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Chicago's Sunday Parkways (Open Streets Chicago)

Principle 3: You Can't Do It Alone

By Meg MacIver

December, 2008

Katie Tully

Our city's greatest public spaces might be hiding right under our tires.

As the recent success of Chicago Sunday Parkways (now called Open Streets Chicago) shows, when you take cars off the streets for a few hours on a Sunday, the open road turns into a park, a trail, and a fairground, filled with people biking, walking, skating, rolling, and running together. Born of a small group of community stakeholders with little funding and big dreams who found the partners they needed to make it happen, the event also proves that sometimes a city's most successful planning initiatives don't start with the City at all.

Open Streets Chicago kicked off with two events in October on the city's West Side. During the event, eight miles of streets weaving through Logan Square and Little Village turned into "one long block party," said Lucy Gomez, co-chair of the Sunday Parkways Stakeholders Committee. On most days, those same streets are so dangerous that "you can't let your kids play there because the cars are passing by so quickly," said Gomez. For two glorious days in October, the streets were teeming with people and dotted with activity stations where instructors demonstrated dances and exercises.

Unlike a marathon, participants didn't have to prepare ahead of time to join in the fun. "There's no fee, there's no registration. You can jump in or jump off whenever you want," said Gomez.

But like a marathon, it takes a great deal of planning to get an event like this underway. Open Streets Chicago really began about five years ago when the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation (now the Active Transportation Alliance, or Active Trans) approached Gomez because of her work with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and Active Living by Design, an organization that focuses on promoting physical activity and health in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood.

Gomez and Adolfo Hernandez of Active Trans worked together to build a Stakeholders Committee, which includes:

  • Armitage Baptist Church
  • Association House of Chicago
  • Chicago Park District
  • Active Transportation Alliance
  • Co-Op Humboldt Park
  • Greater Humboldt Park Community of Wellness
  • Garfield Park Conservatory
  • Enlace Chicago
  • Lawndale Christian Health Center
  • Logan Square Chamber of Commerce
  • Respiratory Health Association
  • The Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children
  • Local aldermen and police

These groups meet regularly to enlist other partners, strategize about ways to stage safe, fun events, and discuss fundraising efforts.

The committee also enlisted international partners. Supported by in-kind donations from local partners, Sunday Parkways Stakeholders Committee members traveled to Guadalajara, Mexico; Quito, Ecuador; and Bogotà, Columbia, to see how these other cities were managing similar events. "There is very much a sense of camaraderie among participating cities," explained Hernandez. "They want to help each other to be successful."

The team also met with Gil Penalosa, Bogota's former Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, who opened 60 miles of car-free city roads every Sunday for Ciclovia, a weekly festival that draws almost 1.5 million people to come out to run, skate, walk, and bike the city streets. Penalosa has been an invaluable adviser to the Open Streets Chicago organizers.

Wherever they went, their international partners were "amazed that as a group of stakeholders, we were able to accomplish this without a dollar from the city," said Hernandez. "In every city except for Chicago the event was initiated at a city level."

Lucy Gomez

The City of Chicago has been supportive of the idea, but has not provided outright funding or staff time to help organize Open Streets Chicago. In some ways, said Hernandez, this kind of relationship has been positive. Since the impetus for Open Streets Chicago came from the community and not from the city, it "gave us the opportunity to create a groundswell of support. This way, it's an event that's really community owned."

Open Streets Chicago has also become "a community building process," according to Hernandez. "It's not just a physical act but an exchange of ideas," said Hernandez, "and a way to experience a little of each community. A lot of people in the communities along the route often feel like nothing big happens in their neighborhoods. Open Streets Chicago puts a spotlight on a part of the city that's often ignored."

There's also something very liberating about Open Streets Chicago.

"No matter what country you're from, we're all human beings and we experience space the same way," said Gomez. "For everyone, being on the streets like that is a kind of freedom."