Sarah Tschida & Nick Ray Olson - Open Streets MPLS

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“At some point every day, we are all pedestrians.” 

Sarah Tschida, Board Member at Our Streets Mpls, reminds us that no matter the mode of transportation any of us takes to or from work or school, we all spend some time on our feet.

Her fellow pedestrian, Nick Ray Olson, is the staff Events and Programming Director for Our Streets Mpls.  He coordinates the buzz around the eight Open Street events that happen across Minneapolis each year.  The all-day events close a street off to cars and opens it up to pedestrians, as both prototype and thought provoker:  “We try to pose the question, ‘What if the city was organized around people, first and foremost.” 

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Open Streets is a partnership between Our Streets Mpls, a non-profit walking and cycling advocacy group, and the City of Minneapolis.  On the designated days, pedestrians of all ages and abilities - and cyclists, skateboarders, in-line skaters, and non-motorized scooter riders – take over the paved public realm for movement, food, community and health.  “One day a year, on a specific street, we have the opportunity to think and pause,” Sarah says.  “Open Streets gets folks out of their cars to experience the city at a human pace and at eye level.”

Since Open Streets began in 2011, a third of a million people have joined in the daylong festival on a street they love or want to know better.  Routes include Lyndale Avenue South, Lowry Avenue North, Lake Street, West Broadway, Nicollet Avenue South, Northeast Mpls (Central, Monroe, 22nd, East Hennepin), Franklin Avenue, and new in 2018, in the emerging “Motley” neighborhood near Prospect Park and the University of Minnesota.   They happen on different days throughout the summer months so people can attend one, or all eight.

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Open Streets are free and bring together “community groups and local businesses to temporarily close major thoroughfares to car traffic” and encourage people to use “active modes of transportation, engage in healthy living, and rethink our streets as public space.”  Nick Ray says in the planning he “prioritizes local businesses to present their services or wares at the events.  And non-profits participate for free if they provide free programming.” 

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Sarah and Nick Ray “geek out” when they think about the positive outcomes of having citizens gather and play as people “take back” the vital corridor of a street.  “The connections that happens at Open Streets help us understand each other, be accountable to each other, and act with compassion in our decisions as they impact others,” Sarah says.  “As a planner,” Nick Ray offers, “I am committed that the Open Street events facilitate cultural conversations about mobility and land use.” 

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One of the outcomes of Open Streets, for sure, is connection of neighbor with neighbor.  Event participants and vendors offer dance lessons, food and crafts for sale, games for grownups and sidewalk chalk for kids, chairs set up in the shade for rest and people watching, live music, and booths that line the route with information about personal and population health, policy issues, bike repairs, neighborhood engagement, local school offerings, and volunteer opportunities in local organizations. 

There is a social impact as well.  “The historic design in our city is to move cars quickly,” Nick Ray offers, “and not about paying attention to those who are NOT in a car.”  Open Streets offers another option for “complete street” use, and Our Streets Mpls and city officials collect feedback about the events through citizen surveys and face-to-face feedback.

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“We are learning and listening,” Sarah says about the evolution of Open Streets.  She and her colleagues are interested in Open Street events that are relevant and perhaps a bit provocative.  She enumerates some of the issues that surface during the planning, execution and evaluation of the events:

The conversation is expanding about how our city serves us and how we use our public spaces.  Where is there tension?  How do we tell our story?  How can we incorporate historic interpretation?  Can streets serve more than just cars?  As we transform our streets, can we reclaim space for people and their activities – adding green space, an orchard, a garden, a communal shed for rakes, tools, shared lawn mowers.  I have kids and I am constantly asking, ‘What does it take to get around safely?’ and ‘What is the impact of so much pavement?’

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Nick Ray sees opportunity in asking city officials and other stakeholders to pay attention to what people gravitate to, and love, during Open Streets events.  Elected officials and planners are on hand to answer questions and observe.  Businesses, both large and small, participate and help fund Open Streets.  Some small businesses add “parklets” during the events, with seating, colorful planters, and tables placed in on-street parking spots in front of their shops along the route.  Nick Ray hopes these “parklets” might become permanent additions to more complete streets, as they add both pedestrian interest and local flair provided by the individual business who has a stake in that particular place.   

Open Streets also prototypes bike lanes with physical barriers, intersections with bump outs for easier pedestrian crossings, better sidewalk infrastructure and human scale designs for nodes that are becoming mixed use destinations.  Envisioning and then experiencing the various options is important, Nick Ray says, because “Bicycle lanes aren’t just for the benefit of bikers.  They help slow traffic, reduce noise from speeding cars, and offer safety in residential neighborhoods by providing shorter crossings and visual cues to drivers to slow down.”

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Sarah and Nick Ray are excited for the evolution of Open Streets over time.  More vendors, volunteers, local businesses and service providers present each year, and more people walk, ride and role the routes.  The collective enthusiasm is palpable:  “Open Streets opens up safety, community, communication,” Sarah asserts.  “When you slow down and follow the route, you see things, you notice new things, you see the state of the sidewalks, where the bus stops are, where the cool trees are, and you can watch the changes in the neighborhood.  It’s an invitation to discovery.” 

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For more information:

Photo credits: Tracy Nordstrom, Our Streets Mpls, Jacob Albright