Greenspace, Gardeners, Parents, Property, and Common Pool Resources

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

One of my guilty pleasures is reading Carolyn Hax’s advice column in the Washington post; she’s a lot more hip than Dear Abby, and she also has a big commentariat. I like her a lot. From a recent column (I’ve cut down both question and answer considerably), the question:

Dear Carolyn:My neighborhood has one small traffic island on a busy street to calm traffic and prevent accidents. Our town maintains traffic islands as public green space with the help of community volunteer gardeners.

Several homes surrounding the island have been incubating [yikes!] a new batch of children. About eight of them are now ly allowed to play outside their yards and have taken to playing on the island, climbing its small trees, sword-playing, and using it as a meeting place/pirate ship/castle etc.

One neighbor who has been doing the gardening discovered that a lot of the plants had been trampled, tree branches broken — it was a mess — and posted a sign saying it was not a playground. Then a parent posted over the sign a response saying that the children have to play somewhere. I detected the implication that we might be too old to understand the needs of their young children.

These are half-million-dollar homes and all of them have yards. Granted, this small island is a public space, but it is not a playground.

Given the damage and the fact that no parents are visibly supervising their children out on the street, and none of these homeowners pitches in to keep the island up (or thanks the invisible few that do), we are confused as to whether to continue doing this civic beautification task….

And here is Hax’s response:

You’re not a get-off-my-lawn person, but the poster of the original sign sure sounds like one.

It’s unfortunate, too, because that huffy, arm’s-length, get-off-my-lawn-you-unwashed-vermin implication may have cost your neighborhood its best chance to find some kind of cooperative solution to this problem: actually talking to each other, nicely.

But that doesn’t mean inclusiveness and cooperation are impossible. It just means that you (since you’re the one asking) need to be extra, extra careful to set an example of flexibility and calm.

That chiefly means not digging in (uhhh!) on the current preference for foliage over families. If the plantings aren’t kid-hardy, then maybe it’s time for tougher plantings instead of tougher boundaries for the kids.

So, talk. Warn the gardeners, though, that they vie for the last word at their peril. With community property, you all have equal say, but with kids, the parents get the last word, so who’s rightest, safest, greenest, volunteeriest, or best validated by property values is trumped by the parents’ prerogative. If they want their kids to play on the island, there’s not much you can do about it but complain your way to a rift.

Since I don’t have kids, and I do garden, I’m strongly resisting Hax’s framing of “foliage over families”; in what way, after all, is training children not to trample over a public garden anti-kid, or anti-family? Isn’t that, rather, the sort of civilizing mission one would think that families undertake? (We’ll get to that odd  “equal say”/”last word” formulation later.) Having gotten that off my chest — and I have a raspberry patch in front of my lawn exactly to keep kids of all ages off it — the really interesting part pf Hax’s response, to me, is this:

With community property, you all have equal say

So what we have isn’t a kids vs. curmudgeons issue, but a governance issue; NC’s beat. (Readers will recall that there are not two kinds of property, but three: Public, private, and common pool resources. Note that Hax’s formulation — “community property” — could really apply to any one of the three, even the second, assuming in that case a beneficent squillionaire, say, who owned the traffic island but allowed “the community” to work it.) Moreover, since Hax’s readership is located in the Washington, DC area, the comment will give us a good read on what the political class thinks about property. Spoiler alert: It’s not always a pretty sight. There are 1035 comments (!), so I’m not going summarize all the threads, but I’ll select some highlights from “Most Liked” and group them under headings (with apologies to the commenters for threading context lost).

Does public property mean “anything goes”?

Some answer yes:

blue period: Well, first off, this is public land, so anyone can do what they want. Garden on it, play on it, it’s all okay.

But most don’t.

pjs-1965: I’ll part this topic with the following observation that has nothing to do with kids: That anything goes simply because it is public property. The attitude that “nobody owns it, so kids and anyone else should do whatever the hell they want in it.” On that principle I think I’ll take a leak in the library stacks. It’s a public place, after all, so I should do that too there.

