On September 26-28, I had the pleasure of joining the Open Streets Network of Champions in Guadalajara, Mexico. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and 8-80 Cities hosted the meeting for a diverse group of 25 people to discuss what Open Streets are, what they can be, and to experience Guadalajara’s very successful Open Streets, Via RecreActiva. I flew home enthusiastic for the opportunities that lay ahead, both as an active living researcher and as a fan of all things urban and walking-related.
I left Guadalajara with many lessons learned, but want to share three salient threads; 1) to think BIG, 2) arrive with a coherent, consistent message, and 3) to improve on the evaluation and data we currently have on US Open Streets.
We were challenged and encouraged to think big in terms of miles and frequency of Open Streets. The Network discussed the optimum length and ideal routing strategies to engage the most residents. The majority felt Open Streets should open a city’s iconic drive to “stepping and rolling” as this will bring the press, elected officials, and folks interested in experiencing this boulevard at the pace of a walk, run, skate, roll, or bike. Each of these is necessary for the sustainability and marketing of Open Streets. However, we all agreed it was equally imperative that Open Street nodes connect less affluent communities to the iconic drive so that all have access to these great initiatives.
It was also advocated that we have a concise, clear, consistent message for Open Streets. This will best allow for a brand that is easier to disseminate. Open Streets certainly have the ability to positively affect physical health, but also social cohesion, economic wellbeing, public and active transportation goals, and environmental quality. A challenge for each of us moving forward will be to balance the messaging of these potential successes of Open Streets without diluting the importance of establishing or enhancing a culture of health. One of the amazing aspects of Via RecreActiva was the apparent social norms. Everyone, regardless of age, gender, or ability, was smiling, laughing, and having a great time. Almost everyone was with another person, if not a large group. All obeyed the college volunteers that served as crossing guards at vehicular traffic crossings. There was no trash, no aggressive cycling. Parks were activated with organic and inexpensive activities such as hula hoops, gymnastics, and soccer. Health and humanity was the culture and social norm pervasive along the eight-plus miles we cycled.
Finally, we as an active living research community need further, coordinated evaluations of Open Streets. We know anecdotally and empirically that participants enjoy Open Streets and many receive most, or all, of their 150 weekly minutes of physical activity as recommended by the CDC. Important questions remain about populations not attending, what these populations are doing instead of participating in Open Streets, and their perceived barriers to participation. In addition, we need to understand if Open Streets are increasing population-level physical activity and creating a culture of physical activity and active transportation during the other six days of the week. Also, highlighted throughout the Network meeting was the need for a multi-city risk analysis. Permits and policing are currently stated as bureaucratic and expense barriers to implementing or expanding Open Streets in many US cities. Is the risk of injury to pedestrians, runners, and cyclists greater at Open Streets? Do cities with Open Streets increase the awareness of active commuters and thus reduce weekday collisions? These are all important questions that when answered may provide additional incentives for the expansion of Open Streets across the US.
The 25 Network members were brought to Guadalajara to think BIG and experience a big and successful Open Streets. Thinking big will provide the inspiration and motivation to improve and expand Open Streets in the US. Rigorous evaluations may provide the big message that Open Streets truly can transform the culture of health. As we progress in our efforts to think big, improve messaging, and expand evaluations, I encourage each of you to find your nearest Open Streets (link), go enjoy it, and think how you can make it BIG.