2014 Grants Challenge

Unlock the Block: Bringing Play Streets to Los Angeles

Put #play in the peoples’ hands and in #LAstreets! #UnlocktheBlock makes play accessible, affordable and easy for all angelenos!


Please describe yourself.

Collaboration (partners are signed up and ready to hit the ground running!)

In one sentence, please describe your idea or project.

Our idea is to bring play - designed and managed by residents - to the streets of LA through an initiative called Unlock the Block.

Does your project impact Los Angeles County?

Yes (benefits a region of LA County)

Which area(s) of LA does your project benefit?

Central LA

East LA

South LA

San Fernando Valley

South Bay


What is your idea/project in more detail?

Our idea is to bring play to the streets of LA through an initiative called Unlock the Block (UtB). We must find ways to make opportunities for safe and dynamic, public play available and easily accessible to all age groups, in every corner of the county. Of course, that is easier said than done – parks are expensive, and take considerable time to develop, design, and build. But, they are just one place where play thrives – play can be ignited almost anywhere, including on the one thing that Los Angeles has an abundance of – our streets. Unlock the Block would make it easy for any neighborhood to temporarily transform a suitable street into a vibrant and safe space for residents age 0-100 to play, in the ways that best fit their needs.

What will you do to implement this idea/project?

‘Children must play, and children, if they live in the cities, must play in the streets.’ -1914 New York Times. For generations, residential streets served as informal play spaces for children. In recent decades, streets have become increasingly dominated by automobiles with little accommodation for other needs, even though many neighborhoods continue to lack safe, accessible spaces to play. More recently, research has revealed the key role of play in physical health and intellectual and social development. Cities like San Francisco and New York have responded to these issues by launching “play streets” programs: temporary, car-free street spaces where residents can play.

In Los Angeles city our largest available public space is the 6,500 mile street network that connects our communities. Over the last year the City has recognized the value of re-purposing streets into multimodal space through efforts like the Great Streets Initiative, People St, and Ciclavia.

We propose to build on the foundation of those programs to create a uniquely LA version of play streets called “Unlock the Block;” to do this we will enlist the help of our play “experts,” the children and families of LA. Over the next 12 months we will lay the foundation for a full-scale Unlock the Block (UtB) program by:

1. Conducting outreach and workshops in up to 5 park-poor LA communities to understand how, where, and when residents want to play and help them envision up to 5 unique Unlock the Block demonstration events.

2. Creating a Resource Guide for implementing a UtB event. Contents will include information on permit processes, logistics, programming and publicity, and a “Kit-of-Parts”- a box to be lent-out for any UtB event containing simple objects and activities that activate play and learning.

3. Implementing up to 5 UtB demonstration events in partnership with communities. Each event will reflect the unique wishes of the host community but examples of programming include art, dance, gaming, martial arts/yoga. Events will be limited to residential streets selected for minimal impact on vehicular traffic congestion.

4. Developing a proposal of policy and program recommendations to implement a citywide UtB program. This proposal will detail the need and feasibility of a play street program like UtB in LA and recommend a publicly-accessible, streamlined program housed by an appropriate city agency, to create sustainable access to temporary open space for all LA residents.

How will your idea/project help make LA the best place to PLAY today? In 2050?

The beauty of Unlock the Block is its simplicity and agility. Within months of starting, we can bring safe and dynamic play to the people and places in LA with the highest need and demand. Within years, we can transform our streets—and the perception of our streets—into safe and sustainable spaces for community play. By 2050, it is feasible that everyone who wants to play can play regularly, regardless of the availability of traditional park resources in their neighborhood.

UtB increases access to play for all LA residents. While UtB starts in the City of LA, our ultimate goal is to replicate our model across LA County. Communities who currently lack adequate recreational spaces and programming will be able to creatively unlock new ways to play. UtB can be implemented by anyone, is low-cost, and can immediately increase access to safe and sustainable recreational opportunities across LA. UtB is not designed as a substitute for permanent parks; rather Unlock the Block builds on other efforts to increase park access by bringing open space to the front door of LA residents.

UtB repurposes our streets to enable play. In the dense, urban environment of LA, a neighborhood street may be the only public space within walking distance for children and families. While streets are typically designed and used for vehicles only, there is great potential in reclaiming and sharing this space for other needs. UtB addresses one of these needs: play.

