Pellerin: Healthy Ottawa – The virtues of (safe) street play
Whatever happened to kids tossing a football on a quiet residential street, or skipping rope near the curb? One Quebec town is showing it’s possible to let the kids loose.
People of a certain age can still hear it: “CAR!” Move away, let the car go by, resume play. It was fun, healthy and harmless for a certain generation. So why can’t our kids enjoy playing on the street nowadays?
Playing outside is a good thing. As the Ottawa-based Child and Nature Alliance of Canada pointed out in its position statement in favour of outdoor active play, it’s healthier and even safer than sitting inside playing video games.
Street hockey is not completely illegal in Ottawa. But most everything else is. Basketball? Nope. Hopscotch anywhere but the sidewalk? Nope. Throwing a football? Nope. Streets in our town are for cars. Even residential streets with little traffic.
Section 76 of the Traffic and Parking By-law “prohibits a person from playing or taking part in any game or sport upon a roadway, except while engaged in ball hockey where the free flow of traffic is not impeded.” Unless, of course, you have special permission. And a permit. Otherwise, no unpremeditated fun. Miscreants expose themselves to a $40 fine.
Street hockey is not completely illegal in Ottawa. But most everything else is.
Bylaw officers respond to complaints from citizens, usually about players impending the flow of traffic or leaving their nets behind, explained Alison Sandor, public information officer for By-Law and Regulatory Services with the City of Ottawa. In 2016, there were 11 such complains. In 2017 – big year – there were 13, before going back down to 11 last year and, so far in 2019, we’re up to five. In a city of one million people. Not exactly a civic crisis, is it? Why is playing on the street still illegal, then?
The little town of Beloeil (pop. 22,467), outside Montreal has been making a bit of a splash lately with its proliferation of play zones on residential streets, locations where clear signs indicate the likely presence of kids having fun being kids outside, just like we older folks used to.
Until recently, playing on the street was illegal everywhere in Quebec. But after a six-year-old faced the prospect of getting a ticket for playing in front of his house in 2016, Beloeil Coun. Pierre Verret decided enough was enough, and pushed for his municipality to adopt a pilot project entitled “Dans ma rue, on joue.” (On my street, we play.)
There’s some small print but the basic idea is this: Residents with enough neighbourly support submit their stretch of street to be designated. If it’s safe enough, the city adds signs warning drivers they’re about to enter a play area, hence the reduced speed limit. That’s pretty much it.
Authorities there were so pleased with the initial results that they created a toolkit for other municipalities wanting to give free play a try. Caroline Nguyen Minh, director of communications for the city of Beloeil, said there are now 48 streets with the designation as well as six others currently being evaluated. And since the spring of 2016, there have been no incidents except for one complaint after kids left hockey nets on the street. That problem got solved with a few conversations.
Beloeil’s initiative worked so well, in fact, that local MNA and Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barette tabled a private member’s bill allowing municipalities to implement similar play zones if they wish. The bill was adopted in 2017. Since then, other municipalities are in the process of establishing their own programs, including Gatineau.
What about Ottawa, then?
Capital Ward Coun. Shawn Menard said he’s in favour of “looking at models that allow more use of our roads and foster this type of play.” A similar sentiment came from Rideau-Goulbourn Coun. Scott Moffatt, who pointed out that “not every kid is fortunate enough to have access to sport.”
Ottawa-Centre NDP MPP Joel Harden said playing on the street was his after-school program when he was a kid. “In today’s screen-obsessed world, I fear kids are missing out on unstructured play outdoors. I salute what the town of Beloeil has done, and would welcome Ottawa and other towns in Ontario following suit,” he said.
Playing outside is simple, fun and healthy. We just need a few ground rules including — crucially — remembering to yell “CAR!” every so often.
Brigitte Pellerin is an Ottawa writer who wants this city to be the healthiest in Canada. Her series appears on Tuesdays and Fridays.