A Que­bec city’s game plan

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - BELOEIL, QUE.

Beloeil has des­ig­nated 48 streets as free-play zones, with low­ered speed lim­its and high-vis­i­bil­ity sig­nage, to en­cour­age chil­dren to get out­side

It all started with a warn­ing from po­lice. A fa­ther in Beloeil, Que., com­plained to city hall that his six-year-old son faced the threat of a ticket for play­ing hockey on the street in front of his house.

“I couldn’t be­lieve it,” re­called Pierre Ver­ret, the city coun­cil­lor who re­ceived the com­plaint in 2014. “I played street hockey with my friends dur­ing my whole child­hood. I found it in­cred­i­ble that

our chil­dren didn’t have the free­dom to play out­side.”

And so be­gan a mi­nor revo­lu­tion to turn the streets of Beloeil over to the cause of old-fash­ioned child’s play. To­day, 48 res­i­den­tial streets in the sub­urb east of Mon­treal have earned city des­ig­na­tions as free-play zones, com­plete with lower speed lim­its, hours of play and high-vis­i­bil­ity sig­nage. It’s al­lowed chil­dren to do some­thing that has be­come a rar­ity in th­ese risk-ad­verse, hy­per­vig­i­lant times: play out in the street.

“It’s good be­cause I can play right out­side my house,” Marc-An­toine Brisson, 16, said in the mid­dle of his street this week as he shot hoops with his brother, Maxime. “On the week­end, there are so many chil­dren ev­ery­where, cars can’t drive fast.”

As he spoke, a car ap­proached and slowed down. The boys paused briefly and moved to let it pass, then re­sumed their lay-ups.

“I’ve made new friends,” said Maxime, 10. “Be­fore, we just played in the drive­way. Now there’s more space to have fun.”

The award-win­ning ini­tia­tive in Beloeil has been em­u­lated in 17 other towns in Que­bec, join­ing a global trend to let chil­dren en­joy un­struc­tured play on their doorsteps, away from screens, par­ents, teach­ers, camp coun­sel­lors and the other over­seers of their time.

Pro­po­nents say free play of­fers a cru­cial an­ti­dote to or­ga­nized and su­per­vised chil­dren’ ac­tiv­i­ties. Left on their own, chil­dren learn to take risks and test their phys­i­cal lim­its, lay­ing the ground­work for de­vel­op­ing mo­tor skills as they grow up.

“We’re see­ing new gen­er­a­tions of he­li­copter par­ents who have fears – they don’t want their kids to get hurt, to fall, or to climb trees be­cause it’s dan­ger­ous,” said Corinne Voyer, di­rec­tor of the Que­bec Weight Coali­tion, which helped Beloeil set up its street-play pro­gram. “But kids need to learn how to jump and run and eval­u­ate whether they can take risks with­out con­se­quences. They need to know if they can climb mon­key bars with­out fall­ing. If we cre­ate com­pletely ster­ile en­vi­ron­ments to avoid ac­ci­dents, kids won’t learn the phys­i­cal skills they need to do sports later in life.”

Beloeil’s pro­gram “re­moves bar­ri­ers to make it eas­ier to play freely,” Ms. Voyer said. “It’s a great ini­tia­tive.”

Those bar­ri­ers in­clude anti­noise and anti-nui­sance by­laws that are com­mon­place in cities across the province and can be en­forced by po­lice to stop a street-hockey game if they re­ceive a com­plaint. Beloeil mod­i­fied its own anti-nui­sance by­law in 2016 and turned to the province to clear a le­gal path for street play. In 2017, it got what it wanted. The Que­bec Na­tional Assem­bly adopted Bill 122, a law grant­ing mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties more au­ton­omy, in­clud­ing “the power to per­mit free play in the streets.”

Beloeil’s pro­gram, Dans ma rue, on joue!, took off. In spirit, it sum­mons up a by­gone time of out­door play with neigh­bor­hood friends. Of course, things were sim­pler then. All it took for a child to go out and play was a par­ent shout­ing “Go out and play!”

