Reimagining America’s Streets

Americans’ expectations of our streets are changing. While we once saw streets exclusively as a means to move cars from one place to another as quickly as possible, we are increasingly recognizing them for what they are—our largest public space—and for what they can become—an opportunity to promote economic development, build community and even improve public health.

The Open Streets Project is leading this revolution in how we view and use streets. Also known as Ciclovias, Sunday Streets, Viva Streets (to name a few), Open Streets temporarily closes busy streets to automobiles so that people may use them for any activity but driving—walking, jogging, bicycling, dancing…name your physical activity—bringing thousands of people together to experience their city in a way that is normally forbidden.

The number of Open Streets in North America has grown from just 11 in 2005 to more than 80 in 2012. Cities and towns choose to open their streets in order to:

  • Encourage physical activity
  • Allow participants to reimagine their streets as places where walking and biking for transportation is easy and enjoyable
  • Improve air quality by removing automobile traffic
  • Attract thousands of people to frequent businesses and fuel local economies
  • Provide a novel public space that helps people meet and make connections, building relationships and strengthening the social fabric of communities

While initiatives like New York City’s Summer Streets or Los Angeles’ CicLAvia get much of the attention, Open Streets are happening in communities of all sizes across North America. From Somerville, MA to Boulder, CO to Paducah, KY to Missoula, MT, small and midsized cities are holding successful Open Streets that attract thousands of participants and encourage bonds between community members.

Open Streets is very much in keeping with the Foundation’s mission and Heart & Soul Principles: it builds community by creating space where people can come together. It engages residents across a city, connecting groups that might otherwise not interact by linking disconnected neighborhoods. It allows each neighborhood—or even each block—to sponsor activities along the route, giving community members ownership of the experience and an opportunity to share their local heritage and culture. And finally, Open Streets are large, head-turning events that people notice, enjoy and tell stories about. They lodge themselves in the collective memory of a place and help develop a sense of civic pride.

Looking to open your streets? The Open Streets Project is a central location for collecting and sharing best practices. Since it’s launch in 2011, the Project has produced a best practices guide and an interactive website that allows organizers to post status updates on their city’s Open Streets initiative. The website also contains a Resources section, complete with helpful templates and information from cities across the continent, and a blog featuring recent successes and innovations. In addition, the Open Streets Project offers technical assistance for communities looking to launch or expand their initiative.

Not sure where to start? Email with your questions.

Mike Samuelson joined the Alliance for Biking & Walking staff in 2010, and is coordinator of the Open Streets Project, which shares information and aims to increase the number, size, and frequency of Open Streets initiatives across North America. He is the editor of and has presented on Open Streets at the World Bank and the ProWalk/ProBike Conference.

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