UtB redefines play by letting residents determine what it means to play. Through direct community engagement we will simply ask residents of all ages how, when, and why they want to play and from their answers create new and innovative techniques for intergenerational play for all Angelenos. UtB will remind people of the infinite ways to engage with our community without the use of video games or social media and without traversing the city.

UtB builds safer neighborhoods by putting more “eyes on the street” and increases social cohesion through promoting shared use of public space. Beyond the event itself, there is educational value in community members re-envisioning how their streets can be used. Play streets have the potential to increase awareness of the health and safety benefits of active transportation, like walking and bicycling. Furthering support for multimodal and safer streets through UtB, may also lead to other versions of play such as walking/jogging groups or bicycle clubs.

Whom will your project benefit?

Unlock the Block (UTB) will benefit all communities in LA. But we will begin by addressing the needs of LA’s underserved neighborhoods. We will prioritize parts of the city where there is a shortage of open space, or parks, and areas that fall outside the boundaries of other community investment programs (like Promise Neighborhoods, Building Healthy Communities, or gang intervention programs), so that communities who have been left out of the discussion on where and how play takes place, will have the opportunity to contribute their ideas and make play happen in their streets, on their terms, with or without the presence of a park. We anticipate that, in the pilot phase Unlock the Block events will target neighborhoods in each of LA’s main geographic regions. In success, the city program is easily adopted or scaled to cover all of LA County.

UtB will benefit all residents of LA. Play is important no matter what stage you are in in life and UtB aims to create safe and sustainable spaces for all ages and abilities. Play stimulates intellectual and physical development in youth, but today’s youth often do not have sufficient opportunities for play (for example, LAUSD is being sued for providing insufficient physical education classes and many parents do not let their kids play outside because it is not safe). For adults, play promotes better health through physical activity and reduced stress. All residents will also benefit from the increased social connectivity and cooperation that results from playing together.

UtB will not only benefit a community’s residents; other stakeholders, including business owners, school staff, church members, and community organizations, will be empowered and better-connected through UtB efforts. All groups will work together to create regular, on-going, age- and culturally- appropriate programs that benefit their neighborhood socially, physically, and economically. While we expect each demonstration event to be unique to its neighborhood, the lessons learned during the process will be used to guide other neighborhoods in creating their own UtB event and to determine the changes needed to help pilot neighborhoods sustain or adapt their UtB programs.

Our project will also benefit the City’s governing forces by building positive, working relationships with residents that can spill-over into other Government-led change initiatives.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

Unlock the Block brings together a number of Los Angeles-based organizations currently working to improve play, health, environment, and economy for our under-resourced communities. Kounkuey Design Initiative’s (KDI) confirmed partners for this project include Community Health Councils (CHC) and Jubilee Consortium. Together our organizations bring experience and expertise in three areas critical to the success of our project:

1. Knowledge in street design and experience activating non-traditional spaces for public use through a participatory design practice;

2. Experience in advocating and creating policy change, and possession of relationships with policy makers;

3. Experience in creating intergenerational programming and play throughout Los Angeles.

KDI has been a member of the Coalition for an Active South Los Angeles (CASLA), led by CHC, for 2 years. Since late 2013, KDI and CHC have been working together (with 4 other organizations) on Free Lots Angeles, an initiative in South Los Angeles to transform vacant lots into active and productive community spaces. Over the past 2 years Jubilee Consortium and CHC, have worked together on a number of projects in Los Angeles, including a federally-funded chronic disease prevention effort.

CHC brings to the project a strong expertise in policy work and community engagement. They have a wide presence and reputation among residents in the communities where we would like to pilot UtB, and also have relationships with City Council offices that can provide political support for making play accessible in park-poor communities. For more than two decades, CHC has been at the forefront of advocacy to eliminate health disparities by expanding healthcare coverage, increasing access to quality healthcare, and improving the built environment for under-resourced communities.

Jubilee Consortium brings an expertise in designing active programming for all ages in non-traditional venues throughout Los Angeles. Jubilee Consortium has offered low-cost physical fitness and nutrition programs in underserved neighborhoods since its founding in 2001. For the past two years, Jubilee Consortium has trained community members to become Health Advocates for their communities as part of the United for Health collaborative led by CHC. The Jubilee Consortium creates healthy and just neighborhoods through enrichment opportunities and leadership programs centered on healthy lifestyles.

How will your project impact the LA2050 PLAY metrics?

Access to open space and park facilities

Per capita crime rates

Percentage of residents that feel safe in their neighborhoods

Number of residents with easy access to a “vibrant” park (Dream Metric)

Number of parks with intergenerational play opportunities (Dream Metric)

Number (and quality) of informal spaces for play (Dream Metric)

Please elaborate on how your project will impact the above metrics.

