HOAs v. Kids: The New Shared Space Debate

Think about your childhood. What are your favorite memories? For many of us, favorite childhood memories include playing in the street (and all over the neighborhood) with our friends, and summer afternoons spent capturing butterflies in our neighbor’s yard. The block party or neighborhood barbecue was an annual summer event. Sometimes you even irritated your neighbors with your giggling, games, and the occasional errant bicycle. And that was okay. Neighbors gathered and shared; they bickered and complained. But that was okay, too, because negotiations and accommodations are the stuff of which true communities are made.

Now imagine a neighborhood where children aren’t allowed to play outside. Not due to heavy crime rates or dangerous traffic interchanges, but because some neighbors felt it was a nuisance. That is exactly what’s being proposed in one Central Florida neighborhood where a homeowners association (HOA) is preparing to vote on banning children from playing outside. The ban would carry a $100 violation for each instance of a child playing outside unsupervised by a parent or guardian. While some residents are calling the proposal “ridiculous,” others claim it’s a safety issue saying the neighborhood is “a community that does not have a playground and is not conducive to children. [Parents] expect the children to play in the driveways and parking lot.”

The “nuisance” aspect of the ban isn’t surprising coming from an HOA, which are known for their NIMBYism and restrictive policies, but the focus on limiting outdoor opportunities for children is more than improvident. It is, in fact, irresponsible at a time when childhood obesity rates are at an all-time high. Such a ban would further encourage the time (not that it’s needed) that youths spend playing sedentary video games—the full effects of which are still largely undetermined. To be fair, the demographics of this particular HOA are unclear—Is it a neighborhood meant for individuals and families without children? Regardless, the intention of this proposal is to further marginalize members of the community, which begs the question—What kind of community is this?

It’s easy as adults to gripe about how noisy kids are—about the clatter of skateboards, for example, there just to annoy you—it’s also easy to forget how important it is, especially for a kid, that the neighborhood feel like and be a comfortable, safe place. It comes down to a question, not of behavior mandates, but a change in perception. There are ways to make streets safe for play and for gathering without designated playgrounds. Take, for example, the celebrated Dutch woonerfs, which are public streets where pedestrians and cyclists have equal rights with cars. In these shared spaces, low speed limits and traffic calming techniques are used to enhance safety. The success of these spaces is due to a shift in the concept of how streets can be used, acknowledgement that public spaces belong to all members of the community, and respect for the safety of others, especially children.

Here at International Making Cities Livable, we talk a lot about how each segment of a community, and children in particular, plays a unique and important role in enhancing livability. The design characteristics are important but the people characteristics, you might say, are just as important. We believe that the healthiest community is one that works for all members—one that engages everyone and fosters healthy relationships and meaningful interaction. We believe that the most livable communities don’t put arbitrary restrictions on their residents, because if they are truly livable, they simply don’t have to.