One of the driving values of Highmark Health is to improve the health of our communities. To fulfill that goal, we invest in programs and partner with organizations that seek to connect, protect and advance the lives of the members of our communities. This series explores those partnerships and examines how we strive to create stronger, healthier communities together.

A community that plays together stays together. That’s one of the driving ideas behind OpenStreetsPGH, a public event that brings car-free streets to Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods throughout the summer.

Organized by Bike Pittsburgh — an advocacy group for people who walk and bike — OpenStreetsPGH is in its second year of operation after years of planning, lobbying and community outreach. Partnering with the City of Pittsburgh and sponsors like Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, Bike Pittsburgh is using the event to bring the community together, and get people outdoors and moving.

“Opening Streets” for a Day of Community Fun

Open Streets activity table

The Open Streets are lined with activities for all ages, from arts and crafts to zumba! (Photo by Emily Walley)

As its name suggests, OpenStreetsPGH opens more than three miles of connected streets in Pittsburgh for community fun — by temporarily closing them to automobile traffic. This is part of an international trend, with cities across the globe opening their streets to walkers, runners, cyclists, roller bladers and more. Bike Pittsburgh collaborates with the international Open Streets Project to apply best practices to the local event, upholding the values of the project while applying a unique, Pittsburgh spin.

Past OpenStreetsPGH events have closed the streets to traffic from Lawrenceville to downtown through the city’s famous Strip District, allowing participants to move as they please through the streets, traveling to parts of the city they usually visit in cars or buses.

A typical Open Streets Sunday brings 15,000 to 20,000 community members into the streets of neighborhoods lined with activity stations, entertainment and storefront merchant stands. Observed as a whole, the crowd feels like that of an old-school block party, but as individual unicyclists streak by on their way to Market Square, or joggers stop into a newfound boutique along the route, it’s clear that this is a unique event.

Connecting Neighborhoods, Creating Community

It’s easy to see the health benefits of closing streets to car traffic and encouraging physical activity. After all, the American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, and participants at OpenStreetsPGH can manage that in a single day. And while health and wellness are part of the goals of OpenStreetsPGH, Bike Pittsburgh’s biggest hope for the event is to help build a closer city-wide community.

“We have 90 neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, and a lot of them are these very distinct, diverse communities with unique places to visit and people to meet,” says Mike Carroll, event director at Bike Pittsburgh. “It’s one of the things that makes Pittsburgh amazing, and it’s definitely one of the things that’s kept me here so long.”

As Carroll explains, however, Pittsburgh citizens often have misconceptions about how far apart these different communities are. He says that’s largely due to the amount of time it takes to get from place to place in traffic.

Noting that it can take 30 minutes to travel a few miles around the city, he says people often drive right through neighborhoods or avoid them altogether, which can create “invisible barriers” between communities. Carroll says it doesn’t have to be this way.

Informal marching band marching as part of Open Streets

Walk, bike or march your way downtown with a few close friends. (Photo by Emily Walley)

“We have this perception that streets are only for cars,” Carroll says. “Bike Pittsburgh and Open Streets work to challenge that perception. Streets can be for socializing, shopping and recreating, in addition to moving people from point A to point B. He adds that changing the way people move through the larger Pittsburgh community can also change how citizens interact with their city.

“When a person is driving down the street, they tend to have tunnel vision,” he says. “They may be focused on their destination or the music playing, and they miss out on the storefronts and faces that make up the neighborhood they’re driving through. By contrast, cycling or walking through a neighborhood can give you a different perspective.”

That new perspective is what OpenStreetsPGH is all about.

Local, Local, Local

Open Streets view from Lawrenceville toward downtown

A view of OpenStreetsPGH from Lawrenceville to the Strip District. (Photo by Emily Walley)

“We try to showcase what’s already in the community, rather than bringing in outside attractions,” explains Carroll. He says participants at OpenStreetsPGH explore businesses they never knew were there, walk alongside public figures like Rich Fitzgerald, and see the friendly faces of police officers who monitor the intersections to help manage and redirect car traffic.

Carroll believes this will have a positive, residual effect, encouraging community members to explore different neighborhoods by foot or bike outside of OpenStreetsPGH.

“You may visit a restaurant or a store at Open Streets that you never noticed before, and you’ll realize it only took you 10 or 20 minutes to walk there. That sort of experience can make it easier for you to explore other neighborhoods near you,” he says.

“We also like to think of Open Streets as a way to start conversations,” he continues. “It’s an opportunity to meet your neighbors; meet people on the street. It’s not competitive; people aren’t racing to get to a certain place and park. Stopping to have a conversation with someone is what Open Streets is all about.”

That’s a contrast with the daily experience of many of us, who may be so engaged in what we’re doing that we don’t take time to look around and see the people sharing our neighborhoods. “It’s become very easy to just not talk to your neighbors,” Carroll points out. “But because we know that good communities are what we strive for — with benefits across the board from health to happiness to safety — we believe an important part of Open Streets is providing a space to re-engage with the community.”

Bike riders during Open Streets event

Taking to the Open Streets on a group ride downtown. (Photo by Emily Walley)

Making Open Streets the Norm

As OpenStreetsPGH continues to expand, visiting new neighborhoods, Bike Pittsburgh hopes people will change the way they think about the event.

“We really want to shift the paradigm from, ‘Oh, there’s an event happening this weekend,’ to ‘Oh, it’s Sunday; it’s Open Streets!’ We hope it just becomes a feature of summers in Pittsburgh that people come to expect,” Carroll says.

Bike Pittsburgh is using the project to work toward its larger goals as well: creating safer, more inclusive community spaces and infrastructure.

“It’s kind of a simple tenet of ours, but we really do believe that there should be a safe place for everyone on our streets,” Carroll says. “People often think Pittsburgh — with its bridges, hills, tunnels and narrow streets — is too different from other cities to make the kinds of infrastructure changes we believe in. We say, ‘That’s not good enough.’ We’re up to the challenge of making these kinds of changes so that everyone can be safe and happy.”

Unicycles at Open Streets

Nontraditional methods of movement are welcome and encouraged. (Photo by Tom Souzer)

Bike Pittsburgh’s value of inclusivity also applies to OpenStreetsPGH. Carroll says the group “wants Open Streets to look like Pittsburgh.”

“We want to invite everyone from all demographics to be part of this,” he says. “We do a lot of community outreach to help make sure that the city of Pittsburgh is coming out for Open Streets, not just one portion of the city.”

Over time, Carroll expects OpenStreetsPGH to be successful in its goal of connecting the city’s communities. In the meantime, Bike Pittsburgh is relying on a different benchmark of success.

“We measure success by the number of smiles at Open Streets,” he says, himself smiling.

By that standard, Carroll estimates the program is off to a great start. “You’d be hard-pressed to find someone walking through Open Streets in a grumpy mood.”