Open Streets PHL was founded to advance the vision of providing free and fun recreation to all members of the community by temporarily closing select streets to vehicle traffic while opening them up to endless possibilities of people-powered movement.
The Open Streets PHL movement in Philadelphia grew from the City’s experience with Pope Francis’ visit in September 2015, which necessitated widespread road closures throughout Center City and West Philadelphia. Though the road closure created a disruption that negatively impacted many residents and business owners, it also opened up the city’s imagination to the prospect of enjoying our roadways in the absence of motor vehicles. Parents played in the street with their children; men and women ran, cycled, and walked along roadways typically clogged with cars; and people of all ages came out to enjoy a space at once familiar and brand new.
The Open Streets PHL campaign has already geared up, even though planning for the first Open Streets PHL program has yet to get underway. The campaign is responding to immense public interest in this type of event. The base of support is so energized that a November 2015 event organized by Open Streets PHL and sponsored by the Penn Institute for Urban Research (PennIUR) that featured a panel discussion was filled beyond capacity.
November’s event, held at Penn’s School of Design, brought together a diverse set of experts. Penn School of Design Assistant Professor, Dr. Erick Guerra, brought his rich background in urban transportation systems and land use to bear on the discussion of the positive impacts of such Open Streets programs on local transportation, such as the increased use of public transit ridership, as well as ways in which the transit disruptions are typically mitigated. Beverly Brown leveraged her background as a fitness instructor with active engagement in minority neighborhoods to explain both means for getting minorities and other underrepresented demographics to be equal participants in Open Streets programming, and to speak to the benefits of encouraging active lifestyles, a major focus of Open Streets programs. Finally, Mike Lyons, Principal at The Streets Plans Collaborative and co-author of Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change, spoke from extensive experience about the best practices for hosting successful Open Streets programs, such as those in New York City and Portland, Ore. Nate Hommel, Director of Planning and Design at the University City District in Philadelphia, played the role of panel moderator and the representative of Open Streets PHL.
Following a short film screening, which explained the concept of Open Streets, the evening’s discussion proceeded with an atmosphere of excitement generated by the attendees. The panelists were able to focus on questions that mainly centered on event logistics, equitable access to residents, and getting from concept to reality. Some attendees expressed serious concerns about the viability of such an event in a poor city like Philadelphia that is struggling to deal with social challenges, such as poverty and a failing public school system. However, panelists were able to address these questions, drawing form their expertise and the experiences of cities with successful, active programs. For example, funding models varies between the over 150 cities with Open Streets programs. A model likely to work for Philadelphia is in-kind funding from the city through waiving of permit fees and other such support, while bulk funding would come from the private sector in the form of sponsorship and grants.
Open Streets PHL has potential to transform the city through equitable programming that energizes various areas of the city, helps businesses thrive, boosts civic pride, and gets the people in this city moving towards healthier lifestyles. The panel discussion in November will help by motivating a passionate base of citizens to make Open Streets PHL programs a reality by as early as the summer of 2016.