Yes, we have a governance issue

First off, note that Hax’s idea that “the traffic island is ‘community property,’ so talk” formulation doesn’t address what kind of property the traffic island is, or how what kind of governance would be appropriate for it. And the LW’s [Letter Writer’s] formulation, “public green space” with “community volunteers” is pretty vague, too. So, if “the community” is to govern, it’s not clear how the rules are to be set up. But if the city is to govern, who from “the community” is to approach them? And it also isn’t clear what kind of property the garden is, which isn’t necessarily the same kind of property the traffic island is.

AbidingDudev2.0: First, as usual, there’s a lack of effective government here. These kinds of things need rules because both the kids and the plant people have, in their minds, an equal right to the same land. The owner of the land should set the rules.

Humahumahummus1: Actually, this may not be public space. It may be owned by the city/county/whatever entity owns and maintains the streets and decided to build the island.

sahmt00: Then LW and friends have no right to use it as an extra space to garden.

GladGrace: But they might. There is a city-sanctioned and managed group here that does this. If they need to adapt to changing land use, then they need to involve the city and adapt, but they have every right to go plant daffodils…

Note also that all the players were set up for conflict by the “planning” process.

greenmountains: The fight about this little island of grass is another perfect example of the failures of suburban planning in the United States. Why is there a neighborhood without a deginated park space? Because developers are allowed to build on virtually every square foot of ground without be required to set aside public spaces. Then you get these sad situation where, in a landscape built for cars over people, the local traffic island is the only place to play or garden. This shouldn’t be allowed to happen in the first place. Having a lawn isn’t the same as having a neutral place for people to gather. Europeans have known that every neighborhood needs a public square since the Renaissance. Why don’t we insist on it when we give planning permission?

Who actually does own the traffic island?

Several commenters express the idea that if the ownership of the traffic island can be determined, who was the right to use it must follow.

npmom: But it’s not Old Man Smith’s yard, it sounds like it’s public property. Which means that the kids have as much right as the gardeners.

Not necessarily; the traffic island may be regulated.

handofjustice1: I don’t know if this has been mentioned, but the traffic island is most likely city, county, or state owned property. If it is taken care of by volunteers, there is very likely some kind of agreement as to what can and can not be done with the plantings on the island.


Call your local government and find out if the gardening program is in any way regulated and then employ the agency ultimately responsible to determine what will be done with the space: garden or playground. That agency can inform all relevant property owners/lessees and put an end to questions as to what type of space it should be.

How is ownership determined?

Does “the community” decide? Does the town council, as a representative body? How about primitive accumulation by the gardeners?

.Morti: I think it would be a good idea for the whole local community, of which everyone is an equal member, to determine use and the best way to care the green space.

sideswiththekids: .morti, are you saying they have the right to use the green space because it doesn’t belong to anyone? That sounds like the sort of people who don’t consider keeping a library book as stealing. Public space belongs to EVERYONE, and its up to everyone, through public meetings or their representatives, to determine how it is to be used. The LW should go to the town council and ask what the policy is on the green space.

Luciana1: The gardeners don’t own the space! They probably don’t own the plants either. And of course there is no obvious way to say which kid, if any, caused the ‘soil compaction.’ I get the feeling that the main problem here is an inappropriate sense of ownership by the self-appointed ‘gardeners.

Or possibly if you put work into something, you own it.

Gemini Girl: I’m a parent. With a son who goes wandering around the neighbourhood to see who he can play with. But even he knows where to go and where not to, and to be respectful of other people’s property. In our town, the medians are town property – yes, public, but not meant for kids to play on. They are maintained by the Garden Club men and women, who donate a lot of their free time to weed and plant and maintain those strips. They are wonderful to see in Spring, Summer and Fall, changing with the seasons – and I appreciate the hours of labour that have gone into keeping it that way so that everyone can enjoy the flowers and foliage. I would be very sorry to see that work undone by kids.

Why not involve the kids?

Give the kids a sense of ownership by teaching them to garden.

lastnamefirst: My town has a Master Gardener program that allows experienced gardeners to teach children how to plant and tend various types of gardens. By no coincidence, we also have marvelous parks–the best feature of the town.

