned physical asset – our streets – as more than and underpriced subsidy for car storage and movement.

But the more fundamental role of the 80 or so Open Streets Initiatives in North America, and more in other countries, it that it brings people together to not only build a sense of community but to also re-invigorate our civic culture.   Civic culture is the shared assumptions and trust which allows an extremely diverse and fragmented public to live together.  At a minimum, it allows tolerance of difference and formal civility.  At its best, it fosters inclusion and appreciation of multi-sourced contributions to our societal well-being and strengthens our commitment to egalitarian democracy. Civic culture is about seeing ourselves as one people.


But civic culture requires both space and cultivation.  It does not happen on its own and, in fact, much of our commercial media and current politics thrives on making us all more fearful of each other, less trusting of those different from us, more insecure about our material well-being – dividing us into nervous isolation.  We need space, time, events, and reminders that if “Boston Strong” means anything in the long run, it means finding ways to express and be glad about the fact that we’re all in this together.

That is why Open Streets events are ultimately about rejecting the paranoia.  It’s about regaining the ability to walk down the street without assuming we’ll be mugged, to interact with others without assuming we’ll be cheated, to enjoy other people’s presence and voice.  And it isn’t pushing too hard to say that this is part of what allows us to send our children to school without assuming they’ll be mistreated, to gather in community meetings without assuming they’ll end in violence, to see our changing demographics as simply a fact (or even as an opportunity) without assuming it’s a cause of alarm.

The power of Open Streets comes exactly from its positive simplicity.  A stretch of reclaimed pavement, long enough for a real bike ride, with “activity nodes” spread along the way that make strolling worthwhile.   It’s bigger than a block party, more diverse than an ethnic festival, more city-wide than a neighborhood play street, more spread out than a parade, and more organized than a spontaneous “happening.”  It’s a place where people come together, to share with others, to enjoy the collective energy, to remember that our city is full of people who are both very different and quite the same as ourselves.

Circle The City is a unique partnership of the City, the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, LivableStreets Alliance, the Boston Collaborative for Food and Fitness, the Fenway Cultural Alliance, the Boston Bicycle Union, the Sustainability Guild, and you – come!


Thanks to Jessica Parsons, Circle The City’s Project Manager, for leading the charge, and to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts and the Barr Foundation for their support!


Some related previous postings:

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

VULNERABLE ROAD USERS (VRU) PROTECTION LAWS: “Whoever Can Do The Most Damage Has To Be The Most Careful”



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