No backyard for the kids? No problem

New Play Streets program turns streets into playgrounds

No backyard for the kids? No problem

No backyard for the kids? No problem

Did you know you could now block off your street so your kids can play?

The City of Seattle rolled out its new Play Streets program last spring. Parents, neighbors and organizations can apply for permits to block off a street to traffic for a certain amount of time so kids can play safely.

“I like it because no cars could come by, and you could have a big block party and run in the street and do whatever you wanted,” said 11-year-old Raymond Steingraber, whose parents blocked off their portion of their every Friday afternoon last summer. “We usually played tag, Wiffle ball and primary sports, like soccer.”

Raymond said that at least 15 of his friends would join. His sister, 7-year-old Maggy, also enjoyed the opportunity to play.

“I would walk over to my friends’ houses and say, ‘Hey, we’re having a block party today — why don’t you come out and play?’” she said. “We also had our dogs over, too.”

While the Steingrabers’ house does have a yard, the street gives the kids much more physical freedom. The closest park is an approximately 10-minute drive.

“Having the Play Street program brought out neighbors from our street and surrounding streets and created a wonderful community over time,” said Julie Brunett, a neighbor of the Steingraber family, whose 9-year-old son, Soren Furtney, also enjoyed playing in the street last summer.

“I think our friendships and our street community are stronger [because of the time spent together],” she said.


A new way to play

“We’re really excited about the Play Streets program,” said Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) spokesperson Diane Walsh in an email. “The pilot program began May 30, 2014, and will run until May 31, 2015. We’ve had 27 recurring Play Streets and 15 one-time Play Streets, which means that 42 different Play Street hosts have organized Play Streets.”

Walsh said that the total number of Play Streets rose throughout the summer and fall. The most popular season was late summer.

“In early November, we sent out a survey to Play Street hosts and their neighbors to better evaluate how the pilot was operating around the midway point of the program,” she wrote. “Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The Play Streets program is valued as a way to encourage opportunities for physical activity in children and also as a tool for community building. Play Street hosts and their neighbors found a reason to interact that provided a fun outlet for their kids.”

Additionally, “People love that it’s free and easy,” she stated.

The only costs come from staff time to organize, process permits and conduct outreach for the program.

Raymond and Maggy’s mom, Carey Steingraber, said she loved how easy it was for her to get the permit: “I saw a story about it somewhere and a neighbor sent me a link with the info. I emailed and got in touch with Diane and said I wanted to have one every Friday throughout the summer.”

And that’s what happened. She added that the city provided barricades, along with other needed signs, even for the Fourth of July.

“We literally used it every Friday,” she said. “It was a great community builder, and now, kids who go to school together know each other.”

Carey’s permit was for 5 to 10 p.m. on Friday. The permits began in June, when her kids got out of school, and lasted until September, when school started. As many as 15 to 20 kids and just as many adults showed up each week.

However, the families did have concerns about drivers who were determined to drive on the closed street. At least once per week, Carey said, a car wouldn’t see the barricades or would be confused or wouldn’t care and would continue to make its way down the street.

“It was one of the biggest frustrations I had — that people wouldn’t even think to stop,” she said. “Sometimes, they wouldn’t catch on until they were in the middle of the street. I don’t know what they were thinking.”

But some drivers were receptive to their transgression, when it was pointed out to them. “Most of the time they were apologetic,” Carey said.


Widespread support

To ensure that Seattle’s streets are safe, Play Street requests must meet a few criteria, including that a Play Street is not more than one block long, that the street is a non-arterial street, that there is clear visibility from each intersection and that the Play Street must have neighborhood support.

SDOT gives users two signs to post, one at each end of the block, to identify the Play Street. The family then must use four of their own physical barriers, such as trashcans and cones.

According to the City of Seattle, many other cities have Play Streets, too. New York City started its program in 1914 and was recently expanded with support from the NYC Parks Department.

Currently, Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign to end childhood obesity has supported Play Streets in 10 U.S. cities.

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