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Changing Skyline: Why Open Streets is not the apocalypse

Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

Updated: Friday, October 9, 2015, 3:01 AM

John Smith and his son Maxwell take advantage of Philadelphia's blocked city streets during the papal visit to make some chalk art and launch an air rocket. Sunday, September 27, 2015, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. ( MATTHEW HALL / For The Inquirer )

Over the last decade, American cities have been making a concentrated effort to repair the damage done by a century of car-first policies. It hasn't been easy, because so much public territory was ceded to motorists in that period. Streets got wider, sidewalks narrower. Elegant street lamps were replaced with highway lights that cast our neighborhoods in the melancholy shadows of an Edward Hopper painting.

John Smith and son Maxwell make use of Philadelphia's closed streets during the papal visit. MATTHEW HALL / For The Inquirer
A yoga class at Pittsburgh's Open Streets event in May, billed as "a car-free event that encourages people ... to engage in activities in spaces generally reserved for motor vehicles." MATTHEW DESANTIS / OpenStreetsPGH
Strolling at a Streets Alive Atlanta event. The city holds such events four times a year, and participation has grown from 5,000 to 100,000, which has encouraged businesses to set up sidewalk tables for customers. Caselove L.L.C.
A skateboarder and his dog enjoy a traffic-free outing in Los Angeles. So many cities, in the U.S. and elsewhere, have held daylong street closures that Philadelphia is unusual for not having organized any. CHRIS CARLSON / AP
The closures for Streets Alive Atlanta have "created an incredible egalitarian experience that bring people together," one leader says. Caselove L.L.C.
Photo Gallery: Changing Skyline: Why Open Streets is not the apocalypse

But now, urban planners are starting to pile up the wins. They've introduced amenities that encourage the slow-movers - things like sidewalk cafes, parklets, bike lanes, and riverfront trails. It's no accident that the emphasis on people-friendly attractions has coincided with the greatest urban revival since American cities crashed in the 1960s.

Philadelphia has been an eager participant in this national movement, but it can do more. That became clear when we were unexpectedly given a chance to test out an extreme version of the carless city during the recent papal extravaganza.

The experience provided us with a sudden glimpse into the future. People loved the wide-open spaces so much that Mayor Nutter quickly announced plans for a small-scale repeat. Assuming the logistics can be worked out, and private sponsors signed up, we'll get to play in the streets again in November, said Denise Goren, who oversees the Mayor's Office of Transportation and Utilities.

The exact date hasn't been set, but there is already a predictable backlash from the car-first lobby, which objects to a more balanced division of streets. In a story by my colleague Julia Terruso, Drexel engineering professor Joseph Martin harrumphed that it was arrogant of pedestrians and bicyclists to think they could use the streets "just for the hell of it" - as though only motorists had important business and, therefore, the sole right to this taxpayer-funded space.

The opposition has cast November's car-free event in apocalyptic terms.

All of Center City will be shut down, they contend. No one will be able to drive in from the suburbs. It will be impossible for the elderly and disabled to access shops. Businesses will be destroyed by the lack of customers.

Here's the real story:

No one wants to re-create the militarized lockdown we experienced during the pope's visit. At most, a couple of carefully selected streets will be off-limits to cars, and for only one day, probably a weekend. Some SEPTA buses might be rerouted, but there will be none of the service blackouts we saw in September.

The experiment also has been falsely portrayed as exclusively serving bicyclists. Closing the streets to cars is intended to liberate everyone - the pedestrian, the person in the wheelchair, the skateboarder. The promise of freedom is why the street-closure movement is called "Open Streets."

The beauty of Philadelphia's grid is that it allows the city to keep functioning even when a street or two is out of commission. It's not like we haven't shut down streets in the past for events, from block parties to the Broad Street Run to the summertime closure of MLK Drive.

And, by the way, Open Streets isn't something Philadelphia invented.

So many cities, in the U.S. and elsewhere, have held daylong closures that Philadelphia is unusual for not having organized an Open Streets event. The same weekend we were discovering the joy of walking around Center City unmolested by cars, Paris and Atlanta were reveling in their carless streets. Los Angeles, famous for its freeway love, closed a six-mile stretch of its iconic Wilshire Boulevard in 2013 and continues to organize closures.

Atlanta isn't exactly the city that comes to mind when you think of a pedestrian paradise, but it has been working hard to tame its car-centric ways. In 2010, Councilman Kwanza Hall, who represents the downtown neighborhoods, launched what's now called Streets Alive. The mayor was so skeptical, Hall told me, he was made to pay for the police presence out of his own council budget - $20,000. Atlanta now holds Streets Alive events four times a year, and participation has ballooned from 5,000 to 100,000. The numbers have encouraged many businesses to cash in by setting up sidewalk tables to capture the flow of customers.

"I'm surprised Philadelphia isn't ahead of us," Hall marveled. The closures have "created an incredible egalitarian experience that bring people together." That was brought home when the city held a Streets Alive event on the main boulevard in the impoverished Bedford Pines neighborhood. It drew people who normally whizzed through the area. For many, it was the first time they saw the area up close and mingled with local residents, Hall said.

Though it may look like cities use Open Streets events "for the hell of it," closures can be treated as a scientific experiment. In Atlanta, Hall said, the closures have made people question whether the city needed so much capacity on its wide streets.

After the Bedford Pines closure, planning officials acknowledged the main boulevard was in desperate need of traffic calming and appropriated $1.2 million to install a median. Participants also donated bikes to local children, and now developers are looking at the area with fresh eyes.

Philadelphia can also use Open Streets to gain a clearer understanding of its traffic needs. No decision has been made yet on which streets to close, but it will be interesting to target some wider streets: Broad, Columbus Boulevard, and Walnut, which becomes a notorious speedway west of the Schuylkill.

Maybe some of their width could be repurposed as protected bike lanes. At the same time, why not think about creating a pedestrian-only promenade, say on Sansom Street?

The assumption is that the city will close streets in Center City, but it should also look farther afield. Closures could introduce people to neighborhoods like Germantown or Tacony, which are eager to attract development. Imagine a route that followed the river to Germantown's shopping district on Chelten Avenue.

The Open Streets event shouldn't be a one-off thing. There is just too much to learn. We've been taught for decades to believe our streets are for cars. But it may turn out they're really for us.

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Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

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