Houston’s Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian On The Upcoming Cigna Sunday Streets In Montrose
March 29th marks the return of the City of Houston’s very popular Sunday Streets program. Closing the stretch of Westheimer from Taft to Woodhead to automobile traffic between noon and 4 p.m., the series kick-off features the wonderful people, businesses and scenery of Montrose. The event is free, and families are encouraged to bring their bikes, rollerblades, walking shoes and any other forms of non-motorized transportation to stroll the neighborhood and interact with neighbors and local businesses.
The second year for Sunday Streets not only marks its end as a pilot program and the beginning of its “official” status, but also adds fall events and a major sponsorship from Cigna. In advance of the big event, City of Houston’s sustainability director Laura Spanjian gave some insight into why Montrose was chosen as this year’s series debut, how far event organizers are willing to go to accommodate local businesses and why Cigna seemed to be a perfect fit.
Why was Montrose chosen as the kick-off neighborhood for this year’s Cigna Sunday Streets program?
During our pilot year, 2014, Westheimer in Montrose was our most successful Sunday Streets event. We had an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 people attend. Not only was it successful event from an attendance standpoint, there are so many small businesses stakeholders in the Montrose neighborhood who are really supportive of Sunday Streets, so it made sense for Montrose to kick off the 2015 program. Last time we ended at the Montrose-Westheimer intersection, this time we’re crossing Montrose to Taft, so it’ll be a longer route and that just makes it a more diverse event. We’re really excited to do that and have more space for people to walk and bike.
Any memories from last year’s Montrose Sunday Streets event that stand out for you?
Just having so many people out on the streets of Montrose, there were some great things that popped up: We had a food truck park, we had a very active bike parking station that Bike Houston put together, and it was busy all day. That meant lots of people were biking to the event and then walking. Stores like Biscuit had their grand opening during the Sunday Streets event, and that was fantastic. They had tons of people going in and out of their store. There were boot camps going on in the streets, there was yoga, people were so happy to be out there, enjoying the streets. The whole spirit of that day stands out in my mind.
It also was a very social event. I think people were happy to get out and see their neighbors and talk to new people. There was just a lot of camaraderie. That’s what I think the Sunday Streets brings to neighborhoods and to the folks that frequent them: Social interaction, healthy living, economic awareness and stimulus.
How huge of an undertaking is Cigna Sunday Streets from your standpoint?
It’s a joint effort between Public Works, Houston Police Department, Health and Human Services, The Mayor’s Office of Special Events and the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. We meet regularly before we announce the schedule. We work to figure out what routes, we work with stakeholders and community members to ensure that they want the street closed on the day we’re proposing (sometimes there are already things scheduled for the neighborhood). We want to work with community members to make sure it’s successful. So before we’ve even announced anything, we’ve had plenty of meetings.
Once we publish our schedule, we work on the logistics making sure we’re getting HPD on the right intersections, that Public Works has their logistics down for when they close the street, Health and Human Services is out promoting the event to make sure people know about it. We also work closely with specific businesses to make sure that if they need access for certain reasons, that we provide that access. For example, there’s a laundromat that has a very busy day on Sundays, so we provided one short lane of car access to that laundromat so they can continue to operate on Sunday. We will also leave some key intersections open with police escorts guiding cars over. Mandell is one of those, because Hugo’s does a very successful brunch on Sundays, and we want to make sure people can get to it.
Any positive unintended consequences you’ve noticed from these events?
People are talking to folks, and feeling a closer connection to their community, which is what we want. We want people to feel like they’re part of a community and the more you interact with people, the more you feel that way. We have such a big city that this makes us feel more connected to our businesses and to each other. The more you encourage that, the more people thrive and want to be here and want to live here in Houston. Another great aspect is that it is so family friendly, you can bring out the kids, let them run around and bike and it is so fun for kids to have this open space where they can play. It’s much harder to do in a dense, urban area like Montrose.
What are you hoping to show Houston as a whole, or even people that live outside of Houston through the Cigna Sunday Streets program?
I think we’re also trying to encourage people to see the streets in a different way. They’re not just for cars, they’re for biking, walking, strolling with your family, enjoying small businesses, being able to sit outside on the sidewalk and enjoying the street from that perspective. We believe the streets should be more complete and open to all types of transportation and uses. We’re also trying to encourage people to use alternative transportation modes, so the more they can bike and walk and see how positive an experience that is for them, the more that they’ll do that to get around — either to work or to get their kids to school or shop or go out to eat. We have B-Cycle out there renting bikes, obviously people walking to the event is high, we have people out there that are representing Metro, encouraging people to use our really robust bus and rail system.
Things like food trucks, bands and sidewalk specials — are those coordinated by the City of Houston or the businesses within the Sunday Streets events?
It’s really meant for the community to own this event, it’s not imposing a festival or what we think it should be. It’s really about the small business to set up how they want. It’s all driven by the community.
Why did the city team up with Cigna?
It’s a great partnership, because Cigna is really focused on preventative health care and really encourages people to live healthy lifestyles. Our insurance provider for the City of Houston is Cigna, and we have a very robust preventative healthcare system. In fact, we get a reduction in our health insurance if we do certain preventative health measures, and they take them very seriously. They’ve seen a reduction in healthcare claims since they’ve implemented this preventative healthcare approach. It made sense for us to team up with Cigna to promote healthy living choices outside of the City of Houston family and promote it to the entire city of Houston.