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SomerStreets: Filling the Streets with Fun

July11-ESMS2To develop the city’s ciclovia (“open streets”) program, the city of Somerville went straight to the source. Mayor Curtatone sent a staffer to Bogota, Colombia to see a ciclovia in person and bring back ideas to Somerville. This isn’t the first time Mayor Curtatone has supported active living and healthy eating projects in Somerville. In fact, Mayor Curtatone’s ongoing leadership has been a key factor in Somerville’s long-standing efforts to combat childhood obesity.

Opening the Streets
At its core, the open streets concept is simple: close the streets to car traffic and open them up to cyclists and pedestrians. Organizers in Somerville used this concept to develop a series of events called SomerStreets. These events are usually one to two miles long and feature local business involvement, physical activity (such as circular bikes) and other programming, selected vendors and booths, and other entertainment, such as the City of Motion parade and pumpkin carving with power tools. The organizers made the events work more smoothly by shifting SomerStreets events from Saturdays during the first year to Sundays in the second year. This modification was based on feedback from businesses indicating that Sundays would be a better day for their involvement. SomerStreets organizers want the event to be what community members want. Key organizations like East Somerville Main Streets help to organize community planning sessions to get residents’ ideas of what programming should be at the events. Finally, each event has a theme, for example “Going Green on Route 16” had a focus on environmentalism.

Pulling off a SomerStreets event is anything but simple. Carlene Campbell, Somerville’s Director of Community Relations, helps plan and run all of the logistics for SomerStreets (in addition to multiple other city events). This process is not easy or quick, but Campbell’s organization and dedication is a strength of the SomerStreets program. Months ahead of time, Campbell outlines all of the details for the permits needed to close down the streets for each SomerStreets event (each one occurs in a different neighborhood or business district). Six to eight weeks ahead of the event, Campbell meets with the Department of Public Works, the Police Commissioner, the Fire Department and Traffic and Parking. When all of the details are set, the Board of Aldermen vote on giving SomerStreets a permit for the event. There has never been any pushback – the support for these events is strong! – but it is certainly a process. Closer in to each event, Campbell teams up with City of Somerville interns to go in-person to talk with every business in the area where the event will be held. She does what she can to make the event work for them. In addition, she and her interns flier any residential areas affected by the street closures. Campbell provides her cell phone number to every resident and business, and if anyone needs to enter or exit the closed streets during a SomerStreets event, she is just a phone call away and will escort any car needing to get through.

In addition to all of those logistics, event promotion is vital to the success of SomerStreets. Jackie Rosetti, Somerville’s Deputy Director of Communications, works with Campbell to develop dynamic posters (link to the posters) and to get the word out. Posters are translated into three languages – Spanish, Creole, and Portuguese. Local radio stations and churches help to get the word out to Somerville’s Spanish-speaking residents. Somerville’s “Reverse Call” system is also used Note reverse call system.

Make no mistake. SomerStreets are “widely popular.” Jackie Rosetti says that there is “always an adaptation period,” where people are baffled and then become convinced and then love the idea of SomerStreets. Police details estimate that 5,000 to 6,000 people attended the last event. Attendees have emailed organizers from their SmartPhones as they participate in festival activities – and it’s all positive feedback.

For the Community, by the Community
SomerStreets really is a community event. The City employees involved in putting on the series of events have learned that strong and supportive leadership – at the Mayoral and Alderman levels – have helped SomerStreets to get off the ground. But the community involvement, they say, really propels the events forward, and community feedback makes the events better. This is another key takeaway: meetings like the ones East Somerville Main Streets plans are integral to involving community members. Similarly, feedback from small businesses has been incorporated to make the events more sustainable. Somerville knows that this feedback is essential. Along with that, Campbell notes that a debrief session with all the organizers post-event is really helpful to make sure everyone is on the same page going forward.

Even though SomerStreets is only in its second year, there are no signs of stopping. As the “grandest of Somerville’s civic events,” residents are becoming more aware of ways to be physically active in all the different neighborhoods of Somerville.

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January, 2012