Lisa Nelson is looking forward to celebrating National Night Out (NNO) this evening with her husband and two children, 3 and 6 years old. Her block on Herschel Street in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood is an ideal place to barricade off traffic while kids run and play, giving parents a reprieve and a rare chance to meet or reconnect with their neighbors.
“Our block is kind of unique,” explains Nelson, who is active on the Transportation Committee for Union Park District Council (UPDC). “It’s two blocks of street between two one-way streets. It’s not a through street to anywhere.”
That makes it perfect for a Play Street, a concept whose history dates to low-income neighborhoods in New York City in the 1910s and which Nelson’s nascent website describes like so:
- “Play Streets are like block parties that happen on a regular basis — monthly, weekly or multiple times a week — for a few hours at a time.”
- “Play Streets create a safe space for physical activity, play and community gathering.”
- “Kids love Play Streets, but adults also benefit from having opportunities to spend time outside and meet their neighbors.”
As enjoyable a community-building activity as National Night Out can be — from homespun bands and hand-grilled hot dogs to neighbors celebrating the diversity of St. Paul, as showcased on the city’s promotional video — the event has one specific downside. It happens only once a year.
“If you miss National Night Out,” Nelson says, “you missed your chance.”
That’s one reason why she is leading a growing initiative to get the City of Saint Paul to recognize Play Streets, a concept that improves upon the often arduous and expensive process of organizing any block party that isn’t affiliated with National Night Out. Play Streets allows neighbors to sidestep the four-step process of working with two city departments — drawing maps, collecting money and signatures, renting or buying barricades — that a block party currently requires in St. Paul
Play Streets instead asks residents to organize a season’s worth of street shutdowns at specific times — first Wednesdays, every Saturday, whatever makes sense for the participants — do the paperwork and petition-signing once, and then get on with the business of promoting regular gatherings of neighbors where the streets are car-free.
Ben Shardlow, director of urban design at the Minneapolis Downtown Council & Downtown Improvement District, is a Play Streets believer, both personally and professionally. A self-described “family man and avid bicyclist,” he first encountered Play Streets when his family moved to London, pre-pandemic, for his wife’s work. “They were years ahead of us, as they sometimes are over there, in making it easy for people to do this,” says Shardlow.
This meant that certain streets in his north London neighborhood had metal signs reading: “This is a Play Street.” A calendar of Play Streets events was clearly posted. That “made it easy and desirable for some of these streets on a monthly schedule to be turned over to pedestrians and kids,” he explains.
Shardlow describes himself on his employer’s website as someone who “helps to shape our public realm,” and Play Streets plays into that mission and identity. “A city of block parties would be a place with the kind of outcome you are looking for, in terms of public health, strong neighborhood ties, strong social relationships,” he says. “If you can accomplish that with a few barricades and a simplified permit process, it makes so much sense.”
City process and policies
National Night Out is part of a police-community partnerships program held the first Tuesday of every August throughout the country. In St. Paul it is efficiently and enthusiastically run by Patty Lammers, crime prevention coordinator for the Western District police. Permits are required to block off streets. The city waives the usual fee for block party barriers, and it promotes a community-safety message through contests such as Best Photo with a Cop.
Residents may request that a police officer not visit their National Night Out party, though a city official does sometimes “drive by to check that all is well,” Nelson explains. In fact, one concern the city may have with Play Streets, she says, “is that it’s just more events for them to keep track of.” From a community safety perspective, however, she adds, “it would be only a positive.”
Nelson has presented a detailed, footnoted PowerPoint to two community groups in St. Paul. Her research draws on Play Streets programs in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, and her presentation includes data that highlight some of the unintended but inherent inequities in the city’s current block-party process.
- A block that hosted a Play Streets–like gathering twice weekly throughout the summer would spend $2,700 in rental fees for barricades from the Department of Public Works.
- In a city that dubs itself “the most livable city in America,” 25 percent of land area “is devoted to cars,” according to Nelson’s Play Streets website. “Play Streets allow people to make more use of the space in their neighborhood,” she says.
- Getting a summer-long permit would sidestep the “huge hassle” of getting residents’ signatures “over and over again,” for every gathering, Nelson says.
My own block in Merriam Park — made up primarily of white homeowners like me —hosts a September block party rather than participating in National Night Out because we want college students in the area to engage with us. The police department runs the permitting process and won’t charge us the $50 permit fee provided we get our application in 30 days before our scheduled date. We have money saved from collections taken at previous years’ events to cover the barricade fee from Public Works: $50 for delivery and pickup, plus a rental fee of $20 per barricade.
Finally, it’s taken two of us to make two separate passes on the block — me on a Saturday, my neighbor Carl on a weeknight — to get the signatures the city requires from 60 percent of “neighbors affected by the closing of the street.” That’s why we hold a block party only once a year; we’re all busy, and the preparations take too much time.
Shardlow, who lives in the leafy, secluded Desnoyer Park neighborhood (“Saint Paul’s hidden community”), says Play Streets is more accessible for a variety of audiences, especially those in low-income neighborhoods. “Our neighborhood can rent the barricades,” he says. “We have the time and privilege to walk door to door and get signatures for a petition, and we’re able to use our privilege to go through this [process] pretty easily.”
Workarounds exist, but they take time to research and implement. My block could get barricades at a lower cost from a nearby library or district council; we could not, however, use vehicles to block the streets. Residents may also purchase their own barricades for re-use every year, “so long as they meet the requirements,” says Storme Dunn, who works in special operations for the St. Paul police.
A single-spaced, densely written, 15-page Special Event Planning Guide provides further information on the city’s website.
Not every residential street is conducive to hosting either a block party or a Play Street, Dunn points out. The size of the road, the level of traffic on the road and detours required because of buses all factor in. But for those streets that qualify, establishing a Play Streets routine is well worth it, Nelson contends, provided the city will collaborate.
“It’s really just kind of fun to hang out in the street,” she says. “I advertised ours as ‘for the kids to play’ but also ‘come meet your neighbors.’ Also, having it be a repeated event puts less pressure on people to attend. It feels more like a casual neighborhood thing.”