Welcome road closures: Open Streets events inspire health, unite Minneapolis neighbors

Imagine a street closed down and filled with 80,000 people.

Well, not exactly all at once.

This summer, dozens of blocks of Minneapolis’ major streets have closed to traffic so that thousands of people could feel comfortable walking, biking and skateboarding their neighborhoods.

It’s called Open Streets, a series of free events that help people get out, be active and explore local businesses on a weekend afternoon in their communities. Open Streets, in its sixth year, is an initiative of Our Streets Minneapolis—an organization that aims to make biking, walking and rolling “easy and comfortable for everyone”—in partnership with the City of Minneapolis and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Center for Prevention.

“All of it is about health equity,” said Anne Knauff, 63, who’s volunteered at Open Streets for the last six years. “Because all of it encourages physical activities and a healthy lifestyle.”

A couple poses for a photo during an Open Streets event in Minneapolis. (Photo courtesy of Ajith George)

The June 4 Open Streets event on Lyndale Avenue, for example, spanned 30 blocks from 24th Street to 54th Street. Dozens of mats were laid out on the street for yoga in the gleaming sun. There were wrestling matches and log rolling in a pool. About 170 people turned out to paint memorials. People biked throughout the event and some did flamenco art.

Five Open Streets events have been held since June in city areas including Northeast, Franklin, Lake and Minnehaha, and Downtown. Two more are set for Sept. 9 on West Broadway in north Minneapolis and Sept. 24 on Nicollet Avenue in south Minneapolis.

Knauff was one of the first volunteers at Open Streets and continues to be one. A retired graphic designer, she is the volunteer host of Open Streets. Her job is to guide the younger volunteers in their roles and make sure everyone at the event feels safe.

“To me, it’s about giving back to the community,” she said.

Knauff defines Open Streets as an opportunity not only to seek a safer environment but also to bring communities together. Open Streets has allowed Knauff to see different communities and has influenced her to be more active, she said.

She also became “more confident” about “getting on my bike,” she said.

“The first Open Streets, I had a car and I still drove from places,” she said, “and now at my age, 63, I decided to get rid of my car and I ride my bike everywhere.”

Anne Knauff, 63, is a veteran volunteer at Open Streets events. (Photo by Heaven Aschalew/ThreeSixty Journalism)

Alex Tsatsoulis, development and communications director at Our Streets Minneapolis, says the event is “meant to give people an opportunity to think of our streets in a different way, how our streets can be designed differently, how we can create a sense of community, and how we can help people, versus just streets that move cars quickly.”

Tsatsoulis, 34, says he has experienced many benefits from Open Streets, including “seeing many different people from all backgrounds and walks of life exploring.”

People perform yoga in the middle of Lyndale Avenue during an Open Streets event. Photo courstesy of Ajith George

He believes that health equity plays a major role in Open Streets events by offering people information about other forms of everyday transportation, free health services and different types of physical activities to try.

Knauff gains hope from her involvement in Open Streets that “we can do this together on a national level,” she said.

“When you read the news, it’s kind of depressing,” she said. “When you know that there is a lot of good people who live next to you, there still is hope because there is a lot of good people out there.”