Intricate Ballets: Using Open Streets to Reclaim Street Space for People

This post was authored by Tiffany Lam

Renowned activist and urbanist Jane Jacobs once praised the vivaciousness of city sidewalks and streets as, ‘ intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.’ After all, what is a city but its people? What are streets for if not to let people move, navigate, and experience their communities? Unfortunately, years and years of prioritizing the construction of highways and wide roads has enabled car to dominate, leaving little opportunity for people to choreograph ‘intricate ballets’ as they move around the city on foot and on bike.

An increasingly popular way to redistribute street space away from cars to people is Open Streets, or Ciclovías, which temporarily repurpose streets into car-free spaces in order to encourage greater physical activity, civic engagement, community cohesion, public space revitalization, and local business stimulation. What distinguishes Open Streets from street closure festivals is the explicit goal to help promote more active, healthy, and sustainable modes of transport, as well as complementary programming to liven up the public realm, offer educational opportunities, and encourage physical activity and healthy behaviors. Examples include yoga classes, cooking classes, Zumba classes, games that people can stop and play, and outreach for city departments or causes.

Ciclovías originated in Bogotá, Colombia in 1974 and became more robust under the mayoral leadership of Enrique Peñalosa from 1998 until 2001. On Sundays and holidays from 7am to 2pm, 76 miles of Bogotá streets are closed off to car traffic to allow people walk and bike freely without road traffic fear and stress. Peñalosa, who was re-elected as mayor for the 2016 – 2019 term, continues to be a strong advocate for walking and bicycling and said, ‘We had to build a city not for businesses or automobiles, but for children and thus for people. Instead of building highways, we restricted car use. We invested in high-quality sidewalks, pedestrian streets, parks, bicycle paths, libraries; we got rid of thousands of cluttering commercial signs and planted trees. All our everyday efforts have one objective: Happiness.’

What Mayor Peñalosa saw was that quality public space—in the form of pedestrianized streets, safe sidewalks to walk and play on, safe bicycle routes, more green spaces, parks, and plazas—should be a political priority because it is key to happy, healthy, and more sustainable cities. A recent Open Streets report shows that since the first Ciclovía in Bogotá, it has been replicated in 496 cities in 27 countries on all continents. Latin American cities take the lead by accounting for 93% of all regularly occurring Open Streets programs, most of which were implemented after 2000. They have been able to sustain Open Streets programs due to greater frequency, longer routes, more public funding (79% of programs are led by government entities), and greater public and civic support. Meanwhile, in the United States there have been Open Streets in 135 cities, although inadequate funding inhibits their frequency.

This is a shame because as the report demonstrates, Open Streets positively impact communities. They have been successful in encouraging more people to walk and bike and in making public spaces more vibrant. If we want cities for people; cities that are liveable, inclusive, healthier, happier, and more sustainable; cities with streets and sidewalks characterized by ‘intricate ballets,’ then we must put people first and invest more in Open Streets programs.

To increase and sustain Open Streets programs in American cities, they must occur with regular frequency so that people, political and civic leaders, and businesses have consistent opportunities to participate and experience first-hand their benefits. This, of course, will require more resources—funding, staff, political and civic support, and volunteers. To overcome that, individual Open Streets programs should conduct thorough evaluations of their programs, including analyses of their budgets to optimize cost-effectiveness. Evaluation results should be shared to create a growing body of evidence about the benefits of Open Streets programs, which can substantiate their growth and expansion. With more research and evaluation, Open Streets can hopefully become more widespread in the United States.