Halifax Media Co-op

News from Nova Scotia's Grassroots

More independent news:
Do you want free independent news delivered weekly? sign up now
Can you support independent journalists with $5? donate today!
Paid for by Halifax Media Co-op members. Join them today and support cooperative journalism.

Switch: Open Street Sundays to Expand in 2013

Local organizers hoping for HRM support to increase frequency and lengthen routes 

by Erica Butler

Agricola Street was taken over by pedestrians last summer for Switch: Open Street Sundays. [Photo: Heather Ternoway]
Agricola Street was taken over by pedestrians last summer for Switch: Open Street Sundays. [Photo: Heather Ternoway]

HALIFAX — For one afternoon last fall, Halifax added a couple of acres of new recreational space to the city. Well, not exactly new. A well-used corridor along Agricola, North Park and South Park Streets was closed to traffic and became a sort of pop-up linear park for the day.

Organizers of Switch: Open Street Sundays are now gearing up to bring it back to Halifax this summer. But to do it right, they will need a helping hand from City Hall.

By all accounts Switch 2012 was a great success. Metro Halifax estimated participation levels at about 1,000 people, and the Switch Facebook event now hosts a lengthy list of positive comments, many requesting a repeat of the event.  "My 9 year old [sic] loved biking on the streets of Halifax and is asking when we can do it again," posted Cathy Rissanen. "This is the city I want to live in everyday!" posted Pete Munro.

Switch is one of over 80 Open Streets initiatives across North America inspired by Ciclovia in Bogota, Columbia. Ciclovia, which translates as ‘bike path’, happens every Sunday in Bogota. Over 115 km of streets are closed to cars and upwards of 1.5 million people walk, bike, skate and participate in a host of exercise classes and activities.   

"When you look at any city from the air," says Gil Penalosa, Bogota's former Parks Commissioner and Ciclovia pioneer, "the biggest public space is the streets. And the streets belong to everybody."  

Penalosa is now based in Toronto, heading up 8-80 Cities, an organization dedicated to the idea that cities should be functional and enjoyable for people of all ages and abilities. He was just in Halifax to deliver the annual Carmichael lecture, and participate in Shift: Density, Dalhousie’s annual planning conference. 

When it comes to Open Streets, Penalosa is adamant about a few things. First, the benefits: "This is much more than something that's good for recreation," he says. "This is almost like an exercise in social integration. It's great for developing a sense of belonging, for improving physical activity and public health, and also from the point of view of mobility. All of a sudden people realize how close things are within their cities."

And then there is the route. Open Streets routes need to be long enough to connect neighbourhoods and amenities, says Penalosa. Then "it starts being something that you use as a means, not as an end in itself.” Unlike a block party or street festival, an Open Streets route should be long enough to actually let people explore their city more easily and safely, says Penalosa. 

Last year’s Switch originally proposed a five kilometre stretch linking the Hydrostone with Point Pleasant Park. The route was shortened to two kilometres when it became clear that organizers would have to go door-to-door in order to achieve the 85 per cent residents’ response rate required by the HRM, a requirement that organizers will have to meet again this year.

Penalosa’s final bit of Open Streets advice has to do with frequency.  He doesn't think once per year is enough. In order to maximize both participation and health benefits, Switch should be happening on a weekly basis in the summer, he says.  "Even considering Halifax weather, it's something you could do from Victoria Day to Labour Day."

Halifax will not see Switch go weekly this year, but organizers are hoping the initiative will grow from one to up to three events over the summer, starting with one during Bike Week on June 9, and another in early September along the same Agricola corridor used last year. Routes in Dartmouth are also on the discussion table.

Soward has high hopes of Switch becoming a regular occurrence, encompassing more of the city.  But to do so, he says more support from local government is needed.

"HRM needs to look at [Switch] in a different way," says Soward. “Not as just another event, but as a tool for community development, a tool for improving recreation, and a tool for advancing broader transportation goals."

"The Open Streets that are most successful are the ones where the local government has really stepped up and taken the lead," says Mike Samuelson of Open Streets Project, an archive and resource for initiatives throughout North America.

The major cost for Open Streets is labour, says Samuelson.  Costs can add up quickly, especially considering most events take place on Sundays and require overtime calculations. “But it’s also something that can be mitigated pretty quickly if you have a very supportive local government,” says Samuelson.

In Halifax, the street closure was the major cost for Switch 2012, clocking in at about $12,000 for police to supervise intersections and HRM staff to put out signs and barricades, says Ross Soward. He’s hoping HRM will consider allowing trained volunteers to help out at intersections and that the police department itself will become a supporting partner for the event.

HRM councillor Waye Mason has some experience with the high cost of street closures. He was astounded at what the city charged to close a section of Gottingen Street for a community festival he helped organize several years ago. Closures “shouldn't really cost anything at all,” says Mason, as long as transit routes and traffic levels can be easily accommodated. He also favours the possibility of allowing trained volunteers or private traffic control firms to perform closures. He has asked city staff to report on how fees are determined now, and how the city might waive or reduce fees in the future.

“We should be looking at street closures and pedestrian and bike friendly environments as something we do as a matter of course,” says Mason. 

Switch "needs to be recognized by HRM as an initiative that they are leading," says Ross Soward. "I see opportunity for that. It's not going to be easy, but that's the ongoing goal of the team here." 

Paid for by Media Co-op members.
Join them today!
970 words

The site for the Halifax local of The Media Co-op has been archived and will no longer be updated. Please visit the main Media Co-op website to learn more about the organization.