Safely Opening Chicago Streets Helps Children Stay Active + Healthy

June 18, 2020

The prolonged school closings necessitated by COVID-19 have forced us all to think about how to provide children with some of the most fundamental elements of the school day while they are now at home. One key aspect of the school day is physical activity, much of which takes place outdoors this time of year. We must ensure that cities like Chicago are set up to safely support the continuation of physical activity and time spent outdoors—both now, while school buildings are closed and as a good public health practice moving forward.

We are encouraged by Chicago’s recent decision to pilot an open streets model—a practice being implemented in cities large and small across the United States and internationally—and we urge Mayor Lightfoot to create a city-wide plan with a goal of creating equitable access to public open spaces and giving children the the opportunity be active and outdoors while being safe and adhering to public health recommendations.

The final, warm days of school are upon us, and the 100+ days of summer vacation are right around the corner. In Chicago (and almost everywhere), camps have been canceled, there is limited childcare and many children will be at home on hot summer days with few options for going outside and being active. In addition, in the under-resourced communities where many of the city’s Black and Latinx families live, many people do not have yards or access to open green space. A great deal of research documents the health-promoting and restorative properties of spending time outdoors and being physically active. This is more important than ever as children and families face unprecedented strains on their mental, social, physical and emotional health.

While we’re excited about the recently announced pilot, we hope Chicago will go further and create a comprehensive, citywide equity-centered plan that is rooted in the experience and needs of community members, and developed in genuine partnership with Black and Latinx community organizations, public health leaders, nonprofit partners and other leaders of color. Chicago’s model should consider open streets (where streets are completely closed to car traffic), shared streets (where local traffic is allowed but thru traffic is prohibited) and the addition of temporary bikeways (that could become permanent) and have both immediate goals for allowing residents to enjoy the outdoors safely and long-term goals for permanently increasing access to the outdoors—especially in historically disinvested communities. There are models to consider in cities like Minneapolis, Oakland, New York and Paris. Paris recently pledged to add 400 miles of temporary bike lanes that could eventually become permanent, and New York City is adding 100 new miles.

The model in Chicago should meet the city’s unique needs and make it easier, not harder, for people to go outside, get to work and, eventually, go to school. A carefully developed Chicago model that expands opportunities for children and families to be outside and physically active will make the safe choice the easy choice and help Chicagoans focus on their physical and mental health during this extraordinary time for our city and world.