And change the plantings!

Morti: It’s not hard to plant child friendly and child resistant gardens.

The kids are gonna do what they wanna do

(Everybody’s saying “gonna” and “wanna” these days, so why not me too?)

Sunflower571: I moved to a neighborhood 6 months ago with both private yards and public spaces. The houses are very close-we have fourth of an acre lots I think. I have taught my very active toddler to only walk on the sidewalk and play in our yard unless invited to play in a neighbor’s yard. It is a big pet peeve of mine how many neighbors let their kids run all over the place-even through the yards of child free people with beautifully landscaped yards. And, as I have mentioned my kid is very active and hyper but he understands idea of private property. I don’t think a lot of people even TRY to teach their kids this. Anyway, I think you are in the right LW but I think you are going to be fighting a losing battle if there are multiple families letting their kids do this.

* * *

I placed “The kids are gonna do what they wanna do” last for a reason; and I think Hax’s self-contradictory “equal say”/”last word” formulation shares that reason. That is, the traffic island is a Common Pool Resource (CPR), and needs to be governed accordingly. Here’s a definition of a CPR from the P2P Foundation:

“Common-pool Resources (CPRs) are natural or human-made resources where one person’s use subtracts from another’s use and where it is often necessary, but difficult and costly, to exclude other users outside the group from using the resource. … Whenever a group of people depend on a resource that everybody uses but nobody owns, and where one person’s use effects another person’s ability to use the resource, either the population fails to provide the resource, overconsumes and/or fails to replenish it, or they construct an institution for undertaking and managing collective action.

So, the garden in the traffic island is a human-made resource. But when the kids use it to play, they subtract use from the gardeners by trampling on plants. The gardeners tried to impose a social cost on the kids and their parents by putting up a sign, whereupon the parents upped the ante with their own sign. One outcome is that the gardeners will stop providing the garden, and that with nobody taking care of it, the traffic island will become a trampled ruin that’s no good to play in. Alternatively, as Has suggests, they could “talk.” But what about? Here’s Elinor Ostrom’s list of governance principles for CPRs:

1. Define clear group boundaries. [“the neighborhood”]

2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions. [change the plantings]

3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules. [no more unilateral signs!]

4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities. [talk to the city]

5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior. [having no kids, have no idea!]

6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators. [could be modest fines that fund a neighborhood event]

7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.

8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system. [I think the master gardener teaching kids would do this. Solve the “lowest level,” the kids, and you solve everything. And the principle might be that if you do the work, you have a bigger ownership stake.]

* * *

So there we have it. We can’t come up with a governance structure for property if we don’t know what kind of property we have!

Readers, thoughts?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. timotheus

    An excellent topic and discussion–was recently reminded of this type of problem when our volunteer-maintained park was raided, the morning of Mothers Day, by unknown persons who that decided the tulips at peak bloom were fair game and could be snipped to provide a nice bouquet for their sainted progenitors. I assumed that the logic was, My mother is obviously special as she gave birth to ME, to whom normal rules do not apply, ergo, I can help myself to communally produced and enjoyed goods.

    The problem arises often (inexorably?) in social movements and the nonprofits that emerge from them as people create a value through their volunteer contributions and then watch ambitious individuals arrive to try, usually successfully, to take possession of it. Enormous efforts involving complex (ground?) rules, such as Ms. Ostrom’s, are then required such that ownership remains with the collective to preserve the group’s original motivating impulse so that participants want to sustain their efforts rather than join someone’s private mafia. IMHO, however, the long-term tendency is toward caudillismo, which I have come to conclude is our species’ default comfort zone.

    1. McMike

      Good post. You raise a couple issues that are of great interest to me.

      The entitlement fugue states that some people seem enter in some situations (such as your tulip raiders). I imagine some of those people are just clueless and do not notice signs or consider implication in their little bubbles, but some I bet go through self-absorbed rationalizations that if we could overhear would be very horrifying in their banality and ugliness. This can go double for some parents, but also for dog and cat owners, a portion of who routinely create worlds for themselves where rules, norms, courtesies do not apply to them – because apparently the world was created for them (or for their pets).

