The playing out model is in some ways just a very pared-down version of a street party; short, regular, temporary and organised by neighbours. In fact, it was after organising a couple of street parties on our road in Bristol that my neighbour Amy and I had the ‘lightbulb moment’ that led to Playing Out being born 12 years ago.
Thanks largely to the hard work of fellow Bristol-based organisation Streets Alive, our local council and many others across the UK had made it fairly easy to apply to close your road for a one-off street party – in fact Bristol was known as the ‘street party capital’ of the UK. Streets Alive and the Big Lunch had also persuaded the Government to get behind the idea, encouraging councils to make it as easy as possible for residents to do this. The guidance they created back then is still live on the official government website.
The lightbulb moment was simply realising we could use the same legal process to close the road but without all the palaver (or pavlovas!) of a street party. We wanted to do something that felt more ‘normal’, that was mainly about reclaiming the street from traffic. We also wanted it to be something that could happen on a more regular basis. We did this as a one-off experiment on 1 June 2009 (International Children’s Day), applying to the council to close the road to through-traffic for a couple of hours after school. Of course, we found that creating this safe space was all it took for children to come out and play happily, actively, sociably and creatively. An unexpected side-effect was that neighbours of all ages also came out to meet, chat and enjoy their street free of traffic for a short time.
Bristol City Council then became the first in the UK to implement a play street policy, allowing residents to apply for a regular (up to weekly) road closure. And the rest is history! But even after all these years of regularly, on-and-off, playing out on our street, we still love our (almost) annual street party, usually held in early September. It’s a different thing – a real celebration of our diverse street community. We ask everyone to move their cars off the street for the day and most happily do. We hang up the bunting and all bring out tables, chairs, games, music, food and drink, tea and cake to share. We’ve even been known to get a bouncy castle, sponsored by the supermarket on the corner. We couldn’t do this every week or month (and, like Glastonbury Festival, we have the odd fallow year) but it’s a joyous event when we do manage to make it happen.
Reclaim your street this summer
As much as we want play streets to feel as inclusive as possible, a street party is definitely an easier way in for some people and can be a brilliant way to kick-start things, especially if older neighbours, or those without children, are unsure about the play street idea or don’t see it as being for them.
Either way, talk to your neighbours and think about doing something this summer – a simple play street or a street party with all the bells and whistles – whatever floats your boat. Most councils allow you to apply for a one-off road closure, even if they don’t yet have a play street policy. You won’t regret it and it’s not too late! Even if your council asks for 6 weeks’ notice to close the road, it’s still possible to make that happen before the end of August. Just go for it. You will create a memorable event for your whole street and you never know where it will lead.