Every Wednesday this summer, for a few hours in the afternoon and early evening, my street in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul transforms from a regular residential side street into a “Play Street.” We set up barricades and signs to close the street to cars, then bring out our lawn chairs and bikes and soccer balls and chalk.
More than one child in my neighborhood has started learning to tell time or learning the days of the week just so they know when to pester their parents about going outside to play in the street (a normally forbidden adventure for a child). On hot days there have been water balloon fights, freeze pops and a sprinkler set up in the street. The kids share toys and play games together; the adults share a hotdog, a drink or space on a grill. Everyone can be together in a community space, and kids can run between yards and across the street without having to worry about cars.
But wait, you might ask, isn’t this just a block party? Like National Night Out? Technically, yes! A “Play Street” is just a fancy name for recurring block parties — weekly, monthly or any other regular schedule, rather than just once a year. (More info on the idea of Play Streets, including some history, here.) This summer’s weekly play street was built on the foundation of my street’s decades-long history of hosting National Night Out parties the first Tuesday in August. Past parties have included potlucks and bouncy houses, and we even managed block parties with masks and social distancing during the pandemic.
The Twin Cities boast hundreds of National Night Out parties every year, as part of a national campaign that was started in 1984 to “promote police-community partnerships.” There were about 250 parties in St. Paul last year, and close to 300 have registered this year. In Minneapolis, there were 1,400 registered National Night Out parties in 2021, and 1,230 have registered so far this year. This year’s National Night Out is happening tonight, Tuesday, August 2. St. Paul provides a list of registered parties so you can find one in your neighborhood.
Missed out on National Night Out this year? Luckily, Minneapolis and St. Paul also allow residents to apply for a permit to hold a block party almost any day of the year. Many other Minnesota cities do as well, and a Google search or a call to City Hall should lead you to more information about the process where you live. So even if it’s too late for “National Night Out,” you can plan your own local “Neighborhood Night Out” for another date. According to the St. Paul Police Department, about 90 block party permits were issued in St. Paul in 2021 and more than 50 permit applications have been received so far in 2022. Minneapolis has issued permits for 190 block events so far this year.
Picking your own date allows you to plan your block party at a convenient day and time for the specific people in your neighborhood. My street, for example, has an unusual concentration of families with young kids. About 40 percent of the households on the block where we hold our events have children under 18, compared with the averages of 20 percent in our planning district, Union Park, and 30 percent in St. Paul overall. We chose to have our recurring “Play Street” in the late afternoon on a weekday, because this was a time when neighborhood kids often get together to play after school, and adults are just starting to get home from work. Blocking off the street gives everyone more space and more safety from car traffic.
Pandemic-induced reimagining of public spaces
The COVID-19 pandemic got a lot of people thinking about how city streets can be used for recreation. Many cities, including both Minneapolis and St. Paul, closed road segments to car traffic and opened them to pedestrians and bicyclists to allow more space for social distancing, or closed car lanes in order to create temporary bikeways. In some cities around the world these temporary changes have been made permanent, including Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Oakland, Boston, Montreal and Paris. In the Twin Cities, some residents asked for the city to consider making the lane closures along the Mississippi River roads permanent. (See Streets.mn coverage from December 2021, June 2021 and May 2020).
Closer to home, I started thinking about how street spaces could be used on a smaller scale in my own neighborhood. Remembering how much everyone in my neighborhood had enjoyed National Night Out, I organized several block parties last year to see whether they would also be popular at other times. It ended up a great success: from monthly events in the summer last year, we’ve moved up to weekly events this year, and have been discussing whether we should have even more in the future.
The best thing about having so many block parties has been the sense of community. We’ve shared garden produce, swapped toys and hand-me-downs, organized Easter egg hunts and Halloween costume parades, collected food to donate to the neighborhood food shelf and tie-dyed our own neighborhood T-shirts. I’ve been able to go home for a few minutes and leave my 4-year-old riding his bike in the street, because I know that if he falls someone will help him up. Another neighbor can leave her month-old baby asleep in a stroller, knowing that neighbors sitting nearby are keeping an eye on her.