      I suspect that some of these parents and pet owners not-so-secretly take pleasure in the semi-feral lawlessness that their little proxies represent. There is more than a little gleam of pride in their eyes as they advocate the right of their kids to play anywhere/cats to poop in neighbor gardens/dogs to roam freely and dig and fight.

      The second is the hijacking of nonprofit and community based movements and built resources that you mention. It is indeed inevitable. I have put a lot of thought to it and realize that setting up rules or living wills or bylaws or deed restrictions or covenants or whatever is pointless. I guess even these structures are not immune to the stages of simulacra.

      It can be very heartbreaking to founders who sweated blood and tears in a labor of love giving birth to some organic community asset, only to have newbies come along and pervert that purpose, or simply proceed cluelessly without any idea what was all once like or about. I’ve seen it happen many times in many flavors. I have also seen these efforts involuntarily privatized by an ambitious person who appropriates the value created and literally takes ownership of it.

      I am a parent of kids, yet find that some of my peers hold the “kids will be kids” ethos with a rather disturbing zeal. These parents on not simply unable to reign in their sociopathic offspring, they don’t want to. Same goes for “cats will be cats” meme that comes up as the rest of the neighborhood puts up with bird guts strewn on our patio furniture, cat poop in our vegetable beds, and midnight cat fights/mating in the otherwise quiet streets.

  2. jgordon

    I was growing some tiger melons by the street last year, and kids kept coming by and stealing them… before they were ripe. I found ruined remnants of more than one in the empty lot across the street. Now that I read the above, I realize that I should have been looking at the situation as a property rights/governance issue–rather than taking it as a design problem on my part.

    So instead of not growing water melons (I planted ghost peppers and habaneros there instead this year in between a new, imposing thicket of roses, which the neighborhood kids seem well enough willing to leave alone) I suppose I should have started monitoring my yard with surveillance cameras and called the cops whenever I saw a kid stray too close to my produce. Ah darn, I learn new things from NC every day.

    1. Moneta

      A friend of mine would put dog poo under the door handle of a curmudgeon’s car when the latter would get a little too finicky.

  3. Howard Richardson

    If all negotiation fails, I would plant Poison Ivy; for its beautiful fall foliage of course.

  4. David Petraitis

    It occurs to me that governance in general and discussions about styles type and modes of governance is a level of discourse that not many people are comfortable with. The “Dear Abby” advice columnist advice was historically one of answering a question of “What are the rules here?” And at the outset this column seems to ask that question. But generally your answer is about “What set of (multiple) rules applies here?” Which is a meta-level discussion. In my business experience there were few people who could have a meta-level discussion about the rules.

    On the other hand Carolyn Hax seems to suggest that the “neighborhood” have a discussion about “How can we go about making the rules?” Which is a much more challenging a meta-meta-level discussion about how to make up the rules. Then even the shape of the negotiating table becomes part of the negotiation This is a challenging level of discussion and having a skilled or learning (group of) facilitators may be the first thing that is needed.

    The community needs first of all to have a space and time together to create the discussion to begin the process of even getting to the point of potentially talking about the (Ostrom’s) kinds of issues that you end with. All of which is a long process. In my experience some people will always feel that they (and their opinions, rights, entitlements, perquisites) have been ignored and feel hurt, snubbed and end up being vindictive.Unless there is skillful facilitation – and even then that outcome is possible. A type of open, integral level of community leadership/facilitation is required but there seem to be only a few people with the skills to do this (Don Beck comes to mind.).

    1. Banger

      People who feel excluded, frankly, need more hugs–not necessarily physical hugs those offend some people–but acceptance and validation for who they are.

  5. David Petraitis

    For impressive hedges I have always liked black berries… the thorns are very Maleficent. And the kids will eat the berries, but prick their fingers and fall asleep…. hehe.

