HOST ORGANIZATION: The Living Streets Alliance is a nonprofit with a mission to "advocate for a thriving Tucson by creating great streets for all of us.” The organization envisions "streets as living public places that connect people to places and to each other."
CORPS ASSIGNMENT: To help the Living Streets Alliance develop strategies to expand the twice yearly Cyclovia Tucson to up to six events per year and produce a tool kit to share with other communities interested in launching open streets programs.
A Tucson native who is pursuing a degree in early childhood education, Jennifer Granados was so taken with the work of the Living Streets Alliance as a volunteer, she knew she wanted to become more involved. When she saw a notice in the Living Streets Alliance newsletter saying, “If you want to work with us, here’s your chance,” she jumped at the opportunity. Her motivation to make Tucson’s streets safer is personal. “I had a friend who was killed. He was hit by a car,” Granados explains. “I wanted to make sure I was doing my part to help.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, River Missal, who is from nearby Wilkes-Barre, wanted to move west. Not long after Missal started the Living Streets Alliance job, COVID made much of his planned work impossible. “But other things were still possible,” he says. He and Granados have made several very successful “other things” happen.
WHY THE WORK IS NEEDED:
"Tucson has had really bad trends in traffic fatalities — mostly pedestrians and bicyclists — and it’s been increasing," Granados points out. As a Living Streets Alliance volunteer in 2018, she saw firsthand how dangerous streets can be made safer. “Our project was to widen the space for pedestrians on a street downtown. Afterward, I was hanging around with friends, and I could see how there was a huge improvement in the traffic speeds.”
“By shutting down certain streets and incorporating local businesses to participate in booths along the route, people really get exposed to neighborhood assets they might normally drive right by,” adds Missal. “Bicycling and walking also promotes physical health and mental health. Active, safe streets build a stronger community on multiple levels.”
1. Support Open Streets and Cyclovia events
The first thing Granados and Missal did to start their Living Streets Alliance assignment was to familiarize themselves with the organization’s work as well as the fields of transportation, mobility and city planning. Missal admits it was all new turf for them.
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Since COVID shutdowns prohibited them from hosting any Open Streets activities, Granados and Missal focused their energies on creating a tool kit that communities can someday use for hosting their own local events.
“We address what happens before the event — such as volunteer recruitment and sponsorships from local businesses. Then temporarily shutting down a street, and then the cleanup, and then the thank you letters. It’s going to be an in-depth guide.”
2. Research and evaluate "Slow Streets" strategies during COVID-19
An original and unplanned need merged into having Granados and Missal research how different cities and transportation agencies around the world are responding to the coronavirus pandemic with regard to their streets and public spaces.
“River and Jenny have done extensive research on emerging strategies, including Slow Streets programs that limit automobile access on select streets making it safer for people to be outside with plenty of space for physical distancing, and public transit fee waivers and schedule modifications that make essential trips safer and support the needs of essential workers,” says their supervisor Evren Sonmez, a program manager for the Living Streets Alliance. “They put together an engaging presentation that highlights the different strategies for community members, business owners and decision-makers who may be interested in implementing some of these practices here in Tucson.”
The pair also wrote safe streets-related email templates and phone call scripts that Tucsonans can use to contact the city’s elected officials. Says Missal: “Residents can use the materials to call and say, ‘I live in Ward 3, and I know we have a Slow Streets route in Tucson, but there's no routes in my neighborhood and I would like some.'”
“The way our Slow Streets are set up here in Tucson is they're temporary and they move from neighborhood to neighborhood,” adds Granados. “We're hoping to at least get them kept in place for the entirety of the pandemic.”
CHANGE OF PLANS:
As was true for many Livable Communities Corps members, the biggest disappointment for Missal and Granados has been the inability to spend time with community members in person. “We had made plans to go and do engagement sessions where the community could give their input on all of these things,” Missal says. “That was something I was super looking forward to. I wanted to be able to hear from the community. Then COVID happens and within a weekend, that type of engagement was off the table.”
Switching to all-virtual communication methods was disappointing and challenging. As Granados noted, “How do you reach people who don't have internet service or don't have email, don't use computers or technology. We’re limited in the number of people we can reach. We’re really seeing the digital divide.”
However, eight months into their service, Granados and Missal were given an added objective. “The Living Streets Alliance is preparing the launch of a shared streets program in a residential corridor of South Tucson,” Granados explains. “LSA is collaborating with Mel Dominguez, a vibrant artist who has created bike-related graphics to include in the outreach materials. These shared streets, or calles compartidas, will minimize the amount and speeds of motorized traffic.” Granados has used her Spanish fluency to help translate the outreach materials for the largely Spanish-speaking community.
“It's sounding like we'll get out in the community for data collection,” says Granados. “I am beyond proud to be joining LSA along for the ride!” Missal shares Granados’ enthusiasm: “I am super excited to get the chance to interact with locals face-to-face (masked up of course). South Tucson is its own city, and I have not yet had the opportunity to experience the culture and heritage the area and residents hold.”
Missal adds that he's grateful that no one asked him and Granados to pack their bags and call it quits when COVID struck. “I’m proud and happy that Public Allies, AARP and the Living Streets Alliance all said, ‘We want to keep doing this. We don't want to just fade away because of COVID.’ On all levels, my superiors were all on board with, ‘There’s work to be done and we’re going to keep moving forward.’”
Granados and Missal will continue their work until the end of 2020. Among their to-dos:
- Use their Slow Streets research to educate more people within the community, such as sharing instructions about setting up socially distant outdoor tables
- Distribute the Slow Streets email templates and phone scripts to the community and encourage people to use them
- Complete and distribute the Cyclovia tool kit
Reporting by Amy Lennard Goehner
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