Guerilla Playborhood Hunting Techniques II: Research Neighborhood Reputations

[NOTE: This the second in a series of four articles on Guerilla Playborhood Hunting Techniques. The first article is an introduction to the topic, the third article is about researching neighbors online, and the fourth article discusses what to look for and do when visiting a neighborhood around a home for sale.]

Why is researching neighborhood reputations a “guerilla Playborhood hunting technique?” Isn’t this something everyone does?

Well, as it turns out, accurate neighborhood reputations are not easy to find, so doing a good job of this requires some active research. In The Hubris of Neighborhood Profiles I wrote last year about how neighborhood guides, or at least the one for Palo Alto compiled by the Palo Alto Weekly, are not critical enough. Every neighborhood gets a great review.

I also find that realtors’ pronouncements about neighborhoods are too uniformly rosy. Some good realtors will give you some useful critical information, but on the whole, realtors will oversell neighborhoods even more than they oversell houses.

In addition, I’ve found that parents’ casual comments about the quality of kids’ lives in a neighborhood aren’t very useful. They almost always say wherever they live is “great” for their kids. In order to get a useful information, you need to ask very specific questions.So, how do we get the most reliable information on how good neighborhoods are for children’s outdoor play? Unfortunately, as of today, I’d say there’s no single easy answer. Perhaps Playborhood will provide objective, critical neighborhood play ratings for the area you’re interested in in the future.

In the meantime, you should start by reading every one of those local “Neighborhood Profiles” that you can because there might be some useful (albeit overly-rosy) information in there. Then, you should talk to local realtors and residents from the different neighborhoods, asking very specific questions.

I ask questions like the following:

  • Do your kids ever play outside on their own (unsupervised)? If they do, how often do they do this? With how many kids?
  • Where do your kids’ friends live? (If none of their friends are on the same street, that’s a bad sign.)
  • Let’s say you’re driving down your street one afternoon. What’s the probability that you’ll see kids playing in their front yards or on the street? What might they be doing?
  • Do kids walk to school in your neighborhood? What percentage, would you say, so? What ages? At what age do kids walk without parents?

Questions like these help you get the “real poop” on a neighborhood. Ideally, you should ask multiple people in a neighborhood these questions. Only then do you get a real clear sense of whether the neighborhood is a place were kids play outside or not.

Even if you do get pretty good information on neighborhoods, another fact limits its usefulness significantly. When most people talk about a “neighborhood,” they’re referring to a community of at least a hundred homes, sometimes over a thousand. However, the neighbors who really matter to kids are within a very small radius of their home – perhaps up to five houses in either direction. Furthermore, next-door neighbors are by far most important, followed by houses across the street and two houses down, and so on.

So, when most people talk about how a “neighborhood” is good for kids, they’re generalizing too far. It is true that College Terrace in Palo Alto, for instance, has a well-deserved reputation for children playing outside, so there are many pockets there were this happens. However, if you have babies and toddlers and you move into a house there surrounded by families with older kids and empty-nesters, your kids will not have neighborhood play opportunities, regardless of how good the “neighborhood” is for kids.

I would say that the probability that your child will have these opportunities is better for a random house in College Terrace than in, say, Old Palo Alto, but you still need to find out about the particular block that houses for sale are on.

That’s what I’ll be presenting in the final two articles in this series on Guerilla Playborhood Hunting Techniques. Next, I’ll discuss how to research online the possibility that potential playmates for your children live in houses neighboring the house for sale, and in my final article, I’ll talk about how to learn about the potential for children’s play from an in-person visit.

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