Each Unlock the Block event will directly impact several of the 2050 play metrics: 1. Access to open space and park facilities, 2. Number/quality of informal spaces for play, 3. Number of residents with easy access to a “vibrant” park, 4. Intergenerational play opportunities, 5. Per capita crime rates, and 6. Perceived neighborhood safety.

Unlock the Block events will have a positive impact on Metric 1 because each event transforms a readily-accessible street space into an active and vibrant public space. This design enables even the most park-poor communities to easily access and play in safe and convenient open space, and because an Unlock the Block event can take place almost anywhere, these events can provide all residents a temporary park and play space within ¼ mile of their residence.

Metric 2 will be impacted by the flexible nature of these events - the number of city blocks that could be converted to play streets through Unlock the Block is almost limitless; as such, the initiative will exponentially increase the number and quality of informal play spaces.

Unlock the Block events will improve access to “vibrant” parks (Metric 3) because they are designed and customized by community members to reflect preferences, cultures, talents, and needs particular to each area, resulting in an inherently “vibrant” play space.

Intergenerational play opportunities (Metric 4) will be improved because each community participating in Unlock the Block will receive a kit of parts that includes components to ignite activity and play for all age groups and encourages a range of intergenerational play opportunities. For example, there may be child-appropriate items like street chalk and jump ropes alongside items like a bingo-game that may be enjoyed by all age groups, or storybooks that encourage older adults and young children to come together and read. Programming ideas will also span the ages with art activities, dance parties, and exercise classes designed for young and old residents to participate in together.

Activating streets and connecting neighbors are well-known methods of reducing crime, thus impacting both per capita crime rates and perceived neighborhood safety (Metrics 5 and 6). By filling the streets with people, activities, new social connections, and temporary infrastructure, criminal activity is pushed out and replaced by feelings of security and connectedness.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project.

To evaluate the effectiveness of Unlock the Block events in improving 2050 play metrics, we will implement participant surveys in conjunction with the residents and community stakeholders who help to organize each event. Those who attend the event will be asked about their basic demographic characteristics (age, race/ethnicity, gender); and these characteristics will be compared to census tract data to determine how representative the participants are of the neighborhood population. These findings, along with per capita attendance numbers, will speak to the effectiveness of these events in providing access to play space (Metric 1).

Participants will also be asked how far they live from the Unlock the Block event. To assess resident perspectives on the efficacy of these events in improving the number and quality of informal places to play in their neighborhood (Metric 2), participants in the pilot events will be asked to rate their likelihood of attending future events, their opinion on the quality of the event, and for suggestions to improve future Unlock the Block play events in their neighborhood.

Respondents will be asked to assess how appropriate the event was for the preferences, cultures, talents, and needs of their particular neighborhood, which will be used as an indicator of the “vibrancy” of the play space provided by the Unlock the Block event (Metric 3).

Intergenerational play (Metric 4) will be assessed by examining the age distribution of participants, as well as asking those who joined in the Unlock the Block event whether they participated in play or activities during the event with someone 20 or more years older or younger than themselves.

The potential for Unlock the Block events to reduce per capita crime rates (Metric 5) and increase the percentage of residents who feel safe in their neighborhoods (Metric 6) will be assessed utilizing standard measures of perceived community safety. Participants will be asked to assess whether and how the event impacted their feelings of safety, security, and neighborhood cohesion.

What two lessons have informed your solution or project?

Through our work in South LA, the Eastern Coachella Valley, and the informal settlements of Kenya, we have learned key lessons about developing underutilized public spaces through a community-driven process.

We have learned that the communities we work with, regardless of the location, are more informed about the issues affecting their neighborhood than even the most competent outsider. What underserved communities typically lack is access to the technical expertise and resources needed to implement the change they deem necessary. We take this understanding into our approach to Unlock the Block. Rather than design a viable play streets program in Los Angeles with a team of “technical experts”, we propose to ask the residents in the pilot communities to help us define and shape a program that will work and is desirable. Our role is to add technical expertise in design and implementation, connect the community to new resources, and incorporate residents’ ideas into policy recommendations that allow us to ultimately make play accessible, affordable, and easy for every community in LA.

