As a city, the hardest part about temporarily closing some of your streets to traffic and turning them into pedestrian walkways is that people start liking them too much. Even after you open the streets back up, you’ve permanently recontextualized these spaces for thousands of nearby residents by demonstrating how much of their public realm is ceded to the needs of cars, and it’s not easy sticking the cork back in that bottle.
Austin learned this firsthand during the early days of the pandemic in 2020, when the cabin fever of social distancing and remote work policies prompted the city to pilot a “Healthy Streets” program calming or closing more than 10 miles of central roadways, which allowed their use for exercise and much-needed outdoor socializing. Less than a year later, the city announced it would be winding down the program, prompting residents and local advocacy groups to petition for a more permanent solution.
That solution, now called Living Streets, was approved by Austin City Council in 2021, and the city is finally rolling it out this month. The program is now seeking applications from interested neighborhoods, with three versions of street closures available: Neighborhood Block Parties, Healthy Streets, and Play Streets.
The block party is just what it sounds like: a streamlined permitting approach to closing a single block for up to 24 hours for neighborhood events. The Austin Transportation and Public Works Department already offers this program, but thanks to the Living Streets resolution from 2021 a much larger number of neighborhood streets throughout the city are now eligible for block parties.
The Healthy Streets version of the program is basically identical to the temporary interventions we saw during the early days of the pandemic — it allows Austinites to apply for a three to four-block street closure in their neighborhoods using the same semi-permanent traffic calming infrastructure we saw three years ago, providing safer space for hiking, biking, and general community enjoyment.
The program’s Play Streets option is the new kid on the block here — it’s like a junior version of the Healthy Streets closures, allowing residents to close a single block for up to 12 hours a week on up to three chosen days of the week for use as a play and gathering space for kids and families. Residents who apply for the program can become Living Streets Ambassadors, and will be provided equipment from the city like barricades and signs to be placed on the street during the approved closure times.
These three approaches still allow local traffic and don’t reduce access for emergency vehicles or other normal street services like trash collection or deliveries. The Healthy Streets and Play Streets closures also require the approval of at least 60 percent of residents along the affected blocks, so you’ll have to get involved with your neighbors to apply. Here’s a map of streets that are currently eligible for the program.
The city says it’s hoping to implement the first round of closures through the program in early 2024, so if you’ve got an eligible street in your neighborhood, now is a great time to start the application process — it’s a fairly ambitious effort by the city with virtually no downsides, so we’d like to see strong support in every neighborhood for clawing back even just a few blocks of the public realm for everyone to enjoy.