One Person Can Make a Playborhood

Lots of interesting ideas came up at Playborhood’s Neighborhood Forum in Palo Alto last night. It was great to hear from people with a variety of perspectives on the challenge of giving our children more time – and space – to play, especially in our neighborhoods.

But here’s one message that really stood out for me: Often the things that truly make neighborhoods special come down to the efforts of just one person.

A good example is the work of Karen Harwell, profiled here recently. Karen has turned her garden into a place where neighborhood kids get to plant, grow and harvest fruits and vegetables of all kinds.
The place is a just-down-the-block destination trusted by local parents. Thanks to Karen, their children have somewhere nearby that they like to visit – where they can be outside, learn about nature or simply hang-out, and where they can work together to achieve something satisfyingly edible.

When you have something like that down the road from your home, you not only have a convenient and popular place to go with your kids (a huge deal to anyone responsible for a child’s day). You also have a location in which you are likely to meet other local parents or care givers and their children – meetings from which play dates can be born, friendships founded and community built.

The good news about this is that it doesn’t take much to make a neighborhood special. There’s a guy in another Palo Alto neighborhood – Barron Park – who runs a small-gauge steam train around his yard many weekends through the year. Another family in Barron Park keep chickens, goats, ducks and other animals and lets children come visit them whenever they want. Both contribute significantly to the area’s reputation as a wonderful place for families to live.

What’s not so great about these neighborhood-making solo efforts is just that: they are very often the work of only one person. That means they can disappear when the individual behind them burns out, moves on or changes vocations. It also means we’re asking an awful lot of one, usually uncompensated, neighbor. Sure, there’s a satisfaction in helping make the area where you live a true neighborhood, but it takes time and effort, too.

Unfortunately, even if we are willing to make an effort of our own, too many of us don’t have the time – or the space, for that matter – to do what these people are doing.

So how can we help more neighborhoods offer places like Karen’s garden? I’m not sure the answer’s to institutionalize these places. Setting up an umbrella organization to run them when their originators are ready to move on brings the added pressures of committee-filling and fund raising on top of keeping the garden, railroad or other play space going (of course in Karen’s case the garden is also her house!). Towns are surely enriched when they have committee-managed parks, children’s gardens, model farms or a kids’ museums – but it’s too much to expect that to work very often on a neighborhood level.

Instead I think we need to encourage more people to make the community-binding gestures that Karen has—in their own neighborhoods, on their own blocks.

That means publicizing the value that families reap from such small-scale neighborhood-friendly initiatives. And it means making sure people like Karen know how much their work is appreciated – perhaps by offering to help buy seeds, or play equipment, or do a day of cleaning weeds on the railroad when we are able.

It also suggests we advocate, at a city level, for planning policies (property tax breaks, maybe) that encourage people to offer their land as neighborhood play spaces.

Finally, it means advocating at a very broad national level for a change in the way that we conceive of the proper balance between our work and the rest of our lives.

To afford to live even in modest houses these days, too many parents are having to both work full time. It means we don’t have time to know our neighbors or our neighborhoods. It means our weekends are spent playing catch up, instead of helping build new planters at the community playground or garden. It means too many of us won’t even know if there is someone like Karen in our neighborhood, let alone offer something like she does ourselves.

Americans commonly report in surveys that they would gladly work less time for less money but complain that to ask their employers for such a deal would be to put their job in jeopardy. We need that to change – and for employers to realize what’s in it for them to have employees who feel they are leading lives that allow them to really know and nurture their children.

Our kids are the employees (and employers) of the future, after all. We all have an interest in them being creative, resilient, well-adjusted, passionate contributing members of our society – all qualities that play-friendly spaces in their neighborhoods can do a tremendous amount to nurture.

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