A group of neighbours gathered in the middle of King Street in Peterborough, ON on Saturday September 17, 2016. Our heads kept turning left and right, making sure no cars were coming. We were holding back our instinct to get off the road and make sure that kids weren’t darting into oncoming traffic. It took us some time to feel safe on the road knowing that barricades were set up to stop cars from passing through. In this moment, we were reclaiming the street as a public space where we could re-imagine it as a car-free space where children and adults can play, be physically active, and experience our neighbourhood in a new way.
With rain pouring down, I drew a big sunshine in the middle of the street with yellow chalk. Dozens of neighbours gathered to set up tents, roll out sod and set up a barrier for a bike lane along the entire 500 metres of the thoroughfare. This party was going to happen rain or shine!
It started with a conversation back in March with a group of neighbours. Everyone was passionate about having more street parties and reclaiming the streets and alleys with people, activity, and creativity. As conversations continued, a partnership was formed with Peterborough Green-Up, and six months later, we had the greatest party this neighbourhood has ever seen.
As part of an Ontario Trillium Foundation grant, Peterborough Green-Up agreed to host an annual large open streets event, known in Peterborough as Pulse, as well as a series of smaller open street “Pulse Pop-Ups” over three years. For King Street, this grant covered the cost of the road closures (11 streets in all), the cost of having two police officers at the event, and some marketing materials. The not-insignificant cost of these necessary elements can be prohibitive for a neighbourhood to pull together on its own. Green-Up also provided us with very friendly, hard-working, and knowledgeable staff to help navigate some of the best practices of putting an event like this together.
Over the course of three months, a group of 8-10 of us met regularly to pull all of the logistics together and spread the word amongst the neighbourhood. We secured some key sponsorships from local businesses and opted to divide the street into seven activity zones that would reflect the diverse interests, abilities, and ages in the neighbourhood. We had a sports zone, a kid’s zone, a bike playground, a chill-out zone (hence the sod!), a home-business networking zone, a music stage, and an art space. We had water stations and food vendors throughout the street, including a Taste of Hummus booth that had over 10 local entries to celebrate the international year of pulses. We had art installations, free family yoga classes, four local musicians lined up to play, and a community potluck at 6pm.
After a beautiful week of sunshine, and a summer of drought, our hopes of the storm system moving over us were drenched with the most rain we’d seen in months. Although a few activities had to be cancelled, most went off without a hitch. And despite threats of lightening, over 200 neighbours came out to play!
For me, the highlight was participating in a square dance with 30-plus neighbours in the pouring rain. Smiles were beaming off peoples faces as we do-si-doed together in the streets.
It was magical.
Even more transformational than shutting down the streets was connecting with neighbours. It’s been a week since the event, and you can feel that something has shifted in the neighbourhood. There are more people I say hello to. Emails and messages of gratitude to the organizers and dozens of volunteers who helped make the day possible. Discussions of what people can do at next year’s event, or whether this should happen one Sunday a month.
An event like this is so much more than a four-hour street party. An event like this changes the way people interact with others and the environment as they move through the neighbourhood. It’s people gathering in backyards and living rooms discussing what is possible. It’s people stopping to talk with their neighbours about how they are doing and what’s happening in their lives. It’s creating a safer neighbourhood as people linger outside a little longer and know more people who are caring. It’s about coming together and sharing our skills, talents, tools, and kindness. It’s about building a space where people feel a sense of belonging and deep-rootedness.
It’s about square dancing with your neighbours in the rain.