Inside Details: What Open Streets PHL Might Really Look Like

Hint: The goal isn't to just replicate Pope-Mania.

Car-free streets during the Pope visit | Photo by Flickr user Scott Sherrill-Mix

Car-free streets during the Pope visit | Photo by Flickr user Scott Sherrill-Mix

Remember Open Streets PHL, the campaign that surfaced when we were all still high on the open, car-free streets of the Pope’s September visit? Well, to refresh your memory, during that weekend, a petition began making its way around Twitter and Facebook, urging Jim Kenney, the soon-to-be mayor, to jump on board the Open Streets PHL bandwagon and support the campaign pushing for three Open Streets events in 2016. So, three events where certain roadways in Philly say “Adios!” to cars and are open for people to utilize on foot.

That was back in September, and the campaign got tons of support. The petition got over 4,000 signatures from Philadelphians who wanted more car-free streets to walk, run, bike and skip through. But because we have short attention spans, a few days later, many of the 4,205 of us who signed the petition moved on to being outrageously passionate about something else — like Little Baby’s CSA for ice cream. (Yes, that really does exist!) At least, that’s what I did. But in November, I was reminded that the campaign was still alive and kicking when Open Streets PHL hosted a film screening and panel discussion at Penn. I later caught up with Alon Abramson, co-chair of the Open Streets PHL board, who gave me some serious insight into the campaign’s vision for Open Streets events here in Philly. First off, to get one thing straight: They aren’t trying to replicate exactly what happened during Pope-Mania, he tells me. So if that’s the vision you have of Open Streets PHL, erase it.

To give you some background, Abramson tells me the campaign came together after Jon Geeting of PlanPhilly (and the Open Streets PHL board’s internal communication director) reached out to a group of folks he knew around the city — including Abramson, who works as a research project manager at Penn’s Institute for Urban Research — with the idea for Open Streets PHL. As Abramson tells me, Geeting said something along the lines of “Hey, I thought you guys would be a good fit to move this along,” and they did just that — got things moving, and fast. There are now five individuals on the Open Streets PHL board, and while it’s not a city-appointed board, Abramson says they are communicating with the city to figure out how the planning and  execution of these Open Streets events would work if they were to become a reality. In other words, which heavy lifting the folks of Open Streets PHL will do (stuff like community outreach, wrangling volunteers and programming), and which heavy lifting the city will do (dealing with permits, the police department, and so on). The events would likely need to be a joint effort.

Now I’m sure you’re wondering, if Open Streets PHL doesn’t want to simply replicate the car-free box (and somewhat empty city) of the Pope’s visit, what would one of these events actually look like? Well, as Abramson says, ideally the events would shut down a stretch of roadways connecting different neighborhoods for about six hours, three times a year, probably on Sundays. So this is a complete hypothetical, but just to give you a mental image of what an Open Streets event might look like: Rather than shutting down the neighborhood of Rittenhouse and having a square block of roads closed off to cars, they’d shut down a road like Chestnut Street and have the event snake through a wide range of neighborhoods. As Abramson says, “We want to connect neighborhoods and make sure people are really moving between those places. This does many things, but one thing in particular is that it gets communities that are often marginalized when it comes to these actives engaged.”

And if the first thought that pops into your head when you hear that is, “Well, that sounds like block party? So is it just a block party?” the answer to your question is no, Abramson says. “A big thing with Open Streets, that I think is critical to differentiate from a block party or a festival, is the focus on fitness and getting people walking. So taking back the streets and giving them to the people and having them run free.”

When it comes to the route for Open Streets PHL, he goes on to say that the board honestly hasn’t nailed down a route and they don’t know if it would be the same route every time there’s an Open Streets event, or if the route would change. What he does say, though, is that when planning the route, they’ll ask the question, Is it accessible within 15 minutes by foot, car, transit or bike? “We want to make sure the route is within 15 minutes of walking for a variety of communities,” Abramson says.

And back to that fitness bit: Abramson says the events will center around fitness (Yay!), so scattered throughout the length of car-free streets, there will be activity hubs with free fitness activities happening. Think: A Zumba class here and a bike workshop there. As he explains, “It’s not an entirely free-form event. There would be activities to draw people across the space. It’s really about fitness and about people being active.”

So, keeping with the theme of fitness, bikes are totally welcome in the Open Streets plans, but, “One of the things people complained about during the Pope stuff was that it was kind of like anarchy, so we will have people biking on one side of the street and bike etiquette will be highly encouraged,” Abramson says.

And if you’re a business owner and you’re currently shaking your head at the thought of another very slow weekend in your shop, not to fear. The campaign’s hope is that Open Streets events will be moneymakers for businesses that operate on the route. “We plan to have very open communication with businesses in getting them on board and involved. This can actually be a great thing.” He also makes it clear that Open Streets PHL wants to put on events in neighborhoods where people want these events to happen; it isn’t their goal to disturb people’s lives, but to make them better.

Abramson says the goal is to have three Open Streets events in the coming year. “Open Streets is not new,” he points out. Cities like New York, San Francisco, Portland and more have had events where they shut down the streets and give them back to the people for a short period of time, and Abramson says Open Streets PHL has reached out to a lot of different cities and is “trying to take the best practices from some of them and make it the best it can be here.” While he does note that the change of mayor in January will makes the planning process and working with the city a bit more tricky, he says he feels their goal of three events in 2016 is realistic. “We feel like there are people who will be willing to sponsor, which is really critical, and all it really takes is the political will,” Abramson says, “Once you get past all the planning, this is being done to make Philly more livable and accessible for everyone.” I can dig it.

So, as of right now, Open Streets PHL is in the very early stages and having Open Streets events happen in Philly in 2016 is not a definite. But if you’d like the events to happen, don’t forget you care (because cat videos and the 76.9 billion other distractions the Internet has to offer) and get involved. You can sign up on their website to volunteer, and once you do that, Abramson says they’ll be reaching out toward the beginning of the year with tasks volunteers to help out with.

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