Open Streets Promote Healthier, Happier Communities

CycleMAYnia — a month-long celebration featuring dozens of fun and creative community events — is upon us! I am especially looking forward to the first ever Santa Ynez Valley Open Streets on May 21 in Buellton.

“Open Streets” invite us to create a safe, temporary, car-free space on roads, opening them up as a public park for a day for people to mingle outdoors, walk, bike, skate or play, and relish being connected to our community in new ways.

An early forerunner of Open Streets concept took place in 2000 when Enrique Peñalosa, the mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, declared a dia sin carro, banning all private cars from his city for one day in an effort to improve the happiness of residents.

At the inaugural event, no one was injured in traffic crashes, hospital admissions fell by 30%, the miasma of toxic air thinned over the city, workers and students made it to their jobs and classes on time, and excited children played in the streets.

People reported that they hadn’t felt so optimistic about city life in years, and subsequently supported a series of policies that improved standards of living and satisfaction of city life among residents.

Charles Montgomery, in his book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, describes the Bogotá program in detail.

Peñalosa, he wrote, focused on what makes people happy:

“We need to walk, just as birds need to fly. We need to be around other people. We need beauty. We need contact with nature. And most of all, we need not to be excluded. We need to feel some sort of equality.”

Happy City expounds on these themes to argue that generations of city planners have been misguided, resulting in millions of us, even in wealthy countries like the United States, having “taken a wrong turn on the road to the good life.”

Open Streets reminds us of possibilities for connection and happiness.

Santa Ynez Valley Open Streets comes at an important time for connecting community. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy just issued an extensive advisory on our epidemic of loneliness and isolation, describing it as an underappreciated public health crisis.

Murthy’s advisory explains that loneliness is as bad as smoking on physical health and has profound impacts on mental well-being, with consequences not just for the individual but for societal creativity.

This warning calls to mind Robert Putnam’s prescient book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, arguing that social capital — the networks, norms and trust that facilitate cooperation and coordination among people — is deteriorating due to fewer opportunities for face-to-face interaction and shared civic activities.

Like Murthy, Putnam laments the effect loneliness has on social and mental health. He also points out how social isolation and the collapse of social capital undermine civic engagement on which a healthy democracy depends.

Open Streets offers the opportunity for us to connect and experience public spaces in new and exciting ways, even if just for a day. Santa Maria held its first Open Streets in 2019 (photo) and event organizers were astounded that about 20,000 people showed up!

Public spaces can bring people together to foster a sense of belonging and social cohesion. Investing in public spaces can create safer, more vibrant and livable communities — more equitable and sustainable for all.

Please join us on Avenue of the Flags in Buellton from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, May 21, to experience it for yourself!

Click here for more information on Santa Ynez Valley Open Streets.

Supervisor Joan Hartmann represents the Third District on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. The opinions expressed are her own.