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!