Published June 11th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
They started popping up in Kansas City neighborhoods in late April — homemade barriers, some quite creative, informing motorists a block is closed to traffic except for residents and deliveries.
Call it a pandemic experiment. As schools, workplaces and even some public spaces like playgrounds closed, Kansas City rolled out a program called Neighborhood Open Streets. With minimal hassle, residents can apply for a city permit to close their blocks to through traffic.
Depending on who you’re talking to, Neighborhood Open Streets is either a) an inspired step toward a safer, happier community; or b) a colossal nuisance.
In general, people who live on the closed blocks tend to favor the safety and community argument. Motorists forced to detour around them seethe over the inconvenience.
“I’m all for it,” said Diana Halverson, whose block on 70th Street off of Ward Parkway got a permit.
Halverson’s block has been seeing a lot of traffic in recent months because of construction projects on Gregory Boulevard, two blocks to the south. So when a neighbor proposed applying for a closure permit, she heartily agreed.
“Got it in one day,” she said.
Unlike the process for a block party permit, which requires signatures from a majority of residents to close the street for a few hours, applicants for a Neighborhood Open Streets permit need only fill out a form and submit evidence — like a text or email — that they informed their neighbors of their intent.
“We had a strict social distancing order in place,” said Maggie Green, information officer for Kansas City’s Public Works Department. “The last thing we wanted to do was encourage people to knock on doors.”
So far, the department has issued permits for 37 blocks, Green said. The majority are in the 4th and 6th City Council districts, and the program is especially popular in the southwest corridor.
Halverson said she thinks the closure has cut down on the volume of traffic on her street, although some motorists ignore the barricade. She’s seen a dad teach his kid how to bicycle on the open pavement. And her high-school-age daughter has been able to invite friends over to play volleyball in the street.
“Kids had a lot taken away from them when schools were canceled early,” Halverson said. “Their structure, their social networks, whatever. This is also why I applauded this initiative. Give the kids something.”
But not all kids get to enjoy open streets. Few residents of lower-income neighborhoods have applied for permits, which Green said may be the result of a lack of promotion.
“One challenge is, how do we promote a program like this in a time when you don’t have public meetings,” she said.
Michael Kelley, policy manager of BikeWalkKC, a nonprofit that promotes safe and accessible streets, said his group is reaching out to partners in the 3rd and 5th City Council districts and in the Northland. The Neighborhood Open Streets initiative is available for the length of Kansas City’s state of emergency order, which right now runs through Aug. 15.
Not all applications are accepted. Permits are denied if traffic volume on a street is too high, a block is essential to traffic flow or utility work is taking place. And when one block is closed, adjacent blocks must stay open.
Amy Balentine lives on 69th Terrace, a block north of Halverson. She thinks the block closures on 70th Street and elsewhere in her vicinity have pushed frustrated drivers onto her street.
“We love our neighbors, so we’re not complaining,” Balentine said. “But people seem like they’re going faster because they’ve been rerouted so many times.”
Balentine said 23 children under the age of 15 live on her block. Three of them, ages 7, 4 and 2, belong to her. She said she doesn’t want to encourage her children to play in the street, and initially wasn’t interested in closing the block. But once traffic picked up, she and her neighbors applied for a permit. The application was denied.
“We only asked because we didn’t like the cars zipping down our street,” Balentine said. “Somebody’s got to take the brunt of the traffic and it looks like it’s us.”
Andrea Bough, the 6th District City Council representative, said the response she’s received has been mostly positive, although she’s noted some complaints on social media.
Bough sees the Neighborhood Open Streets initiative as part of a move to recapture public space for people’s health and enjoyment. Her own block is one that obtained a permit.
“The purpose was to expand the outdoor area that people could use and allow for social distancing as well,” she said.
A recent City Council vote enabling restaurants and bars to expand their outdoor space grew out of the same desire, Bough said. She thinks some of the experiments will outlast the pandemic.
“I think we’ll be having a lot of discussions about how to do things differently,” Bough said.
Once a Neighborhood Open Streets permit is issued, residents get to decide how to close off their blocks. Some have opted for basic traffic cones, saw horses, and garbage barrels, while other barricades feature artsy structures. One problem apparently has been the theft of traffic cones.
The city’s public works department; Better Block Foundation, an urban design nonprofit; and SPIN, a safe streets initiative, have published an online manual for designing barricades. It recommends reflective tape and even planters with greenery.
BikeWalkKC, another partner in the initiative, is loaning traffic cones to residents who need them.
Less traffic and more human activity and interaction on neighborhood streets fits perfectly with BikeWalkKC’s ongoing mission, Kelley said. His group is having conversations about possibly continuing some of the changes after the state of emergency expires.
“We are asking folks to reach out to their council members to let them know if they enjoy the program,” Kelley said.
For some, the message will be a resounding YES.
And others? Imagine a car horn honking in protest. For some, the barricades can’t come down soon enough.
Flatland contributor Barbara Shelly is a freelance writer based in Kansas City.