The Open Streets Movement Comes to Knoxville

Jo Ella
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The first episode of the coming-of-age comedy The Wonder Years opens on a hike.

A football hike. In a suburban cul-de-sac in mid-1960s “Anywhere, USA,” the nostalgic narrator’s voice hovers over tweenage baby boomers playing carefree and uninhibited in the street and recollects that this was a “kind of golden age for kids.”

The Arnold Family from The Wonder Years. Today, city-dwellers don't think they should have to move to the suburbs to have safe streets.
The Arnold Family from The Wonder Years. Today, city-dwellers don't think they should have to move to the suburbs to have safe streets. Warner Bros. Television

The suburbs, for all their problems, had their appeal. They promised an expansive play space for kids, tight-knit neighborhoods, and a peace of mind for parents wary of speeding cars and urban riffraff. City centers were loud and bustling with the electricity of progress and change—an electricity that was exciting, stimulating and maybe even a little dangerous in that volatile time in America history.

Today, our cities are just as busy, just as hectic, and sometimes just as dangerous—especially city streets. But now, urbanites unwilling to flee the city are bringing some of the ideals of the suburbs to their neighborhoods and adding an urban twist. It’s not uncommon to walk down blocks near city centers these days and see tiny playgrounds tucked between tightly-packed townhouses, garages turned into community arts venues, or  “free little libraries” on streets just a couple miles from downtown districts.

These growing pillars of neighborhood pride push back against stereotypes of city life, emphasizing relationships, health, and quality of life over speed, greed, and competition. For Knoxville city-dwellers, another great community event is coming next month that will hopefully be a community tradition all its own.

On October 25, we'll welcome the city's inaugural Open Streets Festival.

The Rise of Open Streets

Here's the press release from sponsor Bike Walk Knoxville :

From 1 to 4 p.m. on Oct. 25, Central Street will be closed to motorized vehicles from the north leg of Willow Street to the south leg of Oklahoma Avenue. The event will feature partners, activity providers and sponsors with community booths, exercise stations and opportunities for the public to learn and engage in healthful activities. Attendees can try their hand at Zumba or yoga, or peacefully stroll the street while enjoying live music and street performers. There will be activities for all ages and abilities to enjoy. The family-friendly event will be stroller- and bicycle-friendly – just no cars!

The idea for “Open Streets” began in Bogota, Colombia, where Park Commissioner Gil Penalosa spearheaded a weekly event where more than 55 miles of roads were closed to motorized traffic and opened to walkers, runners, cyclists, and exercisers. The project has taken root in several American cities since, and Penalosa now tours the country preaching the gospel of Open Streets.

Gil Penalosa speaking at Tennessee Bike Summit in Knoxville this past April
Gil Penalosa speaking at Tennessee Bike Summit in Knoxville this past April Inside Knoxville

The objective of the Open Streets phenomenon is simple: to “ temporarily close streets to automobile traffic so that people may use them for walking, bicycling, dancing, playing and socializing.

This isn't just another street fair, however. Knoxville has street fairs. A long stretch of Gay Street shuts down every year for the Rosinni Festival and the Biscuit Festival, and traffic is occasionally redirected for parades and races. What makes Open Streets different is its philosophy. It provides safe and social access to roadways not as a novelty but as a new normal. And you don't need to pay an entry fee or be a star athlete or have any special interest or proclivity to enjoy this street event. All you need, as Gil Penalosa puts it, “is two feet and a heartbeat.”

“The notion that streets are for people is a very powerful concept,” says former New York City DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and creator of  “Summer Streets.”

Here in Knoxville, streets and people haven't always gotten along. With the mid-century flight to the suburbs, city roads were built to accommodate commuters, and, as Inside of Knoxville blogger Alan Sims put it, “vibrant dense cities were hollowed out as residents moved outward into the new green spaces of isolated and isolating subdivisions; and urban neighborhoods were split and disrupted by highways and interstates connecting that sprawl.”

According to critics, the continuing construction of these large, high-speed highways and interchanges near our city center is part of a nationwide problem and runs counter to the urban vibe people seek when they move downtown. In Knoxville, the construction of  I-40 divided or destroyed several neighborhoods, and the James White Parkway created a “Highway Valley” of dead space downtown with interchanges unfriendly to pedestrians and confusing to drivers. There's been an increase in bike lanes, but many cyclists still feel unsafe on roadways, because there is simply not yet a citywide awareness that roads aren’t just for cars. The Open Streets movement aims to remedy that.

“When you take a look at any city from the air, the biggest public spaces are the streets,” Penalosa says. "So Open Streets is showing people that the streets can have different uses according to the time of the day, the day of the week, and the week of the year.”

The festival will likely have plenty of events schedules, with the food trucks, stages, and vendor tents you'll find at most outdoor events in the city. But what sets Open Streets apart nationally (and what will hopefully do the same for it in Knoxville) is the organic, spontaneous fun that occurs with people reclaim their streets for a day. City officials and neighborhood leaders mainly just want to see people communing, playing, biking, and having a good time.

Mayor Rogero, who has championed many health and outdoor initiatives in Knoxville, is one of the main organizers and advocates for Open Streets and an altogether healthy, safer Knoxville.

“A great city street is more than just a way to get somewhere—it is a destination in itself,” Rogero says. “Bike Walk Knoxville’s Open Streets event will give everybody a chance to appreciate and enjoy our urban environment in a new way.”

Because open streets is meant to be a “for the people, by the people” event, Open Streets is counting on community support to make the festival a success. Head over to their website to learn more about how you can be part of Open Streets.

A special thank you to Alan Sims at Inside Knoxville for his great research on Open Streets as well as a host of other great causes, places, and events in our city.

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