People walked, ran, bicycled, danced, hula hooped and socialized Sunday afternoon on a vehicle-free 19th Street in the Heights, as part of Mayor Annise Parker‘s Healthy Houston Initiative.
The lively, dog-friendly celebration took place between Shepherd and Heights Boulevard Sunday afternoon. Launched earlier this year, the Sunday Streets pilot program has been so successful that the city has opted to continue them on the first Sunday of every month. The next two are scheduled for Nov. 2 in the Third Ward and Dec. 7 in the East End, respectively.
“Each time they get better,” said Sandra Simmons, 54, whose been to all Sunday Streets festivals since the program rolled out in April.
In September 2012, Parker signed an executive order that stated the city needed to help decrease obesity, which “had emerged as a significant health threat in the City and is directly associated with increased costs and lower productivity for individuals and companies.”
The order was signed just months after Houston was crowned “America’s Fattest City” in the March 2012 issue of Men’s Fitness.
The Go Healthy Houston task force was created to promote community programs that encourage Houstonians to get healthy and change their lifestyles.
Paula McHam, who is part of that task force, said events like Sunday Streets Houston really get the community moving and interested in seeking out healthier choices.
Creating active ‘culture’
“The incidence of obesity in our country are huge and young children don’t get outside and walk. We’ve got to encourage a culture of that,” McHam said. “This is a way to draw attention to that. It’s one of many things that we need to do to get people out of their houses. We have to encourage people to get out and get physical.”
McHam said that during the pilot program, the city surveyed participants and found the responses extremely positive.
Laura Spanjian, the city’s sustainability director, said the mayor’s office expected more than 20,000 people to show up for Sunday’s event. “It’s morphed into this community event,” Spanjian said. “People want places where they can be physical. They want to get to know their small businesses that are on the street. They want to hang out with their neighbors and other people. They want more open space. So it has social benefits.”
Businesses also benefited from the celebrations.
Support is growing
“I like it a lot. Sundays are usually hit and miss for us,” said Johnson. “But if I can get people through here, at least they can see what’s here and they may remember my store on 19th Street and think, ‘Hey I want to go back it.’ ”
Weems said he’d spoken to many people who have never been inside his store before.
“It’s not about the sales,” said Weems. “It’s about exposure.”
Angela Hilton, 46, who said she always drives down 19th Street, was among his first-time visitors.
“This is my first Sunday Streets I’ve done,” she said. “It’s a great thing that they’re getting everybody out and onto the street and involved. It gives you time to just stop and look. You’re not so busy driving down and thinking you want to stop but can’t.”
Simmons said that she has never been into any of the stores on 19th Street.
“It’s too hard to park. There’s too many people,” said Simmons. “There’s just so much aggravating energy. This is just nice.”
Even as the rain began to pour down around 2:30 p.m., eventgoers still numbered in the thousands.
“This is rain or shine,” said Rick White, a HPD mobility response officer who was there to help control traffic. “There are always a lot of folks that come out to these events.”
More can be done
Maira Dos Santos, 29, and Michael Shanks, 30, walked their dogs, Nala, Bodie and Buck to the festival. Dos Santos, who is from Seattle and lives in the Heights, said she’d like to see Houston become more of a pedestrian friendly community.
“People need to get used to walking around,” Dos Santos said. “Everyone in this city is too dependent on their cars.”
Shanks, a native Houstonian, who has lived in Seattle, New York and Colombia, agreed. “We need to create a walking culture here,” he said. “Houston doesn’t have that like other cities.”
Doug House, former board member of Bike Houston, said Sunday Streets Houston is a good start to get the community active, but he said the mayor should be doing more to make streets safer for families and more attractive for newcomers.
“If we want to get the best and brightest people to work and stay here, we’ve got to make this happen fast or they are going to find other towns to go to,” he said.