Taking Back the Streets

How street festivals help us reimagine the street, and push us towards the future

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One of my favourite local street festival memories happened, strangely enough, after the festival was cancelled. It was the 2016 Hootenanny on Hunter Street, an annual event that shuts down Hunter Street between George and Aylmer for a full day of music, food, patios, and all sorts of activities you normally can’t do when the street is full of fast-moving cars. It started raining early in the evening, and Sloan’s headlining set was delayed, and then finally canceled.

But a funny thing happened: people stayed on the street. They were chatting, wandering the open road, dancing to music wafting in from the Garnet, and simply enjoying the evening. Even though the festival was essentially over, and the big act wasn’t coming on, people were still glad to occupy this newly open frontier. For one soggy evening, it was ours.

Peterborough plays host to multiple street festivals. This summer, Hunter will be shut down for Bash 150 and the Hootenanny, Charlotte will be shut down for Taste of Downtown, and, most strikingly, on July 15 Peterborough Pulse will shut down a large section of George Street and then continue along the water to Crescent Street—for a route totalling almost 4 kilometres, and spiking right through the downtown core.

Peterborough Pulse, now in its third year, deserves special mention, for its long route, and for its unique focus. Says Coordinator Hillary Flood, “Pulse is about a multitude of things: creating a happier, healthier, more connected community; celebrating the downtown; promoting healthy and active living; and promoting bike-centric fun.”

Community groups and businesses are encouraged to set up events all along the route: everything from art exhibits and crafts sales to yoga and karate demonstrations to booths for political advocacy groups. Instead of having a central hub or theme, Pulse’s focus is on the open, car-free street itself.

But going car-free is not without its challenges, even if it’s only for a day.

Street festivals always have a degree of resistance from area residents, who worry about losing car access; and from businesses, who worry about lost revenue. Terry Guiel, who, as Executive Director of the DBIA, has championed many of the downtown festivals, including Pulse, disagrees: “It animates the area, it makes people look around. If a street festival is done well, it’s your best tool for attracting people to take another look at the downtown.”

There are also logistical challenges. Emergency vehicles use streets to criss-cross the city. Hunter Street, for example, is a central fire route for accessing East City. Police barricades are frequently required to manage intersections. And disrupting traffic can be, well, disruptive.

Setting up a street festival therefore requires a complex process of city permits and logistical planning, with vetting by emergency services, the building division, and insurance. “It’s a back-and-forth process,” says Flood, “and it’s a lengthy one, and it’s not cheap either.”

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But there is a wider purpose in street festivals that makes the hurdles worth it. It’s not simply the joy of listening to loud music in the middle of Hunter Street or biking down the centre of George, but rather in its potential. Flood and Guiel both use the phrase “reimagine the street” in discussing how they hope people react to Pulse.

Peterborough Pulse 2There is something quietly subversive about shutting down a major thoroughfare, and putting karate lessons and bouncy castles in place of cars. Says Guiel, “Just because it’s a street, it’s still a public space. Even though streets were designed for cars, they’re paid for by the public.”

Street festivals in general, and Pulse in particular, are part of an international movement that’s reclaiming the streets: from Bogotá, Columbia, where the Ciclovía has shut down 100 kilometres of roadways every Sunday for over 40 years; to car-free zones in Paris and Amsterdam; to the pedestrian-only Sparks Street Mall in Ottawa.

There is a growing urgency to encourage people to get out of their cars.

Carbon emissions from cars are playing a central role in the devastating impacts of climate change. Walking and cycling encourage a healthy lifestyle, as more of us lead increasingly sedentary lives. And, more locally, as Peterborough becomes more of a Toronto commuter city, events that encourage people to get out and experience the city are becoming essential community-builders.

Currently, no local street is shut down for more than half a day at a time, but local street festivals still quietly, but insistently, hint at a future where this becomes a more regular thing. Flood calls Pulse “a really safe meeting place to bring these opinions to the table, to experientially see it happening and see the benefits.”

And Guiel agrees. “People are going to come kicking and screaming, but we’re heading in the right direction, with bike lanes, pop-up patios, Fleming’s bike share program… We just gotta get more and more people thinking about what is the value of one parking spot, or one car, as opposed to so many pedestrians.”


Photos courtesy Peterborough Pulse.

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Gabe Pollock

Gabe Pollock

Gabe Pollock is Editor-in-Chief of Electric City Magazine. He is a Peterborough-born freelance writer and editor who has covered Peterborough music and culture since 2012, first on Electric City Live and now in its magaziney successor.