If you’ve been to an Open Streets Day (or any type of car-free event or programme like Ciclovia, Streets Alive, Sunday Streets, etc.), you’ll know that the concept is simple: temporarily close a street to create a people-friendly public space for walking, cycling, socialising, etc. There are many different manifestations around the world - in Bogota, it occurs every Sunday and public holiday across over 100km of the capital’s road network, with over a million people participating on average every time.
In Cape Town we’ve introduced Open Streets in 5 parts of the city, with huge support from a growing movement of people who believe in the power of reimagining streets as places of connection, belonging and opportunity, rather than the usual congested and dangerous arenas where frustration and aggression are played out.
In the lead up to an Open Streets Day, we invest large amounts of time walking the route and surrounding areas talking to people, meeting with key stakeholders to plan collectively, and mobilising local organisations to get involved. Countless times, we’ll share the concept - "it’s a car-free day where we close the road…" - and the first question is, “OK, and then what?” We try to paint a picture of a magical space for walking freely, skating, riding bicycles, dancing, playing and exploring together - but often it only really clicks for people once they experience it. And it’s also hard to know exactly what will unfold each time. The Open Streets experience is created collectively by everyone who is there on that day - from residents simply taking a stroll, to a local chess club setting up tables and boards, to musicians hosting an open mic session, residents bringing out a couch for an outdoor lunch, or partner organisations hosting classes teaching kids how to ride a bicycle. Open Streets brings out the best in people, an eagerness to contribute and share.
During the height of the water crisis last year, we hosted one of our biggest events along Main Road through Observatory, Salt River, Woodstock and District Six. A friend I bumped into on the street said it felt like a chance for the city to take a deep breath together. This magic is very hard to put into words, quantify, and scale up sustainably. And especially hard to talk about amongst more pressing and desperate quantitative issues.
I’m not sure what keeps you up at night, but for me it’s often those 3 words we get asked - And then what? What value do we leave behind after the road closure comes to an end and everyone goes home?
Our vision is for Open Streets to be an experiential learning opportunity for people of what our cities could be like, the potential of streets to enable sustainable mobility, community-building, creative expression, healthy recreation, economic activities and more. But as a behaviour change exercise, it is incredibly hard to measure this type of impact. There are also those who insist we need to wait for the necessary infrastructure and policies to create a more enabling environment before we expect people to change their behaviour.
In our survey data and feedback from participants at the 20 Open Streets Days we’ve hosted over 7 years, people talk about connecting with their neighbours for the first time, visiting a part of the city they were always too nervous to venture into, their kids playing with kids from a completely different background, it being the only day in the year when their son or daughter can experience what it’s like to play outside safely, making a connection that leads to a pivotal small business opportunity, and and and. Once again, this data is not easy to package to satisfy the requirements of donors and local government KPIs. Our monitoring & evaluation framework is a major work in progress.
But we believe strongly that this “soft stuff” is crucial to the success of the “hard stuff” like improved street design, integrated transport systems, safe cycle lanes, good land use management etc. Love & connection are at the core of our movement, and our philosophy for what makes a functional city.
We have had a year of transition, and intensive strategy and consolidation work. What is the impact after an Open Streets Day? How does this one-day event translate into shifting the status quo and transforming the everyday life of the street? How do we find a reasonable balance between our ambitious vision and current capacity?
What we are sure of is that Open Streets Days are about a lot more than transport; they are about giving communities an experience of coming together, sharing spaces and learning about each other. To put it into development jargon: catalysing opportunities for social cohesion, which we believe is fundamental for creating safe, connected and inclusive communities. All of this happening through partnerships between community-based and civil society organisations, businesses, schools, faith-based organisations, local government departments and individuals who are passionate about reimagining how communities can live and work together. We have put together a toolkit documenting our methods and learning so that others can organise their own Open Streets Days, and we aim to start sharing this toolkit more actively with increased support for these independent initiatives.
As we head into a new phase as an organisation (post pioneering phase), we are looking for communities and partners to help us scale up the Open Streets programme to more communities, and very importantly, develop our shared response to the question of ‘And then what?’
Please get in touch (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have ideas, questions or want to collaborate!