  6. Banger

    Great post and it demands that we face the reality of our political situation. First, the issue you bring up is a central political issue–how do we live together? We often see politics as something external–something people do who are into “politics”–in fact, politics is something we do all the time as long as we live in society. We are social creatures but in the USA, sociability is not highly valued. I lived in the DC suburbs for most of my life and it is a place where private property and private life is much more valued than collective space and life even more than the rest of the country. At the same time, the central task of the political capitol of the USA, is to express the collective will and, it appears, the collective will is that we not live in a society with collective values.

    In terms of this problem of the “island” I say that providing convivial spaces for kids is a direct expression of our interest in the future. Kids search out wherever they can find a way to express their unfettered humanity which is, I think, why Jesus suggested we be as children–not be children but adopt the playful attitude which comes from a child’s ability to be in the moment which was the essence of Jesus’ teachings. The whole obsession with real-estate in this society is something we need to move away from because it is property values that seem to rule much of our lives. Both the parents and the gardeners are at fault here–both should loosen up and liberate themselves from the rampant materialism of the suburbs. The way to solve, btw, the problem of the traffic island is to have more parties, more celebrations not more rules and precise boundaries–we need less boundaries and more drunken revels or even psychedelic experimentation. Once you bond at a more gut level with other people these problems take care of themselves very quickly–of course being more involved with others creates another set of issues but, in the end, if we actually want to deal with the various issues we face in our society like war, income inequality, climate change and so on we have to come together through pleasure not the law. Our dependence on “the law” and rules and regs is a direct expression of distrust and it has become toxic to our humanity.

    1. MtnLife

      “The way to solve, btw, the problem of the traffic island is to have more parties, more celebrations not more rules and precise boundaries–we need less boundaries and more drunken revels or even psychedelic experimentation. Once you bond at a more gut level with other people these problems take care of themselves very quickly–of course being more involved with others creates another set of issues but, in the end, if we actually want to deal with the various issues we face in our society like war, income inequality, climate change and so on we have to come together through pleasure not the law. Our dependence on “the law” and rules and regs is a direct expression of distrust and it has become toxic to our humanity.”

      The problem of not knowing our neighbors has been exacerbated by the “me first” generation(s) and ridiculous schedules that don’t allow for a quick chat over the proverbial white picket fence. People don’t hold block parties anymore and rarely even greet new homeowners to the neighborhood, if they even noticed someone new moved in that is. This creates a situation where the first contact you have with those living near your is bound to be unpleasant and possibly hostile. We feel like we are the kings of our own little fiefdoms, ready to wage war in the name of long grass and “unsightly” clotheslines.
      I think more psychedelic use as a whole would be a good thing as they do a wonderful job of stripping away the layers of societal programming and laying bare your true connection to the universe. It’s hard to argue some trampled periwinkle with any vigor when the majesties and secrets of the universe have been revealed and understood.

  7. syzygysue

    Interesting parallel with the points that Hernando de Soto was making about derivatives, in this 2009 CUNY conversation with David Harvey, Joe Stigliz and Naomi Klein. His argument was that the difference between a banana republic and the ‘success’ of western capitalism was the rigour of legal framework for property ownership. In his view, 2008 (and beyond) was characterised by the banana-republic-like inability to sort out property rights and therefore, liabilities for the banking losses.

    If you don’t have any paperwork as to who owes or own something, how can you sue, fine or imprison wrongdoing… and put things right. I was certainly persuaded when reminded of the Inclosures Act of Common Land and the difficulties of indigenous peoples and their crops in resisting primary accumulation… currently very pertinent in the UK with the creeping privatisation of the NHS and the sell off of Royal Mail etc.

  8. Moneta

    For me this strife just goes to show that we keep on creating neighborhoods that do not fit the needs of the people. Some people think streets are for everyone and others think they are only for cars.

    I often wonder if the architects and builders live in the real world. I noticed that many schools are built with pathways that pedestrians do not use and front entrances are often positioned in the most inconvenient areas. It is most obvious in the winter when snow trails clearly show where the traffic occurs.

