Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Greater Livability With More Block Parties: How San Francisco Can Encourage, Not Just Regulate, Neighborhood Events

San Francisco, with all its neighborhoods and micro-communities, hosts relatively few block parties, just 73 in 2007. The events that do occur contribute so much to the vitality, social cohesion, security, and livability of neighborhoods that we might expect city leaders to promote block parties and streamline the approval process. In fact, livability advocates are working with city departments to do just that.

The San Francisco Great Streets Project is currently developing a framework for how San Franciscans and city departments can work together to improve our streets and our livability in the process. The project is a collaboration of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the Livable Streets Initiative, SPUR, and PPS, the Project for Public Spaces. San Francisco's Livable City is also contributing to this effort, bringing Sunday Streets know-how into the mix. Great Streets Executive Director, Kit Hodge, explains, "We're working on ways to incentivize block parties in San Francisco."

This year the North Panhandle neighborhood sponsored its annual block party on Lyon Street, a Fourth of July party on Golden Gate Avenue, the BIKE THE BLOCK party on Grove Street, and an upcoming Halloween Party on two blocks of Grove. Not bad for a 30 square block neighborhood: four car-free events opening streets for walking, playing, biking, music, and games. As a result of preparing for these parties, neighborhood event organizers have developed a good working relationship with the MTA office responsible for reviewing applications and granting permits.

My first involvement with the process was to organize NOPA’s BIKE THE BLOCK party in September. The experience was positive and Cindy Shamban, Special Events Coordinator for the MTA and my primary staff contact, was friendly and helpful. Yet the overall process might have been confusing and frustrating if I had not been familiar with city departments from previous experience.

Below are my own observations and suggestions for improving the system; some of these are considerations also detailed by the Great Streets project* in their review of the permit process:

  • Most importantly: the city should actively encourage and welcome block parties. Its websites and printed material should guide people through the permit process and every step of the application and permit process. The process now suggests an old-guard Parking and Traffic culture tempered by helpful staff. The initial contact online, however, makes applicants feel that the city will consider our request if we really must have a block party but only if we jump every hoop just right. And beware anyone who misreads or misunderstands – they may forfeit their residency (or so it seems). The process relies far too much on all caps, bold print warnings such as “FAILURE TO COMPLETE THE APPLICATION FULLY…INCLUDING COMPLIANCE WITH ALL REQUIREMENTS…WILL RESULT IN REJECTING…” Lighten up, MTA, it’s a block party not an assault on a city street! There are ways to enlighten residents about city regulations without leaving them feeling intimidated, confused, or repeatedly rolling their eyes.
  • MTA needs a more welcoming website overall. Maybe it’s just me, but the black-and-white slash design seems harsh and off-putting for an agency whose mission is to inform about transportation and encourage new modes of travel.
  • Make the block party section of the MTA web site easier to locate. Fortunately, others told me who to call at MTA and where to find the info needed. If you know to search for sfmta.com, you can find your way to block parties sooner or later, but a Google search will be frustrating.
  • Separate the block party information from the larger, more complex events on the site. No one needs to know how to apply for something like the Bay to Breakers when they only want to open one neighborhood block for a car-free event. One of my first questions was, “What? I have to provide proof of $1 million insurance coverage for a block party?” (Answer: no, but you have to ask, presuming you aren’t discouraged enough to stop there). The filing document runs 14 pages and covers events of all sizes; the info for block parties specifically might require half as many.
  • Reduce the filing fee. The city can get serious about promoting and encouraging block parties by not charging from $150 to $450 for them. Staff time is required for reviewing applications, answering questions from applicants, adding the request to a committee hearing, sending out notices, etc. But the application itself is just 2 to 3 pages and one-block parties do not require much oversight. There’s not much equity in a system that requires block party applicants to pay as much in filing fees as those who sponsor much more complicated and time-consuming income-generating, multi-block street fairs or music festivals.
  • Again, reconsider the tone of information. How many times do citizens need to be told that they must abide by the instructions and file “a declaration under penalty of perjury”? Evidently, any time they post or remove a “Notice of Public Hearing” on the block. Does this still feel like a fun event?
  • Evaluate instructions about the No Parking Signs. Applicants might want to post “No Parking/Tow Away” signs on the block, but the requirements and procedures for doing so are confusing and some are not explained adequately. Event sponsors might easily be uncertain about the differences between having a permit and being registered with the police, about posting the no parking signs but not acting on them without police registration, etc.
The Great Streets Project is studying whether a private organization might help advise block party applicants and relieve the MTA of some of the responsibility, especially if the city decides to more actively promote neighborhood events. New York set up such a service with BlockpartyNYC, an online resource that guides anyone interested in block parties through the city permit system and offers tips for staging a successful event. Transportation Alternatives (TA), the premiere New York livability advocacy organization, sponsors the service. Julia De Martini Day, Planner/Advocate for T.A., explained that BlockPartyNYC also helps promote individual events, and more than 100 organizers have listed their parties since the site began in 2008. T.A. encourages others to see the potential of block parties to advance livability goals, and it awards mini-grants to event organizers who want to develop livable streets campaigns for their neighborhoods.

In preparation for this post, I telephoned MTA’s Shamban and asked what she thought the agency might do to make the process easier for applicants. She paused and I think she chuckled before she answered. “I think our process works really well. Once you’ve done it once or twice and have become familiar with it especially.” I imagine the process has worked well enough. Applicants sooner or later figure out what must be done, and, if they're not shy about making repeated inquiries by phone, staff will readily provide the information needed. But the “well enough” status for the past won’t suit the near future when San Franciscans – hopefully with the robust endorsement of the city – envision more blocks “open” for new uses rather than simply “closed” to car traffic. The first suggests more encouragement; the second reflects status quo regulation.

* Thanks to Jeremy Shaw, Great Streets Project intern, for providing background information about efforts to streamline the city’s permit process.


  1. Thank you for posting this. I have been talking to my wife about possibly hosting a block part for our alley in North Beach. We were talking about how we have lived there for 2.5 yrs and still don't know anyone on our street.

    Hopefully dealing with the city goes smoothly.

  2. Great idea, Mikesonn. Perhaps we should launch a blockpartySF site to encourage others, share tips, and promote different neighborhood events. I hope to not overwork the block party angle, but I think I have one more post with practical tips for dealing with the system as it is today.

  3. I'll be looking for it. Thanks.