Almaty joins the Open Streets initiative

Mar 21, 2016

By Maria Sharova, PR-specialist

On October 11, 2015 Almaty hosted its first Open Streets celebration as a final part of the global “Sustainable Mobility Week” that takes place from 16 to 22 September each year in more than 500 cities across the globe.

The Open Streets idea was exemplified by temporarily closing Almaty’s four central streets that form a square to car traffic, in order to allow for residents to gather for dancing, cycling and sports competitions, and to enjoy the otherwise difficult to achieve “emptiness” in central Almaty.

Preparation for the event took over a month and involved active participation of ordinary people as well as different organizations. On part of the UNDP-GEF project “City of Almaty Sustainable Transport” (CAST), we conducted an online survey and attracted independent designers, sports studios, bike shops and hundreds of local youth. Social networks were also used to engage and inform the public, serving as a platform to test new forms of public communication and gather feedback.

In late August, the project was presented to the mayor’s office, which agreed to provide police support to divert traffic and ensure security. As a result of these efforts, citizens had nearly half of a day to enjoy Almaty’s city center free of cars: 2.5 kilometers of city-center streets were made available only to pedestrians and cyclists, dancers and athletes.

While recreational in its function, the Open Streets festival also served as an opportunity to raise awareness of sustainable development for transportation and road safety. For example, families were able to attend a performance by the “Road Safety Theatre.” The Theatre discussed issues of road safety, demonstrated the advantages of switching to cycling as a mode of transport, and overall allowed the citizens to take a new perspective on the surrounding streets and transportation.

The Cycling School set up at the celebrations also proved to be a powerful educational tool. Experienced cyclists shared their knowledge with beginners about traffic rules and first aid assistance through short lectures and demonstrations. As the school went on, it became clear that only few citizens were aware of the safe and effective ways for cycling or knew how to fix bikes.

While the variety of activities available for the visitors was quite extensive, including Yoga and Zumba classes and a reading club with newly published books, the opportunity to actually sit down on a bench, breathe the fresh air in quiet is just priceless, according to a journalist from a local news portal.

Overall, the Open Streets initiative received massive positive feedback from both the locals and the media. After the event, the project received multiple suggestions to keep up with the initiative and host it on a regular basis—perhaps now in different parts of the city.

Besides building awareness for sustainable urban transportation, these kinds of events help unite families and local communities, the value of which is difficult to overestimate.

Importantly, Almaty akimat announced plans to include the “Open Streets” festival in the events plan for the upcoming year. And while the first time initiative only involved four central streets in Almaty, the idea that cities must put pedestrians first indeed reached many minds.

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