Safe Streets

Supporting Play Streets in NYC

As city officials adapt streets to address the many changes brought on by COVID-19, Spin is committed to supporting local streets initiatives that allow for all communities to utilize space to walk, bike, roll, and play.

On Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the kick-off of one of these programs in New York City, Play Streets.

Play Streets are part of Open Streets — an initiative created by the Mayor with New York City Department of Transportation that provides New Yorkers space in high-density neighborhoods by shutting down streets and converting them to pedestrian-only places to enjoy. As part of this initiative, Play Streets in particular is a long-standing tradition in New York City where streets are closed to traffic for children to play. Summer has been the most popular season for these activities when school is closed and weather encourages time spent outdoors.

“When you think about all the things kids have been through and again not being able to get enough physical activity and play, not being able to see their friends as much. Lots of things have been on hold. We are going to open something up again. A good New York City tradition that has been so great for kids: Play Streets is coming back and that is going to be an important step forward for kids and families to have something to enjoy,” de Blasio said.

Street Lab is one of several nonprofit organizations behind this creative program designed for public spaces. When the pandemic hit, they reimagined their activities in order to ensure the health and safety of participants, yet still give children the joy and exercise that they need.

Spin asked Leslie Davol, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Street Lab, and Sam Davol, Co-Founder and Program & Creative Director a few questions to learn more about their important work and PLAY NYC.

Staff is developing directions for this “no-touch” obstacle course to support safe, hands-free play for children on streets. Photo courtesy of Street Lab.

What is your mission at Street Lab?

Our goal at Street Lab is to create and share extraordinary programs for the public spaces of New York City that improve the urban environment, strengthen neighborhoods, and bring New Yorkers together. Our vision is a city filled with public spaces that inspire, where all residents have safe, comfortable places to gather and ways to connect, right in the heart of neighborhoods. We want Street Lab to be a new kind of creative service organization that uses a pop-up approach to make this vision a reality. We love ideas about public space — but more than ideas, we love making those ideas come to life on the street.

How have you worked behind the scenes to help New York’s public spaces return?

It’s funny but so much of the work of making things happen in public space doesn’t actually happen on the street. Like producing a movie I think, what you see on the screen is the tip of the iceberg. From designers, fabricators, loaders, street staff, community partners, agencies, volunteers, and more, we’ve never really done projects without lots of contributors and stakeholders. And I think that is intentional. Public space is a special place that belongs to everyone — we like to bring people together and speak with a shared voice when we launch something new for New Yorkers.

What is unique about your PLAY NYC program?

Besides the conditions under which we designed, built, and launched the program — essentially under lockdown! — we are also trying to do something special with PLAY NYC on the street. There has never been enough space for kids to play in the city, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Now with COVID-19, things are even more challenging. As businesses have begun to reopen, there has been a bit of a land grab, as restaurants, retail, and lots of folks do their best to make use of sidewalks and even streets themselves. PLAY NYC is our attempt to stake a claim for New York City’s kids in this new environment. Our goal is to create a kit that can transform any street or underutilized urban space into a safe, inspiring place where play, learning, and creativity can flourish, all while keeping kids and families safe. It includes a new design supported by Spin for a no-touch obstacle course, an activity that we believe will subtly reinforce the importance of following simple rules about distancing, while still having fun and feeling some joy about life in the city. These kids deserve that.

How did you involve the community in this initiative?

Every place we land is in partnership with one of the 200+ community organizations that we work with across the city, and it is always a group effort. Our approach is to create and deploy programs that might not find their way to some of the neighborhoods we visit, like a pop-up reading room or exhibit about urban nature, and to move these programs on a circuit through the city, touching down to support these partners who are hard at work creating and taking care of their streets. Everywhere we go is by request. And the design of the programs themselves is deeply informed by years of conversations with these partners about what people are missing, especially in underserved neighborhoods. We use pop-up [experiences] to bring those solutions to life.

Who are your partners in this project?

We are fortunate to work with great partners, like Hannah Berkin-Harper, who designed the colorful PLAY NYC elements; Pratt University who helped support Hannah; Bill Bancroft who fabricated prototypes during lockdown in his shop; and the NY Community Trust which gave us emergency funding to keep working. And now, the NYC Department of Transportation, Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Building Healthy Communities initiative, the Fresh Air Fund….the list grows as we move onto the streets. And most importantly, community groups hosting us are the partners we work with at the “final mile” when we arrive on the street — you can see a long list over at our website!

How has Spin supported you in this launch?

Spin has been a fantastic partner — supporting us with seed funding which is critical to launching new ideas, and also helping us make connections, having conversations, and being game for experimentation. We are so well aligned in the way that we both value public space and the civic importance of shared streets and a goal of supporting communities with the greatest needs. We’re grateful to have been able to work with Spin, and hope to be able to do more great things together in the future!

How does it feel to turn this idea into reality after months of preparation?

Starting next week, we have been given the green light from the city to launch a sprint of deployments that create daily play streets near public housing developments through the end of the summer. So, Sam, my co-founder and husband, and I, will be on the street watching kids try PLAY NYC for the first time. That moment is like being able to finally exhale, and we get to celebrate something remarkable on the street alongside our fellow New Yorkers. We’ll also probably start taking notes about the spacing of fire hydrants on the street — we’ve got some ideas brewing about a pop-up fountain.

At Spin, we are thrilled to help bring this initiative to life by sponsoring it through our Streets program. This initiative is part of Spin’s social good work, doing our part to make the world a better place and living out our company values.

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