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Council expands Healthy Streets into Living Streets

Tuesday, October 26, 2021 by Kali Bramble

City Council expanded possibilities for Austin’s residential street spaces this past Thursday with the unanimous passage of a resolution initiating the Living Streets program.

The program, sponsored by Council Member Paige Ellis, will allow for Austinites to interface with residential streets in new and creative ways with the aim of expanding their recreational uses and strengthening neighborhood communities. In addition to easing the city’s regulations on block parties, the program will expand the Healthy Streets program launched back in 2020.

While 2020’s Healthy Street sites were staff-selected from a pool of nominations, the Living Streets program opens up the application process, granting permits for street closures to those who secure 60 percent support along the enclosure. In addition to the partial closures introduced by the pilot program, the updated resolution will introduce Play Streets, where residents will elect for complete closure of their street to through traffic for short periods of time throughout the week.

The Living Streets program also targets existing requirements for block parties that create barriers for lower-income neighborhoods, such as high permit fees, stringent signature requirements and the exclusion of mixed-used zoning areas.

Speakers on both sides of the podium expressed their enthusiasm for the program’s positive impact on public safety, quality of life and community enrichment. 

“Many of Austin’s streets encourage fast driving,” commented District 2 resident David Fouts, “and things have been especially bad since the pandemic began, with life-altering collisions at a historic high. These disproportionately impact lower-income people.”

Referencing a test case in East Austin, where residents used inexpensive materials such as barrels and flowers to slow traffic by 25 percent, Fouts said that the program would “allow residents to quickly bring inexpensive and effective traffic calming to their streets … while promoting their beautification.”

Others spoke to the opportunity for community-building and place-making opened up by the new program. “It’s extremely exciting to be building on the profound step forward of the Healthy Streets program of 2020,” said Adam Greenfield of Walk Austin and Bike Austin. “Neighbors met for the first time, older people sat on their porches watching kids in the street learn to ride their bikes …. What a beautiful way to come out of a pandemic.”

Staff at the helm of the Living Streets proposal framed the program as a creative way of strengthening the city’s equity outcomes. 

“This (program) is especially important in areas that lack adequate access to parkland,” said former Council member and Bike Austin organizer Chris Riley, presenting Living Streets to the Urban Transportation Commission last June. Noting that the city has still not met its goal of providing parkland within walking distance of all neighborhoods, he commented that in the meantime, “this program makes use of the public spaces that we do have.”

While the Healthy Streets program of 2020 was incredibly popular among participating neighborhoods, its scale was restricted by a lack of funding. Living Streets will attempt to remedy this, with City Manager Spencer Cronk expected to return to Council with a formal plan for funding and organization by January 2022.

“The Living Streets initiative may have been born out of social distancing,” Austin resident Brittany Platt said, in an expression of support, “but its adoption can deliver really inspiring social connectedness.”

Until January, find updates on the Living Streets program here.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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