PlayStreets Chicago.

Let’s Play in the Streets

In many urban areas, especially in lower-income neighborhoods, there are no places for kids to play.  One in five children do not have access to a nearby playground or park. And, forget about walking to a park or open space as that is not a reality.  See: Can You Walk to a Park?

So until a park is built, or children are able to walk to a park or playground, maybe it’s time to let them play in the streets.

In past times, it was a common sight to see children playing in the streets as that was usually the only public space available to them.  For example, in New York City, in an effort to create access to outdoor space for children in poorer neighborhoods, Police Commissioner Arthur Woods spearheaded a “play street” experiment. In July of 1914, a stretch of Eldridge Street between Rivington and Delancey was closed to traffic and vendors. The Parks Department brought in two of their street pianos, and the Eldridge Street Settlement organized a folk dance festival – turning a block that normally bustled with commerce into a place for music, sport and recreation.

Boys on an NYC play street, 1915. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

Boys on an NYC play street, 1915. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

Today, initiatives are underway to replicate that effort.

Play Streets is an initiative that reclaims and redefines public space by temporarily closing streets to auto traffic and creating ‘pop-up play spaces’ for youth and adults. PlayStreets changes the conversation around what streets should be used for, and who they should primarily serve. By literally letting kids ‘play in the street’, PlayStreets help shift the paradigm from seeing streets as car-only spaces to seeing them as valuable public places that can enhance community livability.

In 2012, the Partnership for a Healthier America Honorary Chair First Lady Michelle Obama announced an opportunity to turn our nation’s streets into play spaces and bring physical activity back into the lives of children across the country. Between 2012 and 2013, 48 PlayStreets events were held in 10 cities across the United States. These events not only provided nearly 70,000 individuals with a safe place to come together and move, but also spread the word about Play Streets.  And now, more and more cities are creating their own PlayStreets Programs.

New York City’s Play Streets Program helps neighborhood organizations and schools identify streets that can be closed to traffic for certain periods of time, in order to create new outdoor play spaces.  Community Play Streets are sponsored by local community organizations, and operate throughout the summer months. The Community Play Streets offers programming such as running groups, dance classes, yoga, and soccer workshops, and simple equipment like jump ropes and hula hoops for unstructured play.  School Play Streets are designed to create active space for schools with limited or no access to a gymnasium, multi-purpose space, or outdoor recreation facilities

New City PlayStreets.  Photo Credit: NYC Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene.

New City PlayStreets. Photo Credit: NYC Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene.

PlayStreets Chicago, supported by the City of Chicago and the Chicago Department of Public Health, is a citywide initiative that creates ‘pop up’ spaces for play and physical activity in neighborhoods. Since 2012, the program has engaged neighborhood-based organizations and residents to temporarily close off residential streets and provide Chicago families with an opportunity to come together, be safe and get active. These free PlayStreets events empower communities to come together and address barriers to active, fun and healthy play.

PlayStreets Chicago.

PlayStreets Chicago.

PlayStreets Chicago focuses on neighborhoods with the highest levels of obesity and the least access to green space, playgrounds and parks, giving children and adults alike a safe, dedicated space to be active where sometimes no other options exist. Events are carefully planned to provide a variety of activities that appeal to all ages, genders and abilities, and that integrate local community culture. A typical PlayStreets event could include everything from pick-up basketball and tug-of-war, to hula hooping, salsa dancing and yoga. While encouraging physical activity is the primary goal, neighborhood organizations and residents report a variety of collateral benefits, including increased socialization, community cohesion, relationship building and even violence prevention.

PlayStreets Chicago.

PlayStreets Chicago.

Over its 4 years of operation, PlayStreets Chicago partners have hosted 422 events in over 35 separate community areas, engaging nearly 67,000 people in fun, fellowship and play.

Seattle Play Streets was launched as a pilot program in May 2014 and has since rapidly expanded across the city. With a simple free permit, anyone in Seattle can temporarily close their neighborhood street to local traffic only which provides more space for kids (and adults) to play and be physically active.

Seattle Play Streets

Seattle Play Streets

In its first year, 65 interested neighbors applied for and held a play street event on their street. During the second year of the pilot, another 120 joined the program to enliven their neighborhood streets with safe, active play. Due to the rapid growth and sustained interest in the program, Seattle Department of Transportation is working making the program permanent.

Seattle Play Streets

Seattle Play Streets

During the pilot program, the City heard a lot of positive things about having a play street from both hosts and their neighbors. Hosts said that play streets were not only a way for their children to get more quality, active play in a safe setting close to home but they also provided an easy way to meet and become friends with neighbors.

And, in England, dozens of roads across the country are closing to cars to allow children to play safely in the street after school. It is part of a nationwide drive to bring back “play streets”, once a common sight until their decline in the 1980s. The new “play streets” are designated by Councils following requests from residents.

Dame Jenny Abramsky, the Heritage Lottery Fund  chairman, said: “This project recalls a time when children playing in urban residential streets was a commonplace sight. A social history, forgotten by some and unknown to many, will be reinvigorated helping to span the generations in the several local communities involved.”

So maybe it’s time to bring back the past and give our streets back to our children.

Interested in bringing a Play Street event to your community? Email playstreets@ahealthieramerica.org for more information.

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