How to start a car-free weekend street closure in your neighborhood
Want to start your own project but need some inspiration? This 'Learn from a Leader' series from ioby profiles local leaders who are improving their neighborhoods.
Editor’s note: The nonprofit ioby—which stands for “in our backyards,” launched the series, Learn from a Leader, so locals can share their step-by-step best practices for successful community projects. Go to ioby.org to read more from the series, or stay tuned to The Renewal Project! In this entry, an organizer in Queens, New York, gives advice on how to bring car-free activities to a park or street block near you.
“This is the story of a park and its river, and the people who share that space,” says Martha Lopez-Gilpin, one of the leaders of a years-long initiative to make Queens’ Astoria Park the best resource it can be for nearby residents.
“It’s one of the greatest natural features of NYC that Astoria Park sits on a waterfront and is available to the public,” she says. Founded in the early 1900s in what was then a largely industrial area, the park gave people vital access to the water—even, in those days, for bathing! As time went on, the area underwent many changes, both physical and cultural: a seawall was built; Shore Boulevard went from being a dirt road that connected farms to a major two-way street that divided the park from the river. Park users’ relationship to the area evolved by turns.
1. Watch & listen. We always watched how people used the park, and we listened to what they said about how they used it. The Department of Transportation [DOT] started a Weekend Walks program around 2008. At that time, Shore Boulevard was nicknamed “The Strip”—it was a two-way street with a big car presence: exhaust, difficult pedestrian crossings, a lot of cruising… With Weekend Walks, we knew the ability existed to close the street to traffic and reenvision how it could be used. So we advocated for a car-free stretch of several days to see how people would use it without cars. We watched closely to see how it went and what folks said and did in response.
2. Forge partnerships. To help us realize the best car-free programming we could, we partnered with existing organizations who had established relationships with the park and its users: Astoria Park Alliance, Green Shores NYC, Big Reuse (which was then called Build it Green), our local community development corporation… We said to them: “We’re all interested in an environmental situation here that’s friendlier toward park users and human beings at large.” They understood, empathized, and really helped us realize our vision.
3. Stay connected & reach out. We also got help planning our programming from park neighbors. People came to us with ideas and fully-fledged plans, which was wonderful not only because we wanted this to stay a community-centered project, but also because we didn’t have the money to hire big names! We started from the premise that there should be no vendors at Shore Fest—just educational activities, live music, fitness programs, fireworks, and the like—and that’s served us well. We asked our volunteers what events they liked and wanted to see, and we always fed them (though we couldn’t pay them!). We reached out to our elected and appointed officials and our community board, and they started coming to Shore Fest as citizens and saw what we were doing. All of this helped us turn the event from something people were skeptical about into something they were excited about. It turned into a very loving situation.
4. Love & grit. In advocacy, you have to have both. Not everybody is going to love your idea. We got plenty of criticism! But we welcomed dissent because you have to include people whose views are not your own: that’s democracy. We let the discussion evolve and people eventually concluded—after seeing what was possible at Shore Fest—that Shore Boulevard being a two-way street was unsafe, and that the bike path there was unsatisfactory. So together we advocated for making the street one-way and putting a new bike path right on it. We used that grit for years with DOT, and in 2015 they finally made Shore Boulevard one-way, with a two-way bike lane on it, and also improved many of the pedestrian crossings. We had to make some compromises when it came to parking spaces, but from working with the city, I know that every parking spot here is a point of negotiation! That was the reality we had to face, and that was okay.
5. Look ahead & honor the legacy. Astoria Park was designated an Anchor Park in 2016, which earned it $30 million in funding. Now, we’re continuing to discuss what people would like to see and do here in light of his new money: for example, we’ve heard repeatedly that people want easier access to the water. Well, what would that look like? How could we do it safely? And as population density in Astoria grows, the city is looking into expanding its ferry system and instituting a trolley. As we look ahead, we don’t know how these things will manifest, how they’ll affect the next 50 years of park usage. It’s all an evolving process that we’re honored to be a part of.
Time of year: Shore Fest originally took place in August, but a couple of years ago we migrated into September because it was getting too hot. Don’t be afraid to modify your seasonal timing if you notice people are too hot, too cold, etc. Don’t just soldier on; there’s no need!
Amount of time: When working with city agencies, you really have to be a happy warrior. For us to see a two-way street made into a one-way with a protected bike lane, it took seven years. And that’s okay! Just know that going in. A lot of people give up, but watching and listening, and seeing how things evolve, and reminding yourself that compromise is possible and necessary will make it easier to be patient. If you’re trying for a one-time weekend street closure, start a year out. Then you can see what develops and take it from there.
Our budget has fluctuated from $2,500 – $10,000 per event.
Crucial to getting things done is securing lots of in-kind donations: volunteer hours, material and food donations… We get $2,000 to $4,000 in in-kind donations for every event, and they make a huge difference. Do not take them for granted!
The main costs for us have been things like stage rental, porta potties, tents, tables, generators, and amplification systems. Reach out to local people and organizations to see if you can borrow any of these items, and be sure to ask about a nonprofit/community event discount when you go shopping!
In addition to Weekend Walks-type events, you can get inspiration from checking out related initiatives like pedestrian plazas and Vision Zero (NYC’s action plan for ending traffic deaths and injuries on city streets).
People are always reinventing the “car-free” idea. Search around for groups in your area that have done a project like this and ask them to share their advice.
Inspired? Start your own project!