    Houses are built without any consideration for the geography, sunlight and climate. When I was a child, I rarely played in the backyard. We would all congregate and play on our front lawns or on the street where many parents could easily keep on eye on the kids… I’ve never understood why developments always put so much focus on the backyard when most of the activity happens at the street level. On my street, many sit in their garage to see the world go by despite having beautiful backyards… if that isn’t a sign, I don’t know what is!

    People complain that today’s children don’t go out but when they do go out, they have nowhere to go because everyone wants their surroundings to be pristine. Parks are nice but more often than not, there are no bathrooms or water. And in today’s world, it’s bad parenting if you let them go to the park without you being there breathing down their neck.

    It’s time to build areas that work for multiple needs. IMO, this situation reflects the fact that these needs have not been addressed.

    1. McMike

      I agree that when the ONLY place to play or to beautify is a single traffic island, conflicts are inevitable.

      I wonder, however, if some people would ever be willing or able to set up sacred zones that are off limits to certain uses, no matter how much open space is available. You could set up a dozen traffic islands, and kids would still want to use them all, and gardeners would still dislike the unsightly kid play zones.

      I look at the national challenges we have with off road vehicle users and gas drillers, and they, as a rule, seem to have an inability to respect any closure anywhere ever for any purpose that excludes them. It is a deep insatiable narcissism that knows no limits or perspective: don’t tell me what to to, anywhere, ever.

      1. Moneta

        I guess we’d have to look to Europe to see how they deal with these issues…

        I know in Norway, for example, one is allowed to ski through others’ backyards to get to work…

        1. McMike

          I see a difference between privacy/trespassing and competing extractive/degrading uses.

          Once a gas driller or ORV user tears up the land, most other users are excluded/degraded more or less permanently.

          Europe’s response to competing uses was the enclosure movement.

          One interesting place in the US where competing privacy uses are a hot topic is the fishermen/rafters versus riverfront land owners. Is there a right to float? Is there a right to wade? Or does private property extend to the river bed and the water on top of it? Do historic public uses of trails/trailheads create a public easement?

          1. MtnLife

            Property rights, with regard to water, depend on how it is worded in the deed and/or applicable regulations/laws. Some properties end where the water begins, some have a 10′ buffer into the water, some extend to the midpoint of the body of water, and some cover the whole body, possibly including acreage on the other side although acreage on both sides does not guarantee control of the water. Some deeds do include control of navigation on said waterways.

            In VT, as long as you aren’t on a snowmobile/ATV, there is no trespassing law unless your property is properly posted. You can walk through the woods as long as you like through other people’s land until you hit signage.

            1. McMike

              Agreed. You will find as property values go up, fences/signage goes up, as does lobbying to weaken the open access laws.

              When you pay a ton for a slice of paradise, you don’t want a bunch of unwashed rednecks tromping around outside your wall of windows, and leaving candy wrappers.




              Places where people have walked for years/generations, where rafters have picnicked below rapids, favorite swimming holes, or trailheads all convert to off limits private preserves.

          2. JohnL

            In WA, public trust doctrine allows public access to almost all navigable waters and land below high tide.

        2. Carla

          Huh. The skiing through others’ backyards reminds me of a few decades ago when my family and I had moved into a house where the next door neighbors weren’t friendly or welcoming in any way. One day I looked out the kitchen window and saw the neighbor driving his truck — quite fast — across our backyard lawn and then front-first down our driveway to the street. I looked at his driveway and saw a vehicle with the engine hood up, which had clearly blocked him from backing out of his driveway to reach the street the proper way. My instant reaction was fury — how DARE he? After a while, I calmed down and realized that if he had simply knocked on our door, explained his predicament and asked our permission to drive across our lawn to get his truck out, we would have, even if reluctantly, said “yes.”

          After many months and several more misunderstandings with anger and bad feelings on both sides, I finally went next door and knocked. When the “offender” answered the door I said “Listen, can we just talk?” and stuck out my hand. He shook it, invited me in, and we talked for over an hour. I’m grateful to report that our two families had a decent neighborly relationship after that.

