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Seattle's 'Play Streets' Program Turns Public Streets Into Playgrounds For Kids

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Kyle Stokes
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KPLU
Playing soccer with other neighborhood kids in the middle of North 39th Street in Wallingford, Kai Semke, 3, winds up for a shot.

Three-year-old Kai Semke has all the trappings of a future soccer star: speed, stamina, awesome shorts — and as if that weren't enough, he boasts, "My feet are super-hard, and I kick it super-hard." (Competitors, take note.)

With not much yard at his family's Wallingford home, though, Kai normally lacks a regular space to have a kick. But that's not the case this summer.

Neighbors shut down a residential street a short distance from Kai's home as part of a new city initiative, turning a block of North 39th Street into a temporary soccer pitch — or basketball court, or scooter racetrack, or general public play space — one evening every week this summer.

Across Seattle, residents in 17 locations have weekly permits to shut down their city blocks as part of Play Streets, a pilot program by the Seattle Department of Transportation.

'Free Reign' For Neighborhood Kids

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Credit Kyle Stokes / KPLU
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KPLU
The Seattle Department of Transportation provides "Play Street" signs as part of its pilot program along with weekly permits to close non-arterial residential streets.

On North 39th Street, getting a Play Streets permit was a natural extension of the informal block parties parents started throwing a few years ago for their young children on one of the only flat roads in their hilly neighborhood.

Now, instead of blocking the street with their own lawn chairs, city-provided Play Streets signs warn cars on Corliss and Sunnyside avenues not to turn.

"It definitely changes everybody's relationship with the street, that's for sure. For the kids, it's like free reign," said Kai's father, Zack Semke, as dozens of parents and their kids, mostly aged 12 and younger, mingled in the neighborhood's Play Street on a recent Friday night.

'Making Spaces Where People Want To Linger'

City transportation officials modeled Seattle's program after a similar, century-old  program in New York. It's part of a conscious effort by SDOT to grow beyond its role as overseer of traffic flow and road construction projects.

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Credit Kyle Stokes / KPLU
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KPLU
Kai Semke, 3, plays soccer with an older neighbor on a recent Friday night during the neighborhood's "Play Streets" event.

"We play a big role in helping communities create place and create centers of activity within their neighborhood ... making places where people want to linger," said acting SDOT director Scott Kubly, noting similar efforts in the city to create park-like spaces in parking spaces.

A Play Streets permit generally differs from the city's normal block party permit in that it's valid for more than a single day. The Play Streets program application is also more specifically geared toward offering places for kids to play.

The idea has garnered attention from the Obama administration, too, with First Lady Michelle Obama promoting Play Streets events in 10 U.S. cities.

Though SDOT began promoting its Play Streets program this summer, the program doesn't necessarily end when school begins again. The city's website notes applicants can specify any length of time on their Play Streets application.

The Play Streets pilot program runs through May 2015.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.