Guest column: Open Streets Detroit proved the value of pedestrian zones

Jessica Meyer worked on the Open Streets Detroit event as lead volunteer coordinator.
If we want to put people first, we have to rethink the role of streets. When designed well, streets can inspire, build community, change perspectives, and encourage a healthier way of life.

I believe that streets are for people. For two Sundays, the Motor City experimented with that reality.
Open Streets Detroit took place from noon to 5:00 p.m. on September 25 and October 2 when 3.7 miles of road, including a Michigan State highway, closed to car traffic and opened to people. The route took pedestrians, bikers, skateboarders, and rollerbladers along Michigan Avenue and Vernor Highway, from Campus Martius to Livernois, connecting the Downtown, Corktown, and Southwest communities in one event.
This was the first year Detroit hosted Open Streets, thanks to the Downtown Detroit Partnership and DTE Energy Foundation, but the concept of temporarily shutting down city streets to cars is not new. Open Streets started in Bogota, Columbia in the 1970s as Ciclovia to promote bicycling, healthy activities, and rebuilding community. It's now grown as an international initiative to "temporarily close streets to automobile traffic, so that people may use them for walking, bicycling, dancing, playing, and socializing."
After Detroit's first year, I discovered many lessons that can be applied beyond Open Streets. Here are a few:
Play in public space is an important community builder

Oversized game of Jenga on Michigan Avenue
Detroit is dealing with serious issues: from foreclosure to water shutoffs to unemployment. When a significant portion of the year is spent in hibernation, it's easy to feel down and stay down, particularly when there are few opportunities to interact with neighbors.
Open Streets Detroit highlighted the importance of free, accessible public spaces to play in our neighborhoods. There's an undeniable positive impact that comes from having a Detroit police officer, a city government official, a volunteer from the Northwest community, a visitor from India, and a bunch of kids from Corktown and Southwest dance to a zumba routine in the middle of Vernor Highway. There are rarely opportunities to have such diverse interactions in a safe, carefree, and joyous way.
With the Parks Improvement Program getting off the ground, we'll hopefully see more public spaces in communities providing this kind of energy. Despite all of our challenges and all the work ahead of us as a city, we need to remember it's okay to get out and play, too.
Public spaces can and should be the most inclusive spaces in the city
Kids do yoga in the park

Although public space technically
belongs to all, there's a historical tendency for certain people to claim public space for their needs over others. This is often demonstrated by the kinds of benches installed at bus stops, or whether or not to put bike lanes on heavily-trafficked road.
These decisions take into account only one voice and often lead to a continuance of segregation between communities. More and more cities, including Detroit's own Livernois-McNichols and Corktown communities, are actively fighting segregation by focusing on reimagining public spaces with intentional commitment to inclusivity and engagement.
Walking down Michigan Avenue during Open Streets Detroit, we saw people of all shapes, colors, and ages that wouldn't have otherwise congregated together. Imagine if that similar spirit was accessible all the time? There's immense power in a collective experience. And public parks, streets, and transportation help create that experience.
Detroit needs to take more risks when it comes to reimagining public space
Pedestrians and bikers outside Michigan Central Station
Organizing the first Open Streets Detroit was a major challenge. We had to make sure all permits were in order, do meaningful community engagement, and more, all on a tight timeline. A lot of the initial outreach was met with skepticism of this unknown experience, from both government officials and the community. Open Streets Detroit could have failed in a number of ways.
Ultimately, over 10,000 people came each day, most of them from Detroit. There were no major injuries besides an occasional bee sting and there was no violence or fighting. Residents from both Corktown and Southwest expressed pride in showcasing their neighborhoods.

Detroit needs to take bigger risks and encourage community members to test their own innovative ideas for reimagining our public spaces. 
Through events like Open Streets Detroit, we can empower Detroiters to think critically about their surroundings and advocate for their right to public space. We can show Detroiters what is possible when it often feels like our systems prevent us from even trying. We can imagine a future where participating in the planning process of your community is not only encouraged, but expected. Open Streets Detroit is one step in that direction.  
In the words of the late Jane Jacobs, "Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody."

"Michigan Avenue bustling..." photo by Matt Chung. All others by Ali Lapetina. 
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Read more articles by Jessica Meyer.

Jessica Meyer is director of engagement for Human Scale Studio, a consultancy firm transforming cities by putting people first.