The Real, Actual Point of Open Streets

“Sorry”, said the boy who kicked a soccer ball into my camping chair. “No worries, buddy” I replied as we made eye contact and smiled at each other. Our pleasant exchange took place on East Weaver Street, a downtown street in the heart of Carrboro, a town where people are encouraged to “feel free.”

And feel free we did.  We yoga-ed; capoeira-ed; skipped; sauntered; sat; shared watermelon; told stories; played soccer; rode bicycles; stood on our heads or hands; sashayed to the latin rhythms drifting from the Weaver Street Market’s lawn.

In this street we connected with each other. On any other Sunday, I might run into three or four friends. That Sunday, it was closer to 20.  All this conviviality was made possible by a simple act: opening the street to people.  For six blissful hours, we traded the streaming of cars for the unpredictable gesturing of people. There was no official program of events or activities, just people of all ages, abilities, and incomes, doing what self-determined people do.

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Sadly, not everyone witnessed the open street’s vibrancy. Some reduced the occasion to an economic argument, asking, “what good are people in the street if they don’t spend money at local businesses?” And equally sadly, many open streets supporters were ready with an economic defense – many told of the large numbers of people they saw drinking local coffee, eating local ice cream, i.e., being good local consumers.

But let’s face it – the “commercial value” of opening streets is largely besides the point.

The point was to enjoy – even briefly – the blissful inhalation of cleaner air. The point was for social restoration in this age of loneliness; for ecological restoration in this age of toxicity; for public space restoration in this age of privatization.

The point was to suspend – even briefly – we bipeds’ need to dash across the streets to avoid getting hit by a distracted or impatient or novice motorist.  The point was for parents to temper their fear of their small children darting out into a street normally streaming with cars.

There’s only one way to truly “know” the “worth” of an open street, and that’s to partake in the action.  To be with the people, talk with them, we get a sense of the richness of their experience.  We witness the freedom and friendship; attachment to place; the development of shared identities and building of trust among neighbors; the savoring of peacefulness and fresh air; the people laughing and children giddily learning to ride bicycles; the sharing of watermelon as part of a true sharing economy. You know, the things that make life worth living.

Open streets create temporary commons, transforming what is normally mine into what is ours. They are the realm of people. The wide-eyed boy playing soccer in the street.

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  • Kyle Reeves

    So happy you wrote about the value of open streets beyond the argument of its potential economic benefits. Thanks, Seth!

  • SethLaJ

    Much appreciated, Kyle! Viva la Open Street!