Changing Skyline: Why Open Streets is not the apocalypse

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Changing Skyline: Why Open Streets is not the apocalypse
John Smith and son Maxwell make use of Philadelphia’s closed streets during the papal visit / Photo: Matthew Hall

Over the last decade, American cities have been making a concentrated effort to repair the damage done by a century of car-first policies. It hasn’t been easy, because so much public territory was ceded to motorists in that period. Streets got wider, sidewalks narrower. Elegant street lamps were replaced with highway lights that cast our neighborhoods in the melancholy shadows of an Edward Hopper painting.

But now, urban planners are starting to pile up the wins. They’ve introduced amenities that encourage the slow-movers – things like sidewalk cafes, parklets, bike lanes, and riverfront trails. It’s no accident that the emphasis on people-friendly attractions has coincided with the greatest urban revival since American cities crashed in the 1960s.

Philadelphia has been an eager participant in this national movement, but it can do more. That became clear when we were unexpectedly given a chance to test out an extreme version of the carless city during the recent papal extravaganza.

The experience provided us with a sudden glimpse into the future. People loved the wide-open spaces so much that Mayor Nutter quickly announced plans for a small-scale repeat. Assuming the logistics can be worked out, and private sponsors signed up, we’ll get to play in the streets again in November, said Denise Goren, who oversees the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities. […]