  9. middle seaman

    Kids appear in the WaPo, post and comments as uncontrollable creatures with little intelligence. Sharing the island constructively seems to allude most. Solutions that combine both kids and gardening may be feasible and community building.

  10. JohnL

    Great post, thanks Lambert.

    These issues are all around us. We deal with them in our homeowners association and water system, beach access, developer versus land trust, fishing rights, … I find Ostrom’s work invaluable in helping me chart a course on those where I’m personally involved.

    I don’t share some commenters’ opinions that these efforts are doomed. Ostrom showed that these institutions, once established, are very stable. The problem is that we’re on the verge of forgetting as a society how to do this.

  11. impermanence

    This is America. Kids were thrown under the bus decades ago. It’s all about property [value].

  12. tommy strange

    Simple solution. Advocate and organize in an anarchist manner. ‘Public” is then common as in all own it and all must cherish it. The common is for the public, not the individual. The individual’s rights only exist because the ‘public’ defend it, thus the individual must defer to his/her local or larger federated organization when taking any action. “Is what I do going to damage the community that supports and defends me?” “is what I do going to turn my peer group against me, so that I will not be allowed to engage in my own social circle, and maybe even not have the people defend me against eviction?”
    Sorry to hijack the post, I know this involves the ‘present’ situation…property values and etc…..but the present has to be changed to a future.
    Increasingly I see ‘ex liberals’ and progressives groping for communitarian fixes and puts. You would all be better off just embracing 150 years of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Chomsky,Vandana Shiva,A. Roy, and even recent ex liberals like Chris Hedges. The ruling class won’t let little ‘fixes’ happen, unless the big fix is always in.

    1. McMike

      They tried the anarchist approach: a handful of people voluntarily invested time and money in creating a beautified spot of some common value to which no one had effective ownership, and then a handful of kids trashed it while looking for an interesting place to play.

      The spontaneous peer pressure does not exist, since the different players have different values. The parents resent the gardeners’ unilateral appropriation of common ground for an exclusive sole purpose. While the gardeners’ resent the unsupervised children’s unilateral destruction of common property for a little short term gratification.

      Continuing on this course virtually guarantees that it will eventually become a dirt patch that no one wants to play on or look at.

      1. MtnLife

        Spontaneous peer pressure doesn’t exist because all of the parties involved weren’t made a part of the decision making process. This could be easily resolved by having a meeting, possibly even just a public bulletin board (physical or digital), where all parties (including the kids) have a say. A common sense resolution could be to build a couple raised beds and run some monkey bars in between. Fill the beds with edibles and string runner beans up the monkey bars. Everyone has to be involved in the project to have a sense of ownership (even the kids, they can hand sand the wood), hopefully creating respect for the space. The grumps could open up their yards to play with a no-sue policy in place on the condition that the kids respect landscaped vegetation and noise. The kids will enforce these rules amongst themselves in order to preserve their “common good”. This is how we played Manhunt in our neighborhood growing up. The first night you played, the older kids would tell you the RULES, not of the game, of the conditions that playing the game rested on and not to ruin for everybody else. We could go through any of our neighbors yards so long as we were quiet and didn’t destroy anything. Anything that did go wrong was owned up to due to peer pressure from fear of losing the gaming arena.

        1. McMike

          That doesn’t sound like anarchy.

          That sounds like the consensual development of rules, preserved orally, with unspoken and somewhat arbitrary consequences for violation.

          1. Banger

            Anarchy is a process not some final end that gets imposed from people saying “let’s be anarchists.” Anarchy requires a change of heart. When people are together, when they’ve had celebrations, connection rituals and so on then anarchy can emerge. If you have a divided and distrustful population anarchy does not have the remotest possibility of coming into being.

  13. LifelongLib

    When I was a kid, the yard of any other kid we played with was a play area, as was any vacant lot. There was also a house on a huge lot with trees where the owner didn’t mind us playing as long as we were across the pond from the main yard. Of course in that neighborhood everyone knew who we were and would talk to our parents if we caused any problems. As far as I can recall though there were no “public” areas other than the streets.

