At St. Terese Academy in Seattle last week, students held relay races on 35th Avenue. It was field day at the Madrona neighborhood school, and thanks to a new initiative from the city of Seattle, the kids had some extra space to stretch their legs.
The elementary school was the first to take part in Seattle’s new “Play Streets” program, which launched last Friday. “Play Streets” will allow community groups to apply for permits to keep traffic off their block specifically to establish safe, temporary spaces for children to play.
Jennifer Wieland, manager of Seattle DOT’s Public Space Management Program, which oversees Play Streets, said the city was acting on numerous requests from residents. The city has for years operated a program for block parties, which allows neighbors to request a permit for a temporary car-free street. But Seattleites started to ask about scheduling car-free events with greater regularity and incorporating play equipment like swings and sand boxes.
“It’s about having that little extra bit of community speace to do something creative,” said Wieland. “It’s really out of people’s desires to build community and create great neighborhoods.”
In starting Play Streets, Seattle is following pioneers like New York and San Francisco. New York City’s Police Athletic League actually began running a play streets program a century ago. More recently, First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign and the Partnership for a Healthier America launched an initiative in 2012 that has brought play streets to 10 cities in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
In the coming weeks, Seattle is planning neighborhood outreach to inform residents of the program and invite them to participate. In order to be granted a Play Street permit, residents will have to show that they have informed their neighbors and that there is a rough consensus around the concept. Streets that serve transit and major arterials cannot be closed, nor can intersections.
“It’s really up to the community to figure out how they want to use the space and what they want to have happen there,” said Weiland. “It’s really in keeping with the goals of the public space program, which is about creating an active and vibrant right of way.”