By Jack Stubbs
The city of San Jose — located in the center of the Santa Clara Valley and sitting on the southern shore of the San Francisco Bay — is the largest city in Northern California and has long been regarded as the cultural and economic center of the Silicon Valley. Sitting at the epicenter of Northern California’s Bay Area, San Jose is looking to set an example of what it means to be a more walkable community.
In mid-May 2019, the city hosted its annual event called VivaCalleSJ — a collaborative event led by the City of San Jose and the City’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services — a free recreational program that temporarily closes miles of San Jose streets to bring community residents together to walk, bike, skate and ultimately explore and experience the city from a different perspective.
There’s a lot to be gained from walking through the city
Reception to this year’s event was largely positive and demonstrated city residents’ increasing interest — both from those living locally and further afield in the region — in capitalizing on opportunities like VivaCalleSJ.
“We’re in our fifth year of operation, and our event in May was probably the worst weather that I’ve seen in ages, and we still had 35,000 brave souls come out. We usually average around 20,000 per event, so that’s a testament not only to its popularity but also the drawing power of our Open Streets Program,” said Ed Solis, recreation superintendent with the City of San Jose’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services.“Our last survey also showed that 27 percent of people who participated were from outside of the city of San Jose.”
The event in downtown San Jose is largely a collaborative undertaking — the city is aided by a number of project partners, some of which include the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, Santa Clara County Department of Public Health, Knight Foundation and ride-sharing company Lyft — and has several main economic, environmental and community- and health-related objectives. The hope is that VivaCalleSJ will encourage residents to engage with previously-unexplored open spaces and areas of the city, generate foot traffic for local businesses and expose city residents to some alternative methods of transportation.
The goal is for city residents to gain a new appreciation for the area itself, according to Solis. “One of the things that people realize after VivaCalleSJ is that things aren’t as far away as they seem, especially when we [often] experience bumper-to-bumper traffic with congested thoroughfares,” he said. “It also allows people to see things at a slower pace and notice things like a little Mom ’n Pop store or a nice little pocket park and other things of that nature…It allows folks to see the city in a different way.”
And while VivaCalleSJ — which derives from the Spanish translation of “long live the streets” — looks to impact how residents interact with the city at the local level, it also has the potential to address broader considerations around the city’s infrastructure needs in the longer-term, according to Colin Heyne, public information manager with the city. “VivaCalle plays a big role in what larger infrastructure projects can’t accomplish. The Department of Transportation’s role is most obviously infrastructural, whether it’s maintaining the roads or building new capital projects in the Public Works Departments,” Heyne said. “We do some programmatic stuff primarily focused on creating safe environments that people can walk around in, because we know that’s a big barrier to people either biking or walking.”
As San Jose continues to develop culturally and socially, collaborative events like VivaCalleSJ demonstrate a growing appreciation from residents of the cities of which they are a part, thinks Heyne. “There’s a lot to be gained from walking through the city, and that’s the kind of behavior change that [the city] is best suited for. We provide the canvas, and VivaCalle provides the artwork, so to speak,” he said.
“The social integration and community awareness have also a really big impact on the Open Streets program. San Jose particularly is a large city made up of a lot of small cities, and through VivaCalleSJ we also get people into communities and neighborhoods that they might not have visited before,” Solis added. “Hopefully, as cities grow their open streets programs and biking trails and pathways, people will become inspired to start looking around.”