When social distancing became a necessity in 2020 due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, people everywhere needed ways to safely get out of the house — to exercise, socialize and simply enjoy a change of scenery.
In April of that year, more than two dozen organizations in Austin, Texas, which is a member of the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities, signed onto a letter asking the Austin City Council to establish a "slow streets" program. The signees — which included Walk Austin and the Austin Parks Foundation, as well as cycling advocacy groups and local nature conservatories — wanted streets throughout the city closed to traffic so people could walk, bicycle and be outdoors without having to dodge cars, trucks and other motorized vehicles. The council unanimously approved of the proposal and within a month began closing about 10 miles of roadways.
A side benefit of the so-called "Healthy Streets" initiative was that it wound up strengthening neighborhood connections by both enabling and encouraging people of all ages to spend time outdoors, where they could see one another — sometimes meeting for the first time — while staying safe from COVID during the pre-vaccine months of the pandemic.
"We love the street — we tell everyone about how great it is. It's cool because it doesn’t matter what time of day it is, there's always people, kids and dogs using the street. It's so great to be able to get out at any time and it’s safer for everyone."
— Oz and Ana, Austin residents, in response to a Walk Austin survey
The opportunity to interact in a distant yet social setting was especially useful for older adults and people with compromised immune systems. Being able to use the streets was particularly helpful in neighborhoods without yards or public green spaces.
But that summer, the Austin Transportation Department announced it would be winding down the program due concerns about cost and staff capacity.
"If you go on any of the Healthy Streets you'll see a lot of signs, barricades and barrels,” Anna Martin, Austin’s assistant director of transportation, told CBS Austin, explaining that the city rented many of those items and that city staff had to check in on barricades daily.
Austin residents, however, weren’t ready for the streets to reopen to cars. Many of the same groups that lobbied for closing the streets reactivated in order to make the program permanent. Helped in part by a 2020 AARP Community Challenge grant to Walk Austin, community advocates documented the benefits of the street closures by digital storytelling (i.e., videos, social media posts, online articles), by painting on-street murals to identify and decorate the closed streets, and by distributing literature and hosting community events.
In 2021, additional assistance from AARP enabled the planning firm Nelson\Nygaard to conduct a "code audit" of Austin’s municipal code to identify changes that could help improve the city’s livability.
"Due to the Healthy Street designation, we now have skaters, skateboarders, elderly people with thick glasses and canes, mothers with babies in strollers, roller derby teams, dogs on leashes, teenagers practicing their dribbling skills, scavenger hunts: almost any activity people can dream up. As a resident, the best part is being able to sit on my front porch — I'm retired — and watch all of the above."
— Larry, an Austin resident, in response to a Walk Austin survey
Among the recommendations was that the city codify the Healthy Streets program by designating specific streets — particularly those in neighborhoods where residents lack access to parks — as being suitable for closure.
In October 2021, the Austin City Council adopted a resolution to permanently establish the Living Streets program for street activations. The following year, the city manager advanced a solution for funding and implementing slow streets throughout the city. Among the provisions now in place:
- Permanent, one-block street closures (dubbed Healthy Streets) can exist where 60 percent of residents support the plan
- Instead of permanent closures, certain locations could be closed for short periods during the week as designated "Play Streets"
- The city's block party regulations were changed to better support the needs of lower-income neighborhoods, which were often prevented from hosting events due to the high costs of permits, the thresholds for signature requirements to show local support, and blanket prohibition against street closures for pedestrians in mixed-use zoning areas
"As AARP Texas continues to advocate for policies and infrastructure that makes Austin more livable, community has to be at the forefront. That is what the Healthy Streets initiative does so beautifully," says Jessica Lemann of AARP Texas. "It is about the people and how neighborhood streets can be used as a tool for connection rather than a divider that only supports people as they come and go from their neighborhood."
- Austin, Texas: Healthy Streets Program
- Austin, Texas: Living Streets Program
- Walk Austin
- Austin Parks Foundation
- "Austin Winding Down Living Streets Program" (CBS Austin)
- "Council Expands Healthy Streets Into Living Streets" (Austin Monitor)
- "Healthy Streets Program Takes Root in Austin" (AARP Texas)
- Livable Map: Austin, Texas
Caitlin Hillyard is an urban planner and AARP Livable Communities consultant.
Page published May 2023
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