Claim your space!

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August 20, 2013
By: Hilary Reeves
Hilary Reeves

Hula hoop twirlers, skateboard demos, arches made of packing boxes, hop-scotch games, people walking, families on bikes. The most recent Open Streets in Minneapolis closed off Minnehaha Avenue for just over two miles, from Lake Street south to Godfrey Parkway near Sea Salt restaurant. For six hours, the street was open to any use (except driving), many planned, some extemporaneous.

One woman said she would otherwise have been gardening. Another person skipped church to check out the Open Streets in her neighborhood. The human traffic (a congregation of sorts!) kept building through the day, with people reluctant to yield back their streets at the end of the afternoon.

Some 40 years ago, Bogotá, Colombia, pioneered the idea of shutting down streets so residents could wander however they pleased. “They called the tradition Ciclovía, and it has since grown into a worldwide phenomenon,” reports the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, which organizes the Minneapolis Open Streets.

Open Streets is just one of the ways space is being reclaimed for different uses. Just as people rearrange their furniture when needs change or re-plot the garden for a new season, we’re finding a new sense of possibility for our streets. As with the recent Better Blocks demonstration at Margaret and East 7th in St. Paul, sometimes the intent is to bring new life, to demonstrate with temporary redevelopment what could become permanent. For others, it goes to the heart of what a city means — a place of encounter and simultaneity. Jane Jacobs, who re-thought urban planning in the 1960s, championed the idea that active streets are safer streets. And for those concerned about inactivity and obesity, self-propelled movement is good (think lower health care costs).

Here are some “claim your space” examples, some coming up this September and some still percolating in the minds of neighborhood residents near you.

— More Open Streets. With new funding from local and national sources, the movement is taking off here. On Sept, 15, look for Open Streets St, Paul (from 11 a.m.–6 p.m., along University Avenue between Hamline and Marion Street), Streets Alive in Eagan (1–4 p.m., along Northwoods Parkway and Central Parkway), and Open Streets at Penn Fest in Richfield (noon–5pm along Penn Avenue South). On Sept. 21: Open Streets North Minneapolis (11 a.m.–6 p.m. along Lowry Avenue).

— PARK(ing) Day, Friday, Sept. 20, 2013. In 2005, a San Francisco art and design studio called Rebar started what is now an annual, world-wide initiative, simply by paying the time on a parking meter and instead of parking a car, creating a temporary park. The original lasted only two hours, “When the meter expired, we rolled up the sod, packed away the bench and the tree, and gave the block a good sweep, and left,” says Rebar on parkingday.org. The non-commercial project is intended (the website says) “to promote creativity, civic engagement, critical thinking, unscripted social interactions, generosity and play.”

— Streets to Plazas. The Seward neighborhood in Minneapolis, at their July meeting, discussed the idea of closing a section of Minnehaha Avenue (between Franklin and Cedar) and coming up with creative ways to make it a pedestrian-friendly space. A few years ago, New York City used paint and planters to create temporary plazas. San Francisco’s pavement to parks program (fully supported by the city) does the same. The Seward Neighborhood Group voted unanimously to delay the street resurfacing for a year in order to test and study a different configuration, including the street closure idea.

— Weekly night markets. One of the semifinalist ideas in the St. Paul Idea Open was to start a weekly night market during the summer. “In some Asian cities, they have night markets every evening — where a regular street or retail strip during the day is transformed into a vibrant place that triggers your senses: sight, sound, taste, smell and touch,” says the entry. Find out more at mnideaopen.org.

These are just a few of the ways that we are re-thinking the way we use our space. Are there others afoot in your neighborhood?

Hilary Reeves is communications director for Transit for Livable Communities.