I may not be a city planner but I have been an event planner ever since coordinating my junior prom. It’s great fun predicting and observing how crowds behave, especially in outdoor and public space. One of my favorite events to admire is the Ciclovia, a weekly event in Bogota, Colombia during which 70 miles of roadway are temporarily adapted for walking and biking. It’s uncanny and quite moving to watch on video as major roadways with concrete barriers built for cars are overrun with children on bikes. In the United States we call our growing number of copycat events “open streets” though I have not heard of any that take on the scale and impact of Ciclovia.
This past week Gil Penalosa, one of Ciclovia’s founders, came to the Twin Cities metro area to share consultation and inspiration. He didn’t actually speak much about that event though his connection to it and key points on sustainable mobility made me question more deeply Minnesota’s growing list of ostensibly similar open streets events.
Proving Latent Demand for Minimum Grid
Regarding permanent transportation infrastructure, Mr. Penalosa generalized that politicians require proof of the demand for pedestrian and cycling infrastructure before committing investment, often one street at a time. He argues that “latent demand” for segregated bike/walk paths exists but because many people will choose to drive rather than bike on dangerous existing routes, their demand will only be evident after the “minimum grid” of safe passageways is actually built. I’ll easily buy this theory based on my personal experience weighing transportation options. Though understandably it’s a less likely leap for decision and policy makers leading others to still argue the street-by-street approach.
The thing is, I think we actually can prove the demand for the grid before building it! We must leverage open streets events to showcase spectacle-scale, authentic citizen participation that leaves decision makers with no choice but to do the big changes. Open streets can be the proving ground but we need to stop designing them in the image of street festivals and block parties; the differences are subtle but essential.
Lessons from Ciclovia
Ciclovia is bigger and bolder. Here are specifics recommendations:
- Hold open streets every week.
- Map out and block off lanes in an expansive predicted “minimum grid” to prove/disprove the demand. Smart people already did so with the proposed downtown loop for Saint Paul.
- Start with the assumption that people will already be traveling, simply open new mode possibilities and make them known.
Anti-Lessons from Festivals
Here are the pitfalls that can result in an accidental block party:
- I know it sounds scary to forgo the assumed necessary amenities (info tents, food and merchandise sales, port-a-johns, art activities) but instead spend more organizing capacity making sure key businesses amongst the grid are open for business and excited.
- Temporary event structures also have an influence on the mindset of attendees. If there are tents and activities in the street or staggered along, it sets an expectation that the experience is being curated. For open streets it is more ideal to emphasize movement and encourage people to navigate actively.
- Focus most on where your event participants will come from and by what means and a critical mass will likely follow. The fact that our numerous open streets events in the Twin Cities are staggered on different dates signals to me that either the cities are not stepping up to allow more simultaneous street closures and lane restrictions, or, I think more likely, event organizers are expecting to compete for the same audience. That wouldn’t be a concern if the primary objective is to identify the minimum grid!
- If there is no chance of increasing the frequency to more than annual, the event must occur on a day with great weather. Keeping event infrastructure sparse will also make a rain date more feasible.
There is a lot to appreciate about any festival or block party that brings crowds together in shared experience, though the turn-my-world-upside-down magic that I observe in Ciclovia requires a slightly counter-intuitive and very brave approach. I look forward to attending this years’ events to see how they evolve.