  14. optimader

    The first line “My neighborhood has one small traffic island on a busy street to calm traffic and prevent accidents.” fairly succinctly describes the function of a traffic island.
    It is a civil engineering/urban planning feature used to alter the behavior/flow of what is assessed as inherently traffic. Be it due to speed, density, vehicle composition.. whatever.

    Is it just me or do you really need to plumb deeply the inconsistency of using a traffic control device as a playground for small children?? It seems obvious, to me at least, that this should really not need to go much further than clarifying with the Municipal attorney in writing who carries liability responsibility for parties injured when said “small traffic islands” function is informally expanded to “playground” by common use.

    “These are half-million-dollar homes and all of them have yards.”

    Presumably this implies it is an upscale neighborhood, It would be interesting to see a Google Maps pic to see haw far the closest park/playground is.

    “..Parks are nice but more often than not, there are no bathrooms or water. And in today’s world, it’s bad parenting if you let them go to the park without you being there breathing down their neck.””

    This is a rather red herring false dilemma.
    Does the traffic island have a bathroom, running water or adult supervision?
    Tell the kids to take a piss before they leave, give them of bottle of water and tell them to be home before dinner.
    BTW I’ll say I cant think of a park I went to as a kid that didn’t at least have a water fountain (or a pump). Bathroom? Worst case, find a tree.

    How are these kids going to survive after the financial apocalypse ( if they don’t get hit by the UPS truck chasing an errant ball from the traffic island?)

  15. quixote

    It’s not actually “gardeners vs kids.” It’s “gardeners + everybody who enjoys the sight of the landscaped traffic island + kids who could play non-destructively vs kids who play destructively for a few days.”

    My first thought was actually “traffic island = playground ?? Is this place fenced? Say whaaat?” But, okay, whatever.

    My solution would be to find out if the majority of the community likes to see gardens in the traffic island. If yes, then the parents can let their kids play there if they do the work and expense of fixing, replanting, and maintaining that their kids generate. Alternatively, they can be billed for the lowering of property values caused by brown dirt traffic islands…?

    I guess I’m not too sympathetic to the parents since I get the same vibe that I feel when pet owners have their little darlings poot in everybody else’s gardens.

    As for how the Europeans deal with this kind of thing, I can tell you how the Dutch used to deal with it. (Haven’t been there in a couple of decades.) They had a shared value system. Some things, like trampling communal space, was in the realm of Not Done. Should some out-and-outlier in the community do something like that, they’d be labeled “asociaal,” asocial. Nobody did anything, but neither did they speak to people who were “asociaal.” The social ostracism and disapproval was formidable and severe. It’s amazingly effective at keeping people in line.

    But it only works if very few people are beyond the pale.

  16. Rosario

    This article reveals the potential insidiousness of property as a legal concept. It is only an inalienable right so long as power is on the side of the claimant, and it is only an effective legal concept when there is broad participation in its allocation and maintenance (i.e. there cannot be economic and political disenfranchisement). In the past “ownership” was a community mandate. Typically the community comprised of relatives or at the very least close associates and friends with a significant stake in the health of the community. Obviously today we cannot expect to have a neighborhood of close relatives and associates with a common concern for the community’s well being, yet ownership requires this (or something similar) for it to be just. So we are in a predicament that I feel we are not doing an adequate job of addressing, to say the least. Recall the London riots just a few years ago. The rioters could only express their disgust with a system they have no place within by participating in short-circuited consumerism, theft. In turn, the U.K. media and government went about the task of damage control tip-toeing the line of strong condemnation without stumbling into the realms of criticism that would further alienate the rioting masses (thus creating more strife). So how do we cure the social disease of alienation and disenfranchisement which makes property and ownership so problematic? Reconsidering the concept of value would be a good start (less emphasis on Capital, more on social capital, if we insist on using Capitalist language). Another would be designing an economy that makes the atomization of community impossible. Despite Margaret Thatcher’s claim, society is all that we have. Markets do not exist without society and neither does property. This paradigm must be inverted for our social and political health.

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