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Case Study: Open Streets - Transforming Neighborhoods into Play Spaces

Ciclovías were first born in Colombia in the 70's. In the U.S., the temporary closing of streets to motorized vehicles in order to create safe spaces for individuals to bike, job, run, stroll, play, and enjoy the outdoors, are referred as open streets. The Chicago Open Streets movement was started by Randy Neufield - former Executive Director of the Active Transportation Alliance, currently serving as Director of the SRAM Cycling Fund. Neufield first experienced an Open Streets event in Bogotá, Colombia in 2003. While the model was not common in the U.S. at the time, a group of citizens in Chicago were advocating for it.

After advocating about the movement in different conferences and inviting Gil Penalosa from 8 80 Cities to the project, the Active Transportation Alliance (ATA), a local non-profit organization supporting active and sustainable transportation, organized the first Open Streets in Chicago. With the help of the Chicago Loop Alliance and the Downtown Chamber of Commerce, they coordinated their first event which was very well received by the public; however, Chicago's city government was not actively involved in organizing or funding Open Streets.

While the half-time route, located on State Street between Lake and Van Buren Streets, may not have offered enough distance for jogging or biking, the event offered opportunities for active experiences. A temporary skateboard park and a 500-sq.ft. playground were also available for children. The biggest sponsor of the event was the Illinois Center for Broadcasting with additional funding from PNC Bank, REI, Walgreens, and Lady Foot Locker, and donations from The Polk Bros Foundation and the Hopps family. 

The Loop Alliance was instrumental to help ATA organize Open Streets and to facilitate city approvals. The Alliance's role as administrator for the State Street's Special Service Area (SSA) contributed to the local tax district that funds other services and programs within the special property tax. ATA administrators acknowledged that the involvement of the city was key to make Open Streets a long-term, sustainable program after organizing Open Streets for two consecutive years. Unfortunately, the city was not able to adopt the program on its own even though the benefits and value of Open Street events are clear; therefore, the alliance was unable to continue organizing and funding Open Streets in later years.

In 2006, the former Active Transportation Executive Director, Rob Sadowsky, who headed the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in Portland, OR gave a presentation about Chicago's Open Streets proposal at a planning conference. While the idea of Open Streets did not develop in Chicago, it was Rob Sadowsky who brought it to Portland, OR and shared it with then-mayor Tom Potter. Mayor Potter was thrilled by it and excited to move this idea forward.

The idea materialized with Mayor Potter as an instrumental part of the project. Currently, Portland, OR organizes and funds multiple Open Streets under the name "Sunday Parkways." The event offers roughly 12-mile routes drawing 35,000 participants every Sunday. The local government has taken great interest in continuing to offer the event, which has been successful for numerous years. Sunday Parkways are held for a few hours every Sunday from May to September highlighting different neighborhoods of the city. The route includes parks, spaces for yoga, dancing, food booths, and other local businesses.

The City of Portland has been highly proactive in organizing and holding Open Streets events. The City has been so productive that in August 2016 the International Open Streets Summit was organized by the Open Streets Project held at Portland State University. The conference covered topics including techniques to fill streets with people, policymaking, building a movement, tactical urbanism, and so forth.

Other Open Streets or Cicolvías have developed in the U.S. throughout the years. New York City closes seven miles of Park Avenue on selected Sundays in August for the "Summer Street" program which draws an average of 50,000 people each day. San Francisco also organizes "Sunday Streets," an eight-Sunday a year event drawing between 15,000 to 20,000 people. In addition, Los Angeles, CA, Atlanta, GA; Durham, NC; and Minneapolis, MN; are including Open Street events in their planning. In all these examples, the events' success has been mainly thanks to the involvement of visionary people along with the support of City Government, including the local Department of Transportation.

"Open Streets projects, both in Chicago and Portland, transformed neighborhoods into play streets and provided an opportunity for local churches, social service agencies, and arts groups to engage with citizens in a fun, active way."
- Rob Sadowsky, Consultant, S&G Endeavors, Ltd


This case study and other bike-related case studies can be found in our Shift Into Gear® guidebook.

This article was written by Rob Sadowsky, Shift Into Gear: A Bicycling Advocacy Resource.

Photo Credits: portlandoregon.gov.

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