Beloeil’s pro­gram, on the other hand, adds a healthy layer of mod­ern-day reg­u­la­tions.

To turn a street in Beloeil into a free-play zone, a par­ent has to sub­mit an ap­pli­ca­tion to city hall. The re­quest is stud­ied by the city’s traf­fic com­mit­tee, which rules out streets that are un­safe due to traf­fic flow or ob­structed views; curv­ing streets or those with hedges or view-ob­scur­ing trees, for ex­am­ple, are re­jected.

Then, the ap­pli­ca­tion is sent to all the neigh­bours on the street; it takes the sup­port of 66 per cent of them for the project to go ahead. Three streets in Beloeil have failed to get enough sup­port and lost their bid. (One woman who voted against the idea said in an in­ter­view she thought it was too risky and chil­dren should play in parks and back­yards.)

If ap­proved, each fam­ily re­ceives a cer­tifi­cate of recog­ni­tion, code of con­duct and let­ter of thanks. Speed lim­its on the des­ig­nated streets are re­duced to 30 kilome­tres an hour and signs an­nounc­ing the play zones are posted at ei­ther end. Chil­dren can play from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. as long as street light­ing is ad­e­quate.

The pro­gram has turned some res­i­den­tial streets into bois­ter­ous play zones of chil­dren shoot­ing bas­kets, play­ing hop­scotch, prac­tis­ing slap­shots and skip­ping rope. On Donat-Cor­riveau Street, seven hockey nets line the curb. Some days, there are 20 chil­dren on the cres­cent play­ing hockey, said David Va­chon, a fa­ther of three chil­dren, 10, 13 and 16.

“It’s easy and ac­ces­si­ble for the kids, all you have to do is open the door. And I can keep an eye on them,” he said. “If they didn’t play here, it would limit their phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity.”

The set-up has also cre­ated bonds be­tween neigh­bours. Par­ents reg­u­larly gather to watch the chil­dren. Some turn up in chairs with a glass of white wine in hand, Mr. Ver­ret said. Ex­perts say play zones re­claim part of the street from cars, while build­ing a sense of com­mu­nity.

“It’s a very pow­er­ful yet prac­ti­cal way to start us­ing streets in ways that are bet­ter for ev­ery­body,” said Tim Gill, an in­de­pen­dent Bri­tish re­searcher spe­cial­iz­ing in child-friendly ur­ban plan­ning. “It moves away from the idea that the sole job of a street is to be a place where the car is king and ev­ery­body else just has to get out of the way.”

To help adults ap­pre­ci­ate the value of free play, he says he of­ten re­minds them to think of their own child­hood mem­o­ries.

“I’m keen to re­mind grownups of the ev­ery­day magic of be­ing out in your neigh­bor­hood play­ing with your friends,” Mr. Gill, au­thor of No Fear: Grow­ing Up in a Risk-Averse So­ci­ety, said from Lon­don. “It’s not mere nos­tal­gia. Th­ese are pow­er­ful, for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ences that helped us to fig­ure out where we were and how we solved prob­lems.”

Prob­lem-solv­ing is what mo­ti­vated Mr. Ver­ret. When he was faced with a kid risk­ing a ticket for play­ing street hockey, he said he felt he needed to re­spond. “If I can leave one legacy this will be it,” the 58-year-old coun­cil­lor said. “I just want kids to go play out­side.”

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Six­teen-year-old Marc-An­toine Brisson and his 10-year-old brother, Maxime, play bas­ket­ball on their street in Beloeil, Que., on Mon­day.

PHO­TOS BY CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Ten-year-old Maxime says the street out­side of his fam­ily’s house in Beloeil, Que., gives him more space to play than the drive­way.

Par­ents in Beloeil, Que., who are look­ing to turn their street into a free-play zone can sub­mit an ap­pli­ca­tion with city hall. Once the city’s traf­fic com­mit­tee stud­ies it, neigh­bours are sent ap­pli­ca­tions and the project goes ahead if 66 per cent of them sup­port it.

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