ITHACA, N.Y. — This summer, the Just Play Project is encouraging Ithaca’s kids to take to the streets. As part of a broader mission to encourage safe, inclusive, creative play, the organization is launching a Play Streets initiative to stop traffic along two of the city’s smaller parks on designated afternoons.
The pilot program will work like a recurring block party in Ithaca’s Southside and Northside neighborhoods. Starting June 30, neighbors on South Titus Avenue will put up barricades at Fair and Plain streets to extend the park that runs along Six Mile Creek from noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. Across town, neighbors will do the same on Madison Street between Fourth and Fifth streets to expand Conway Park from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The goal is to bring kids outside, in keeping with Mayor Svante Myrick’s declaration that Ithaca is a free-range kid city.
“As soon as those barricades go up it’s just this relief, you just feel free!” said Rusty Keeler, co-founder of the Just Play Project.
Keeler said that as he and Just Play Project co-founder Beth Myers thought about ways to make space for play, they were inspired by Streets Alive!, which closes streets to traffic to create shared space for neighbors to hang out. Keeler said he and Myers wondered, “How could we do that on a more regular basis and on a smaller scale, on a neighborhood scale?”
They both live near the South Titus creekside park and thought they could try to get a recurring block party off the ground in their own neighborhood. They chose the Madison Street block as a second location, in part, because of the success of a summer 2018 Just Play Day in Conway Park. During the event, Keeler said, kids from the neighborhood poured out from nearby apartments to play in the park.
“It just felt like if that street were closed during those hours, it would be safer and it could be more fun and playful too,” he said.
Keeler said blocking traffic at each location would free parents from worrying about their kids’ safety. “We want more people using the parks, we want more kids outside, so for these hours, cutting down on traffic and the possibility of accidents seems like a good idea.”
The plan was approved by the city’s Board of Public Works on Tuesday after Keeler collected signatures from neighbors indicating their support. The board unanimously passed a resolution allowing the street closures on a trial basis, noting that neighbors would be responsible for setting up and removing barricades and that permission could be revoked at any time.
Marshall McCormick, who sits on the BPW and lives on Fair Street, said he’s excited about the opportunity to bring neighbors together.
“We have two kids and hang out with the neighbors quite a bit,” he said, “but Play Streets is a unique plan and program that provides a really safe space to come and hang out.”
He said the stretch of park along South Titus is a beautiful area, “but you lose 30% of it because you’re worried your kids are going to run into the street.” By stopping vehicle traffic, he said, “you get to use the full amount of the park without worrying your kids are going to go over the curb.”
McCormick said the project will boost the whole neighborhood, including households without kids, by bringing people together. It’s a chance to learn, for instance, if an elderly neighbor needs help with yard work or dog walks, or if a family dealing with an illness could use meal deliveries or carpools. “It’s getting us together so we can help each other out,” he said.
The Play Street dates on Madison Street will coincide with Just Play Days in Conway Park, from 10 to 4 p.m. each Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from July 9 until the end of August. Teens from the Ithaca Youth Bureau’s Youth Employment Service will be on hand as “playworkers” to supervise the kids who come outside. Just Play Days staffed with playworkers will be held at the same time on the Southside in Wood Street Park, at Wood and Fair Streets.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the first Play Streets date on South Titus would be July 7. The correct date is June 30.
Featured image: The South Titus triangle park (Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice)