“I have power over the changes on my street.” Would you agree or disagree?
We at the National Street Service believe that the best way to be open to change is to get involved in it, and the best way to see change is to take the first step. The street is public space, and we as a community should have a strong voice in deciding how to best use it. But how can we engage everyone in the community in this process?
Through our Street Ranger program, we worked with 20 Street Rangers to help them feel a part of the change in their street and feel more confidence in their ability to make changes in future.
Our Street Rangers successfully completed a wide range of activities, demonstrating considerable talent and enthusiasm for street advocacy (thanks everyone!).
- Street Rangers launched 14 conversations with city government officials around requests for physical street infrastructure.
- Street Rangers added 10 chalk outlines to the street as a bold statement on where benches for rest and reflection should be installed.
- Street Rangers worked with the Public Bench project to install 5 uniquely painted public benches. In fact, one is on the ground already!
Our Rangers also reported a significant increase in the power they felt they had to make changes in the street, all through taking small but important actions to improve on an issue of importance to them.
Our Street Ranger program was a broad success, validating our hunch that we can see a great deal of positive change by activating the people in every community who care deeply, but perhaps haven’t found the right opportunity to get involved. Stay tuned for what’s coming next for the National Street Service’s Street Ranger program (and let us know if you want to be involved, firstname.lastname@example.org).
In the meantime, read on to hear more about how our week of participation went.
Introducing the Street Rangers
Who are these fabulous people who made so much change, and indeed saw change themselves, in just one week? And what did we ask them to do?
Let’s learn more through the story of Street Ranger Em Havens, who generously agreed to let us share some details of what she got up to during her Street Ranger week.
Our first task for Em, and indeed all our Street Rangers, was the simple task of street observation. Setting a timer for 10 minutes, Em noticed that the street serves medical staff and passersby heading to and from nearby USCF, as well as neighbors headed in and out of their homes. Drawing on her personal history in Portland, Oregon, Em remarked that she missed the porch culture she experienced there, a culture where people stop and chat and engage with their neighbors. Yet, she also noticed that when people do run into each other on her chosen street in San Francisco, they are always friendly. Taking the leap to action, Em identified this as an opportunity to build upon this sentiment and provide more infrastructure to allow people to more casually collide and connect.
Done with her observation, it was time for Em to decide what to focus her Ranger energies on during the week. We offered Street Rangers three options:
- Providing people with rest and reflection.
- Protecting people who walk.
- Protecting people who bike.
Em decided she wanted to add spaces for rest and reflection, building on her own personal theory of change about the importance of providing spaces to better “collide and connect”. Like all our Rangers, she then got started on the 5 action items we provided - each of which had been carefully tailored for that topic area.
Making a mark
Observation is an important valuable activity but it’s also fairly passive, and our Street Ranger program was ultimately about taking action. But taking action for better streets can be daunting. How do you take the first step? To that end, one of the most powerful tools in our Street Ranger advocacy kit was a humble stick of chalk.
As Em discovered, chalk was transformative both for those drawing with it, and for those passing by and witnessing our Rangers’ creations. The chalk provided a means to physically interact with the environment while leaving a mark (in a low risk way), helping both the creator and the passerby translate the idea of new infrastructure into a more relatable and more tangible visual. Chalking the street was definitely an easy first step, but it also happened to be fun. Streets are serious business, but like anything that’s human-centered, need a healthy dose of fun from time to time. We try and ensure the National Street Service embodies this principle, from the focus on street chalk to the design of everything we produce.
Whatever they thought of the hidden powers of chalk, many of our street rangers, including Em, made amazing use of it.
Some of our rangers went beyond the physical, employing “digital chalk” to create renderings of their vision for the street. We aren’t fussy: any creative, non-destructive (and respectful!) means of expressing your vision for a better street, is fine with us.
Chalk is powerful, but when it comes to changing the street for the better, rarely enough. The next step for our Rangers was, in many cases, to reach out to other organizations and authorities to put their personal visions for change into action.
In Em’s case, we recommended she contact Chris Duderstadt of the Public Bench Project, who has installed over 75 benches in San Francisco. Em reached out, and Chris generously provided guidelines for how to get a public bench added to her street. He even designed a rendering, worked with Em to get the color just right, and then installed it, all while recovering from back surgery (thanks Chris!). While we wanted our Rangers to feel empowered, putting something physical into the street isn’t always easy: it requires navigating often hidden rules for what can be placed and where, and negotiating with neighbors and business owners for their tacit approval. Em did a fantastic job of following her intuition and Chris’ direction to get appropriate “social license” for her bench.
