A (Slight) Obsession with Streets

How Neighborhood Streets Build An Engaged Community

Everyday life in most cities is intersected, connected, and sometimes divided by long stretches of asphalt and concrete that make up our street network.

We have far more streets than parks and plazas which means that streets are the most abundant and accessible public spaces in our communities.

Because streets are public spaces, we, as the community own them, and it only takes a slight shift in thinking to realize that streets can play a far more important role in the quality of our lives than merely moving cars around.

“Above all, we must free ourselves from our tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.” — Edward Glaeser

Streets can serve as spaces for play, activity and fitness, centers for human connection and conversation, and open avenues for community engagement. Yet few of us regularly play an active role in shaping how our streets and public spaces are used.

That’s why part of our work at Urban Impact Lab is about creating experiences so that locals gain hands-on knowledge by directly shaping their place, even if only temporarily.

Hands-on in Little Havana

Strengthening resident’s ability to shape their community together is a central to this work. That is precisely what we’ve started in Little Havana, with funding from The Children’s Trust and in partnership with ConnectFamilias, a nonprofit dedicated to building communities where children and families thrive & succeed.

The project we’ve helped residents develop here is a simple yet powerful effort to reclaim a neighborhood street — exactly one block — for just a couple of hours so that children can play and adults can socialize with their neighbors.

Pre-activation neighborhood street in Little Havana

The concept is almost absurdly simple: kids get to play in the street for a couple of hours, while their parents and other neighbors come out, watch their kids, talk to each other, maybe enjoy the music or just watch the fun. Yet, however simple an activity like this seems, it requires a considerable amount of planning, advocacy, and communication.

In a community like this, residents rarely see the street as a public space because it has been almost completely allocated to cars. Parked cars take up all the spaces along the street while drivers cut through these neighborhoods to avoid traffic and signals.

Residents basically view the streets as unsafe, and they don’t often consider how they might reclaim these streets for the benefit of themselves and their families. And in turn, with little demand from residents, the city maintains rules that favor car-centric use almost exclusively.

Taking the Long(er) Road

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. — African Proverb

With a strong partnership with ConnectFamilias in place, our team was eager to jump in, but we slowed down to take a more community-driven approach.

We started by meeting with the ConnectFamilias staff where we presented the idea of reclaiming the street and then asked for their feedback, approval, and guidance.

Once we received the go-ahead from staff, the amazing ConnectFamilias team helped us reach out to the community, with whom they have deep relationships, to convene a group of 20 residents. Two weeks later we presented again, this time directly to community members.

Little Havana residents representing diverse backgrounds come together at ConnectFamilias.

Enthusiasm grew as we explained the idea of temporarily transforming a neighborhood street into a shared space for play and social connection. We shared images and best practices from similar initiatives, often called PlayStreets or Open Streets, done in other cities.

We explained that this is not a block party nor a festival because it is intended to be a very neighborhood-specific activity that should be low cost, minimal effort, and easy to repeat. It is also designed to be responsive to the needs and desires of residents in the immediate vicinity.

Bilingual placemaking cards prompt residents to imagine all kinds of possible activities.

We had the wonderful opportunity to learn directly from residents as they shared their stories. Regardless of where they are from, each of them has a similar experience: they played in the streets as children. They knew their neighbors by name. They played jokes on each other, then argued, then made up. They got filthy and sweaty and tried all kinds of silly things.

As they looked back, these parents reminisced about the time they spent playing outside and appreciated how this freedom was integral to their growth and development.

Yet now with young families of their own, residents described the frustration of often being holed up in their homes with their kids and barely knowing any of the neighbors.

We built on both the nostalgia and the frustration they shared in the coming weeks as we facilitated several more meetings, along with ConnectFamilias, to plan the details.

Within a few sessions, the residents had selected a block, given the initiative a name (PlayFamilias) and a logo and had firmed up a date, time, set of activities, and group of volunteers.

Community-designed logo for Little Havana’s PlayFamilias initiative

It Really Doesn’t Take Much

On June 17th, we met on the block for our first prototype and began “setting up” which was mostly putting up signs to slow down traffic, setting up a bubble machine and some water toys, sharing some hula hoops and rubber balls, and turning up the music.

Ready for action at ConnectFamilias

Within a few minutes the street was full of kids. In the hot 90 degree Miami afternoon, both parents and youth had immediately found their way to the water toys and nothing seemed better than getting soaking wet while running up and down the street.

Neighbors are ready for some fresh air and fun.

Neighbors met for the first time. Several of them asked why this had never been done before — and more importantly, when it would be done again. They asked how they could participate.

They wanted to know how to temporarily close the street on the next go-around with simple pop-up barricades and signs, to make it safer and even more fun. Some of the moms danced right in the street while some of the neighbors just came out to watch.

These are the moments when everything comes together. People participate in a hands-on civic project and the connection between them and their place just clicks.

They realize the immense power they have. They see how the community is theirs to steward and shape. This is how people connect with each other, and with their neighborhood, and become truly engaged.

What’s Next

Our immediate next step is to prepare for the second prototype. Our challenge now is to address the policy and permitting. There is currently no easy mechanism for residents to temporarily limit automobile traffic on a quiet neighborhood street.

Indeed, we attempted to secure a permit for temporary street control for this first prototype, but the only available options were costly permits for block parties and/or special events.

“Our public spaces are as profound as we allow them to be.” — Candy Chang

While we agree that there is a clear and definite need for our government agencies to be stewards of our public assets, there is an equal if not greater need for residents to consistently play an active role in shaping the city, particularly its public places.

Residents can ensure these spaces serve the community’s needs and enhance their quality of life, which gives them a sense of shared ownership (i.e., responsibility) over what happens.

Residents set up reminders for drivers to proceed with caution.

Our role moving forward is to focus on strengthening the residents’ ability to take ownership of their neighborhood streets and help them understand the power they have in shaping these public spaces as well as the rules that govern them.

Rebecca Fishman Lipsey of Radical Partners (our collaborators on this blog) summed it up perfectly, “Our communities are stronger when all people can consistently leverage their unique power to elevate and solve issues together.