SEATTLE, WASHINGTON – When Paulo Nunes-Ueno moved with his family onto a residential street between Wallingford and Green Lake in June, he brought along an 8-by-4-foot wooden sandbox he’d built for his two young children at their previous home.
On the new block, where the number of kids is estimated at between 15 and 20, and where many of the front yards are postage-stamp size, the sandbox became an instant gathering place for youngsters and their parents.
But not everyone approved. The city received an anonymous complaint about the sandbox, located at the end of the Nunes-Ueno driveway, violated city rules about play structures too close to the street.
The city sent him a warning he would be fined $500 a day if he didn’t remove the sandbox.
The city now has, if not a fight, at least a debate on its hands. Nunes-Ueno, a transportation and sustainability director for Seattle Children’s hospital, wants to nudge the city toward more varied uses of the street, planting strip and sidewalk. That means at least considering some streets could become as safe for kids to play on as for cars to drive.
He’s already had conversations with Seattle’s director of street use, two City Council members, and an urban sustainability group in hopes of changing the city prohibition against sandboxes on the planting strip, the area between the street and the sidewalk.
“I told them this is a silly rule. We should be encouraging neighbors to get together and children to play outside,” he said.
What’s particularly ironic to Nunes-Ueno is that his next-door neighbor has two planter boxes on the planting strip that look a lot like the sandbox, minus the corner seats.
In fact, neighbors along Northeast 52nd Street have suggested he tell the city his is also a planter box, one where the seeds have yet to sprout.
“It just seems ridiculous and totally contrary to everything this city is about,” said Nekole Shapiro, another neighbor. Aren’t we trying to create community?”
Sandbox task force
On Friday, after conversations with Nunes-Ueno and a call from The Seattle Times, the Transportation Department said it would put together an internal task force, to include the city traffic engineer and the legal department, to examine the issue.
“Given that we have never permitted a sandbox in the right of way before and we have questions about how to do so safely, we are going to allow this one to temporarily remain as we consider whether a change is needed to allow this sort of use,” said Rick Sheridan, spokesman for the department.
The city says current law doesn’t permit play structures in the right of way and must allow access for people getting in and out of cars, said Barbara Gray, director of street use and urban forestry within the city Department of Transportation.
“The concern is safety when you put kids close to the travel lane,” she said. Both the city and the homeowner could be legally liable if children were hurt because they were playing near the sandbox. The city also prohibits stand-alone basketball hoops because of the danger of kids running into and actively playing in the street, and it has sent similar warning notices.
But Gray also notes that until 2008, the city didn’t allow planter boxes on the planting strip. They are now allowed if the homeowner gets a free permit from the city and meets the requirement for public access and car-door clearance, she said.
She said there has been a debate among pedestrian advocates and urban planners about the benefits of “front-yard” activities and whether they help activate neighborhood streets and make them more people-friendly.
“We want to be both innovative and prudent when making these decisions,” she said.
The Sightline Institute in Seattle, which advocates green public policy, sees the sandbox debate as an opening for the city to reconsider how it prioritizes street use, particularly away from major arterials.
Clark Williams-Derry, research director, points to Scandinavian countries where, on some designated streets, pedestrians and cyclists have equal right to the street and cars can’t go faster than walking speed.
He gives a local example, Pike Place, the brick road through the center of the Pike Place Market, where people wander and the cars move slowly to avoid them.
“When the cars don’t own the road but are sharing the road, its actually safer for pedestrians,” he said. “The notion that the only way to keep kids safe is to separate them from the street is contradicted by evidence,” he said.
He agreed it would be a tragedy if a kid ran out into the street and were hit by a car, but he said not having a sandbox doesn’t eliminate the risk.
City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, a former Sierra Club leader, said the city should try to balance creating more public spaces for kids to play with keeping them safe.
“The safest place for the sandbox is in the backyard, but then you lose out on all the community building,” O’Brien said. “Planting strips are an underutilized space. There’s a public-safety benefit when people on a street know each other and look out for each other.”
Slowing down traffic
Several of Nunes-Ueno’s neighbors said parents on the street frequently have talked about how to slow down traffic. Cars cut through from a busy nearby arterial, often going faster than seems safe, they said.
“The traffic circle doesn’t really slow people. What are you going to tell the kids? Don’t go out and play? They’re all friends. They walk up and down the street to each other’s houses,” said the neighbor, Shapiro.
Nunes-Ueno got the news Friday that the city would allow the sandbox to stay in place while it studies whether some play structures can be safely permitted.
“I’m so excited. This is wonderful news,” he said.
He said ceding all the streets to cars creates a vicious cycle: nobody is on the street, the cars use it like a speedway, and nobody goes out there because it isn’t safe. He said he’s inspired by some of the international thinking about how to create “outdoor rooms” that slow down traffic as well as provide more public space.
“We can have a conversation as a city about how to help create friendly gathering spaces in front of houses,” Nunes-Ueno said.