Our block parties have gotten mostly (but not exclusively) positive reactions. Neighbors have met each other for the first time. A few cars have had to take a short detour around the block. A neighbor who was parked on the street asked for some help moving one of the barricades temporarily so they could get their car out. Amazon drivers have stopped next to the barricades and walked to deliver packages. Someone pulled over in their car to complain about the inconvenience of having to take a different route to get home. Someone on a walk stopped to ask how to get a permit for a block party on their own street.
We absolutely love the weekly block parties! Our 4 year old talks about them all week, they have been a highlight of our summer. These block parties are great for the kids to run around, bike, do art projects and build friendships with their neighbors. I personally also enjoy them, they bring a great sense of community to the neighborhood and keep us in touch with our neighbors/friends. We look forward to many more in the future!–Victoria, neighborhood play street attendee
Petitions, barricades and equity in access to streets
If you want to close your street to car traffic for a block party, both Minneapolis and St. Paul require consent from neighbors — in St. Paul you need a petition signed by residents of 60 percent of addresses on the part of the block that will be closed; it’s 75 percent in Minneapolis. St. Paul allows a single signature petition to be used to apply for multiple recurring block parties, thanks to a successful campaign last year with help from Union Park District Council.
Both cities require you to use specific types of barricades to block off the streets. In Minneapolis, a permit costs from $25 to $200 per event (depending on how far in advance the permit application is submitted) and the fee includes barricades delivered by the city’s Public Works department. In St. Paul, there is no permit fee, but barricade rentals from Public Works cost about $150 per event.
The cost of barricades is a barrier to equitable access to neighborhood streets in St. Paul. There are a few free and lower-cost options: the public library has a set of barricades that can be checked out for free, and at least two district councils rent barricades for $40. If your local district council doesn’t already, contact them to see if they’d consider offering barricade rentals!
Some district councils and other organizations also offer grants which could be used to offset the cost of purchasing a set of barricades. My neighborhood purchased a set of barricades with our own funds, and got a micro-grant from Union Park to pay for some yard games, signs and supplies for block party activities.
A “Play Street Kit” including a set of barricades, signs, games and other supplies will soon be available for neighbors in St. Paul to borrow, thanks to a grant from Social Health Labs. Join my St. Paul Play Streets mailing list or fill out the Play Street Kit interest form if you’re interested in learning more!
Turning your street into a neighborhood resource
At its heart, a “Play Street” isn’t just about creating a space to play, but about reimagining our neighborhoods and finding new ways to use our neighborhood streets. Rather than a barrier that’s unsafe for children to cross alone, imagine your street as a space to forge connections between neighbors. Start thinking about your street as a space that could provide something that your neighborhood needs:
- Do you and your neighbors need an open space to do some grilling?
- Space to do a big art project?
- A place for a neighborhood soccer game?
- A space to set up tables for a community meal?
- A place to exercise, for kids to practice riding bikes, have a dance party?
A “block party” permit is really a permit to turn a space for cars into a space for people. In St. Paul 36 percent of the city’s land area is devoted to cars — about 26 percent for roadways and 10 percent for surface parking and garages. Play streets can be part of a larger effort to find new ways to turn residential streets into a neighborhood resource, rather than just a divider, a source of danger or a place to store cars.
Inspired to try hosting a block party or play street in your neighborhood?
- Minneapolis’ block event permits are administered by Public Works. Apply online here.
- St. Paul’s special event permits, including block parties, are handled by the St. Paul Police Department. Apply online here.
- My guide to the St. Paul block party permit process and sources for barricades is available here.
Have a story to share about block parties, thoughts about play streets or other ideas about ways to enjoy your neighborhood streets? Please share in the comments!