Last summer, Carrboro closed East Weaver Street in front of Weaver Street Market one Sunday a month to open it up for people to commune, linger, meet old friends and make new ones, and use the street for physical activities like yoga, cycling and soccer. In addition, Carrboro just held its fourth Open Streets event in April.
Carrboro is just one of many communities across the country and world that have recognized the power and benefits of these Open Streets (or Summer Streets, for the summer months) events.
Opening streets to people can create new public spaces that people crave. With events and activities in the street, towns and cities have found they can spark something exciting within their communities, getting people out of their cars and weaving together a sense of community that the current built environment denies them. The current built environment often characterized by large swaths of parking in front of businesses does nothing to encourage this sense of community; in fact, it alienates people from each other.
Former New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan writes about New York City’s implementation of Summer Streets in her book, “Streetfight.” Under her leadership, New York City held its first Summer Streets event in 2008. Despite Sadik-Khan’s fear that no one would show up, more than 150,000 New Yorkers took to the streets that year. By 2013, attendance at New York City Summer Streets had swelled to over 300,000.
New York’s successful first Summer Streets empowered event organizers to expand the event and its attractions. The city set up zip lines, tennis and basketball courts, golf courses, and sand castle contests. Working with a local entrepreneur, the city event provided “dumpster” swimming pools – converted shipping containers lined with PVC and equipped with water-filtration systems. Demand was so high for a dip in the pools that the city had to enact a wristband system to schedule swim times hours in advance.
These examples of events from New York City demonstrate the creativity that Summer Streets can unleash as well as the vibrancy they create. People want to come together, see their neighbors, meet others in the community, and to share in an experience. Getting people out of their isolating cars and onto the street, where creative activities provide unique experiences for people of all ages is a perfect way to strengthen the fabric of our community.
Open Streets and Summer Streets events are only short-term street reclamations that prioritize people over cars, but they invite us to think about what our community could be like with more public space permanently set aside for people instead of cars.
Under Sadik-Khan, New York City rolled out miles and miles of new bike lanes and created new public spaces and plazas where excessive space for cars used to be. The city also carefully tracked the impact of these changes, and the results were clear. People wanted these spaces, and filled them. Areas where projects were implemented saw increased sales for businesses and a 49-percent lower commercial vacancy rate than in areas without improvement projects.
More and more data from cities big and small across the country and worldwide continues to show that the creation of more space for people and a reduction in space reserved for cars is good for quality of life, quality of community, and good for business. In particular, numerous studies have found that people who bike or walk to shop spend more than their counterparts who arrive by car. The benefits of opening streets up for non-automobile users are clear, and our community will only grow stronger if we embrace people-centric planning going forward.
In fact, an analysis of Carrboro’s first Open Streets event found that participants reported the event contributed to feelings of social cohesion as measured by whether the event was a good way to interact with people and a good opportunity to bond with people in the community.
As Sadik-Khan concludes at the end of her book, if you can remake how streets work in New York City, you can remake them anywhere.
This summer, Carrboro Summer Streets will return to East Weaver Street on June 19, July 17 and Aug. 28. We hope to see you there.
Travis Crayton and Molly De Marco are editors of the blog OrangePolitics.org and live in Chapel Hill.