By Jodie Van Horn
Forget what your mama told you. The streets can be a perfectly safe place to play if you get the right permit.
“Play Streets” are not some far-fetched fantasy of a children’s book in which cars turn to bouncy castles and parking spaces become four-square courts. In fact, Play Streets are the very real and repeatable result of an actual movement to make urban environments more livable, safe and fun for kids. Neighbors, parents, individuals, and even schools in San Francisco have the ability to transform neighborhood streets into playgrounds. And it doesn’t require a child’s imagination to do so.
Akin to a mini Sunday Streets, Play Streets is the temporary opening of residential blocks for use by people, and a means of giving kids somewhere to get plentiful outdoor time in neighborhoods that otherwise have a shortage of safe or available parks and fresh air play spaces. “It’s much like a block party,” Kit Hodge, Director of the San Francisco Great Streets Project, a program that partners with the Bike Coalition, SPUR, and other groups advocating for livable urban spaces, explains. Except this block party has more than potato salad.
Late last September in the North of Panhandle (NOPA) neighborhood, Michael Helquist, former president of the NOPA Neighborhood Association and author of the blog Bike Nopa, spearheaded a well-attended Play Streets party that drew about 200 people. “Bike the Block”, as it was called, took over one block of Grove Street without occupying any intersections, creating a safe space for cyclists of all ages to convene. The shindig featured a bike repair station, the YMCA bike rodeo, a “freedom from training wheels” workshop, bike tricks, bike trailers, a bike decorating competition, and even a bike blessing by a local pastor.
With the help of twenty-five volunteers, committed neighbors, and a couple of sponsors, Michael was able to create a space where kids could safely bike in a car-free street, building up people’s confidence about cycling in his neighborhood through their exposure to the biking activities and resources he’d lined up.
People from around the city wrote him and asked how to do it, so Michael teamed up with the Great Streets Project to write a block party how-to. Great Streets is intent on making it easy for anyone to put together a block party, and the SF Block Party Guide can be downloaded from the website to get a primer on the permitting process, as well as some programming suggestions. Other urban groups are doing block parties and street closures too: non-profit SPUR has started a tradition of closing off Annie Alley, the street next to their new building on Mission Street once a year for their Member Party. And Mission Community Market is closing Bartlett Street once a week on Thursdays for hanging out in the Mission and a great new farmer’s market.
The concept isn’t new to a couple of Bay Area schools, St. Vincent de Paul on Green Street and St. Finn Barr Catholic School in the Sunnyside neighborhood, which put out sawhorses daily and use the roadway as a recess area. Fr. John Ring of St. Vincent de Paul Parish explained that the school owes its tradition to a resolution of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, passed more than 80 years ago (in 1927), which granted that the street could be blocked off to protect children from the dangers of vehicle traffic. St. Vincent de Paul School has worked cooperatively with its neighbors; any time someone needs to exit via that block of street, a whistle is blown and the students move out of the way. “That’s what we rejoice in,” said Fr. Ring. “We’re very indebted to our Board of Supervisors for that.”
Play Streets has been an enduring hit in other parts of the country as well. Since 1914, Summer Play Streets in New York City has been organized by the Police Athletic League to give kids a safe, supervised place to play, and to foster positive relationships between NYPD and the community. There’s an educational element aimed at preventing risk-taking behaviors amongst urban youth, teaching arts and culture, recreation and fitness, and improving familiarity with community resources.
Chicago also has a version of Play Streets, called “BBall on the Block and Block Arte”, organized by residents in collaboration with schools and the Chicago Police. Every week they throw teams of youngsters together to play basketball games in the street while the artsy kids work on panels that eventually get applied to a large mural.
San Francisco loves its Sunday Streets, but it’s not so easy to bring the big event to every neighborhood all of the time. And while Play Streets is perhaps a concept that has yet to fully take off here, it can only be that people haven’t yet realized that organizing a neighborhood block party is a totally doable DIY version of the Bike Coalition’s wildly popular multi-block parties. To organize a Play Street event is to see your block transform from a channel for cars into a basketball court, a soccer field, an art canvass, or a playground.
Check out the Great Streets guide and do it for the kids!