The mind-expanding possibilities of Open Streets

A girl waits to add her hopes for a future 29th Street during the Imagine 29th Street Block Party, which happened in conjunction with Open Street Lyndale June 7. Credit: Photo by Nancy Ferber

Streets belong to the public but knowing this is different from feeling that streets are welcoming environments, which we collectively own regardless of whether we travel on foot or by car, bike, bus, light rail or all of these modes on different occasions.

It can be especially difficult to feel that streets are public spaces when we are talking about busy corridors, like Lyndale and Washington avenues. This is why Open Streets have so much transformative potential as we work to build a more livable Minneapolis for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. Closing streets to cars for one day means inviting people to come out and engage in a collective “thought experiment about reinventing the street” as Laura Kling, community organizer at Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition said.

For the past five years, Open Streets events — which are presented by the City of Minneapolis, Blue Cross Blue Shield Center for Prevention and the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition — have been giving people a chance to do yoga, play with sidewalk chalk, eat hot dogs and have fun hanging out in the middle of public spaces that are usually inaccessible to humans not behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. Open Streets are a chance to “celebrate the neighborhood” as Kling put it and test out physical changes to the street that put the people first.

The coalition brings the pop-up protected bike lanes and pop-up protected intersection to Open Streets events so people can experience riding a bike in a safe space on street.

“When I tell kids, ‘this is for you,’ they get really excited,” Kling said.

At Open Streets, people experience familiar streets in a way that whole-heartedly emphasizes healthy living, local business, sustainable transportation and pride of place. Even more exciting, some of these thought experiments are beginning to result in changes lasting longer than one day.

29th Street off Lyndale was the site of a successful one-day demonstration project, the Imagine 29th Street Block Party during the Lyndale Open Street on June 7. The experiment continues with a summer-long parklet — a parking space converted into a mini park. The plan is to redevelop the street as a woonerf — a type of residential street designed to be safe enough for children to play freely and slow cars to a walking pace. The streetscape was originally developed in the Netherlands and so there are no local examples.

“When you’re trying to promote something that doesn’t exist yet it’s so easy to get into a huge he-said she-said, but when you have demonstration, you can talk about what actually happened,” said Max Musicant of the Musicant Group, who together with the Lake Street Council and using a grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield Center for Prevention has been working on the 29th street reimagining. The people who visited 29th Street during the Lyndale Open Street in 2014 “voted with their feet,” as Musicant put it. These people also shared their vision for the street on a giant chalkboard.

What do people hope to do on 29th Street? Play, people watch, freestyle rap and other things that can happen when the pace of a street is slowed down and people get to interact with one another as the new design proposes. Already, Musicant said the parklet is changing the dynamic of the street by offering an invitation to do different things, and the response has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

When people go out and experience a familiar environment from an unfamiliar perspective, they start to think a little differently and change becomes a possibility. As Musicant explained, “We can use the experience people had and say ‘wasn’t that a special day? How do we get back there.’”

Annie Van Cleve is a freelance writer, blogger and volunteer with the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition.