Whose streets? Open, but maybe not yours

This is a selection from Future Here Now, a newsletter produced by the Wise Economy Workshop/ Wise Fool Press.  

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This article implies more than it says, but what it says and how we might interpret that in a larger context is telling – and important. The author, a Cornell planning professor, summarizes a spatial analysis of pandemic – era “Open Streets” – initiatives to close streets to motorists so that pedestrians can congregate outdoors in comfort, typically white eating and drinking. The article confirms what we might have suspected – that these initiatives were overwhelmingly implemented in high-income, “amenity rich” environments.

Tables, chairs, torches in street in front of 2 story commercial buildings.
An Open Street in Northville, MI, December 2020

Prioritizing space for pedestrians, cyclists, scooter-users and so on has been a huge priority for a lot of urban and transportation planners for a long time, and eliminating cars from these streets was trumpeted in many quarters as a victory. But in reality, these efforts were about creating an additional amenity for places that already had a huge number of advantages. Meanwhile, pedestrian and bicyclist deaths continued to rise throughout the pandemic, including people who do not have options other than walking or biking, as well as people who have the luxury of choosing not to drive.

The article also alludes to the fact that this phenomena developed during the same time period as the George Floyd protests, when public use of streets in non-white communities were often much more aggressively policed, even to the point of chasing Black residents off of stoops and porches where people have congregated for generations.

The planning profession is trying to come to terms with its historic elitism, and I applaud the leaders who are working to infuse equity though this work. But we have to be very aware of, and dissatisfied with, the shallowness of what we’ve done so far.

So far, Open Streets are an amenity for the priviledged, not a solution to what’s actually needed. Just because it’s pretty doesn’t mean it’s anywhere near enough.

Equity and full inclusion is essential to Future-Ready communities because creativity and innovation – across all aspects of community life – will determine whether we thrive or fail. We need all the brains and diverse perspectives we can get to find new solutions. Check out The Local Economy Revolution has Arrived and the First Principles of the LER to explore this connection more.

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