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On a summer evening perhaps better spent watching the Celtics play in the NBA Finals, I instead stepped inside a sweltering community center in Cambridge to attend a meeting.
Thirty minutes later, it wasn’t just the midafternoon sun causing the uncomfortable heat. Across from me, several residents demanded changes affecting a street on Harvard’s doorstep: Memorial Drive.
Memorial Drive is an example of a concept called “open streets” — programs that open streets to people by closing them to cars. On open streets, people enjoy space together, whether jogging, cycling, or rollerblading. Harvard students living in River houses see this every weekend or even use the park themselves.
During the pandemic, the city closed Memorial Drive to cars on both Saturdays and Sundays to provide open space, expanding a decades-old policy of closing parts of the area on Sundays. The Cambridge City Council extended this program through December of this year because of its immense popularity.
Since I began attending Harvard, I have enjoyed seeing people outside enjoying the space the park provides. I love the quietness and the feeling of community that arrives every weekend. It is a welcome change of pace from the speeding cars that I typically encounter on weekdays.
At this meeting, however, a few residents held a different view. They implored the city council to reopen Memorial Drive to cars on Saturdays.
City council meetings, community events, and social media posts reflect the controversy of open streets. They are often the first steps to reducing car dependency; as a result, they become a battleground between opposing visions for the future of cities.
Following that meeting, I visited neighborhoods in Boston to learn how people are reclaiming our streets. Here is what I learned five months later.
Memorial Drive is only one of many open streets programs in our area. This past summer, Boston mayor Michelle Wu introduced “Open Streets Boston,” a series of pilot programs in different neighborhoods in the city. During these open streets programs, people could walk up to food trucks and local businesses, play games with their children, or enjoy music in a festival-like atmosphere.
I went to the first Open Streets Boston program in Jamaica Plain. As I walked, a woman in an adaptive bicycle skirted past me. A father chatted with his son in Haitian Creole. Two people played cornhole, and dogs barked at children blowing bubbles. It was incredible seeing the diversity and energy of Boston on full display. That day, people of different ages, abilities, backgrounds, languages, and cultures chose to reclaim their streets.
There is something undeniably special about bringing people together outdoors. In our post-lockdown period, we have seen a massive decline in mental health, widespread reports of loneliness and exclusion, and problems accommodating disabled communities. Open streets provide help for all of those needs. They allow people to take over areas previously dominated by fast, noisy cars. Compared to normal usage, these programs are safe and vibrant.
Not to mention incredibly successful. From San Francisco to Philadelphia, cities have massively invested in pedestrianized spaces. The reason why is quite simple: People love them. The feeling of safety, the community, and the freedom not to have to drive proved popular in places like New York City and Durham, North Carolina. Boston’s Open Newbury Street program and Copley Connect study, which I also visited, demonstrated the demand for more open spaces in our area.
But the residents at the community meeting were still unhappy. They described how cars would speed through residential areas late at night and how, without warning, the park would close to vehicles on holidays. Listening to residents and visiting programs throughout Boston, I learned something: open streets can be successful, but only if cities do them right.
Implementing these programs requires large-scale city planning. Cities should improve traffic signals on detour roads and design traffic calming measures to lessen the impact of vehicular traffic. They should also increase transit frequency — something Boston failed to do with their open streets pilots. Law enforcement officers could enforce traffic violations like “blocking the box.”
Just as equally, the implementation requires buy-in from residents. One concern during the Memorial Drive process was the lack of communication between City officials and the Department of Conservation and Recreation, which controls the park. If residents are unaware of changes, they are less likely to support them, even if they provide a benefit. Providing language access, physical signage, and clear detour markings would go a long way in garnering support for open spaces.
The effort is worth it. When done well, these programs have overwhelmingly positive impacts on our public health, accessibility, climate, and more.
People love open streets. I don’t blame them. Comparing Memorial Drive with cars and Memorial Drive with people, the difference is noticeable: cleaner air, increased public activities, and friendliness to families. A chance to enjoy the Charles River. It is an asset for residents and the Harvard community.
Open streets exemplify the best way we can build communities and cities around people — together.
Clyve Lawrence ’25 is a Government concentrator in Adams House. His column “Our Transportation Crisis” usually appears on alternate Mondays.
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