Coordinating the Free Lots Angeles community engagement process taught us another influential lesson about our city. Through conversation and observation we now know that LA residents are ready, willing, and desiring to engage with their streets in multimodal ways. Through participation in informal street-based activities across the city and formal programs like CicLAvia and People St, residents demonstrate that LA’s streets are not just for driving--they are for walking and biking, they are for selling and eating food, and most importantly they are for connecting with community through play and conversation.

Residents are not the only ones who are looking at LA’s streets through these alternative lenses – LA City departments and officials are supporting and/or implementing many of the new programs that allow residents to access and engage with our street network; policymakers have created new programs that allow residents to choose how streets can be used as public spaces temporarily, periodically, and permanently. We apply this understanding to our proposal for Unlock the Block and look to build on the existing programs and momentum to “normalize” the idea that streets can be used for non-driving activities. The more popularized and institutionalized these “alternative-use” programs become, the more positive community impact our streets can create.

Explain how implementing your project within the next twelve months is an achievable goal.

Our project is defined by three phases over the next 12 months.

Phase I (approx. 5 months): Community and city engagement.

In this phase the Unlock the Block project team will:

A. Conduct community workshops in up to five different park-poor communities to introduce the potential of activating play space on residential streets. Based on identified potential locations, participatory design workshops will be conducted with stakeholders and residents living adjacent to event locations, to design the physical and social programming for the proposed play street.

- Workshops will be publicized to local stakeholders, including but not limited to: existing block groups, resident associations, local service organizations, parent groups, schools, youth, etc.

- Workshop participants interested in the play streets program will then take a leadership role (“community leaders”) in identifying potential locations and programming for a demonstration event.

The project team will also:

B. Engage appropriate City departments to clarify the appropriate permitting process and provide permit process training to community leaders.

C. Research any similar projects occurring in Los Angeles to identify potential partnership opportunities

D. Document engagement and bureaucratic processes for future policy recommendations.

Phase II (approx. 5 months): Prototype development.

In this phase the project team will:

A. Work with community leaders to secure permits, locations, and programming for demonstration events

B. Design innovative and creative play objects and activities to make up a lendable Kit-of-Parts for use at demonstration events

C. Produce up to five Unlock the Block demonstration events

D. Publicize upcoming Unlock the Block events to community and stakeholders

- Invite representatives from city agencies

- Document event planning process for future policy recommendations

Phase III (approx. 2 months): Policy recommendations and sustainability.

In this phase the project team will:

A. Provide opportunities for community leaders to present their experiences and recommendations

B. Develop policy and program recommendations for the City of LA to adopt a formalized play street program like UtB and streamlined application process

- Include finalized Unlock the Block Resource Guide

C. Present recommendations to appropriate city departments or agencies for adoption

Please list at least two major barriers/challenges you anticipate. What is your strategy for ensuring a successful implementation?

There are 4 challenges to successfully implementing Unlock the Block:

1. Overcoming Permitting Bureaucracy.

The city currently has a costly, complicated permitting process for hosting events on city streets, not well known to the average resident. Our work is to research and document the existing process in order to inform our proposal for a streamlined, alternative permitting process. The project team will rely on existing relationships with City Departments to create an ongoing conversation about improving the street permitting process to facilitate Unlock the Block events.

2. Ensuring safety while keeping costs low and accessible to all communities.

Vehicular streets have many inherent dangers, some of which still exist even after vehicles have been prohibited. Participating residents and stakeholders will receive education and guidance on: the concept of repurposing streets as open space, the logistics of converting a street including street selection criteria, and how to manage vehicular traffic and parking on event day. Road closure and traffic safety signage will be a required element of each event and can be housed in the “Kit-of-Parts” available to coordinating residents. Physical barriers such as portable planters or street blockades will also be required and available for each event.

3. Avoiding Project overlap with similar efforts.

The project team will embark on research and due diligence to ensure that other similar projects are not occurring in the 5 target areas for demonstration events. However, if similar efforts are identified, the team will look for opportunities to form partnerships.

4. Securing Stakeholder buy-in.

With Los Angeles’ car dominant culture, the project team expects to encounter some resistance to closing down one or more streets to promote play. To close a street, 51% of stakeholders in the closure area need to provide their consent. We expect that some residents may agree with the idea behind Unlock the Block, but may not want an event on the streets where they drive, park, and live. Our goal is to help people understand the benefits of a one-day or multi-hour closure to repurpose a street into a shared play space. The design of our project process – one centered on iterative community participation - engages residents from the initial stages of the planning process until the re-opening of the street closure to ensure that their interests and concerns are addressed.