Back in September 2014 NRPA’s Vice President of Urban and Government Affairs Kevin O’Hara continued his duties as serving as a member of the Open Streets Network of Champions by taking a trip to Guadalajara, Mexico to experience their open street network, aka ViaRecreActiva.
The biggest park in the city of Guadalajara, Mexico has no playgrounds, no turf, no basketball hoops, no rec center, no tree lined paths, no scenic pond and no nature center. It does have a lot of pavement and around 450,000 Tapatios using it every Sunday. This park is the ViaRecreActiva (VRA) a 45-mile linear park created by closing streets throughout Mexico’s second largest city and winding its way through residential neighborhoods, the historic downtown and three different municipalities: Guadalajara, Zapopan and Tlaquepaque.
We saw families out for a leisurely Sunday ride, experienced cyclists whizzing by and thousands of people strolling and enjoying their city (scroll to the bottom to see a video on VRA). We started our ride at the Parque Metropolitana in Zapopan, a large suburb of Guadalajara, and ended our trek at Parque Revolucion near the historic city center. Parque Revolucion was structured, but done so in a wonderfully organic way, where it felt like you had stumbled on a great block party. Hundreds of people were dancing, hula hooping, jumping rope and enjoying trapezes and rope swings in beautiful trees. Others set up an informal soccer game outside of the subway stop while vendors circulated with fresh fruit juices – and everyone had a smile on their face.
Smiles happen when city leaders take a chance on re-imagining how residents interact with their open space, and the open streets movement offers park and recreation agencies an opportunity to help re-imagine public spaces in cities across the US.
Impressions Left on Me
1. Social Capital Building
I was struck by the democratic feel of the ViaRecreActiva. The route traverses so much of the city that it feels like everyone owns it and everyone uses it. I enjoyed seeing the diversity of users (families, groups of teens, individual bikers, runners) and how organizers use the VRA to promote healthy active living and provide services in high density spots along the way. I also enjoyed hearing from the organizers about how this has empowered citizens to feel a sense of ownership of public space and is leading to more organization and advocacy for better public spaces.
I think that success has to start with how the route connects places that attract people. From the park at the beginning of the ride to the park at the end of the ride, to the markets, linear parks and plazas throughout, it seemed well designed to move people from one desirable place to the next.
We know that active living is a key determinant to combating obesity. Here in Guadalajara, we saw hundreds of thousands of people engaging in active recreation on and around the VRA. The VRA is inclusive, and its reach into different communities fosters a sense of ownership beyond traditional socio-economic divides by providing access to open space, although for only one day a week, in communities that aren’t well served by parks (much of the city). As one woman we met on the tour said, “Now my kids have something better to do on Sundays than sit around and drink beer.”
Given the constraints that many cities have in creating new parks, I love the idea of open streets as a concept for the largest new park in a given city. Using open streets is a way to foster the idea that all of our public spaces, the public rights of way (i.e. streets), should be like a great park: open to all, green, multi-purpose and, most importantly, the means to help foster healthier active living.