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Open Streets + Student Leadership: Youth Engagement to Extend Events into Habits

a team of Grade 5 student leaders setting up an event table at their school

I read about Melbourne’s Open Streets in a recent Cosmos article last week. It presented a festival of community, active school travel and …no cars!

Open Streets is a “program by Merri-bek Council and supported by Bicycle Network, which encourages children to walk and cycle to school.” At the heart of it, is the opening of the street(s) around a school for people, bikes, scooters, prams/strollers, wheelchairs, walkers and skateboards.

Events like this type of car-free day at a school are great for a community’s spirits. However when the campaign ends, what is the catalyst to build on and - e x t e n d - this momentum?

How have children been involved in the planning, outreach and hosting of these Open Streets? Where is the youth leadership? Because student involvement is the way to go.

I do believe that a small committed group of students can impact the cultural norms of a community. The key is in providing that group with leadership and social significance. 

Elementary School Principal in Vancouver, Canada.

What is often needed to really permeate the culture of a school community, is the energy, enthusiasm and creative problem-solving of a low-paid, highly motivated - but not yet trained - team of student leaders.

When coached and supported by a trained youth engagement facilitator, any group of students as young as 10-years-old who give it a try - and continue to show up - can galvanize their community and increase the number of families walking and cycling to school.

So, for a community such as Merri-bek, in Greater Melbourne, to achieve their goal of 80% school trips to be by foot, bike, scooter or public transport by 2030, they are going to need to seriously engage their target audience - students. Because, as we all know, and as the BBC has printed: “a child's behaviour (can have) a much stronger influence on their parents' behaviour than the other way around”.

A team of six to ten self-selected student leaders who want to take action, can certainly do so. And what’s even more important, their successes not only take action against climate change, but their efforts inspire both themselves and their peers to feel less disempowered, and more capable, because they are. Which, in turn helps to manage a climate anxiety in children and teenagers.

Open Streets look to be a fun, energizing glimpse of how change can be welcomed. And the answer to the Cosmos article title - how do we make walking and cycling to school number one? Is most certainly to directly, and authentically, engage students leaders.


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