It took Em vision, thought, chalk, e-mails and conversations, plus some periwinkle paint to get done, but get it done she did. A beautiful bench now stands near UCSF, hopefully providing rest and reflection to passersby and neighbors for many years to come. Em demonstrated beautifully how a modicum of effort, time and partnership with other members of the community can deliver a better street (even in a physically small way). Thank you for your service, Em!
Setting sights higher
Physical installations like benches are a great way to dip your toes into advocacy for better streets. But like it or not, much of the responsibility (and power) to change streets lies with our politicians and city agencies. Getting involved with political debates and participating in public process can be daunting, so we looked for easy ways to get our Street Rangers engaged. Em, for example, also emailed her supervisor London Breed, urging her to support street designs that are more human focused and provide people with opportunities to socialize. We at the National Street Service believe that such requests can be powerful, especially when paired with photos and anecdotes from the observations. They go above and beyond a mass e-mail or petition, because they demonstrate the obvious commitment of the person making the request.
Perhaps more importantly, these relatively quick and easy ways of engaging with broader debate around better streets can be especially empowering for the individual. Our Street Rangers took surveys before they got started, and once again at the end, so we could measure how their attitudes and feelings had changed. In particular, we asked how people felt about their sense of power over the changes on their street.
For Em, this week was quite a shift in her perspective. She wrote that “[I] saw more of its beauty and experienced more of its secret social life. I learned that the barrier to entry is low for participating. This has been inspiring and motivating! It is actually pretty easy to take action and make the world more beautiful :) Psyched about the partnership in general and MOST psyched about feeling more connected to my local community.”
Here are some other ways in which Street Rangers reported their own personal change:
“It gave me permission to do things I would never do. With a greater understanding of the issues I had greater comfort in stepping up and speaking out.”
“It changed my mindset from the street is someone else’s responsibility to MY responsibility.”
“I’m feeling more conscious of the pros and cons of my street and how they contribute to the way I think about it.”
“I’m not as observant about my neighborhood as I had thought. The questions posed to me, as a street ranger, have made me think more critically about concrete ways to improve pedestrian life in my neighborhood.”
“My mindset has changed to include thinking about who is responsible for improving the pedestrian experience and to not assume existing conditions are permanent.”
“I’m more aware of the efforts people and local organizations are undertaking to protect pedestrians. Also, I’m recognizing the bureaucratic and funding challenges of implementing these improvements to pedestrian life and that advocacy doesn’t easily translate into action. I’m also more conscious of choosing to walk through and understand the city better.”
Coming to terms
Many of our Rangers really did start a conversation. They were pleasantly surprised that when they wrote to the city, they got a quick response often full of detail and support. They felt an awareness that someone was listening to their concerns, which can be a real hurdle to participating in broader change especially around big challenging issues.
But some of our Rangers never got an answer. For them, this project revealed inadequacies in the system: how our streets are designed, how they’re managed, and the public engagement process for ensuring that everyone can have a say. One street ranger said, “No one is responsible!” as they struggled with getting traction on their chosen issue. Others felt that the tools we provided them just weren’t enough given the scale of the problem and the effort needed to resolve them. Many Rangers felt they could have done with even more support, something we recognize and will be considering as we move forward.
Staying positive and engaged
While the challenges are significant and it is easy to feel disheartened at setbacks, many of the street rangers noted that they felt “activated” and wanted to do something bigger. Particularly in the context of there being few opportunities for change at a national level, this kind of hyper-local action felt especially tangible and important. We think there is plenty of evidence here that taking a small but personally involved step towards change can encourage people to feel fundamentally more comfortable with change. Our Street Ranger one-week program may be, for some, the first rung on the ladder of participation. We sincerely hope all our Street Rangers don’t stop here, and continue to intervene and advocate for safer, more livable and more human-centered streets in San Francisco and beyond.
What comes next
Our Street Ranger program was a roaring success, but only because our Street Rangers themselves launched themselves into it with enthusiasm and commitment that impressed us all deeply. We are, first and foremost, very grateful they all took a chance on us and committed so much time and energy and love to the project.
Stepping back, we think there is something unique and special about a well thought-through, highly localized support program for activating local change-makers, and will continue to work on ways to improve the program and perhaps consider it at larger scales.
What might this program look like in months and years to come? We have lots of ideas, including trying bigger things in San Francisco and expanding to other cities around the Bay Area - perhaps even the country as a whole. But we’re not done thinking yet, so stay tuned. If you have ideas about what you would like to see Street Rangers work on next, shoot us an email at JoinUs@NationalStreetService.org or connect with us via Instagram: @national_street_service or Twitter: @Nstreetservice #nationalstreetservice