In My Street, We Play! By Denis Poulet, Writer Association québécoise du loisir municipal

Photo Credit: City of Belœil

In Quebec, it is downright forbidden to play on the streets of most municipalities. It is alleged that this practice is dangerous for children, impedes traffic and creates a neighbourhood nuisance because of the noise. Section 500 of Quebec’s Highway Safety Code stipulates that “no person may occupy the roadway, shoulder or any other part of the right of way of or approaches to a public highway or place a vehicle or obstacle thereon so as to obstruct vehicular traffic on the highway or access to such a highway, except where so authorized by law.”

But there is a growing movement to allow free play in the street. Children today spend much of their time in front of a screen and have become less active. They should be able to use the streets’ public space to move more, exercise their imagination by inventing games, or just spontaneously playing games like hopscotch and jump rope or sports like hockey, basketball, and soccer. Generations did so before them, and many a sports career was born while playing on the street.

Children at Risk of Fines

In January 2014, a Belœil citizen, Richard Simon, went to his local alderman, Pierre Verret, because his child had received a police warning for playing street hockey. He had been shocked to learn that children could not play freely in the streets. Section 16 of the city by-law relating to public peace and order and prohibiting nuisances clearly forbids anyone from “playing or practising a sports activity in a public place other than a sports or recreational facility without authorization from the city.”

In May 2015, alderman Verret attended a conference under the theme Building a Healthy City: A Winning Role for Elected Officials organized by the Coalition québécoise sur la problématique du poids (Quebec Coalition on Weight-Related Problems, PPQA) and the Association pour la santé publique du Québec (Quebec Association for Public Health, ASPQ). He was particularly interested in a presentation by lawyer Vrouyr Makalian on the possibility of allowing children to play freely in the streets. Makalian believed that children’s games were not a nuisance and that banning play in the streets might even be illegal. Pierre Verret has been trying to change regulations in Belœil ever since.

According to a legal opinion obtained by the ASPQ in August 2015, it was possible to circumvent Section 500 of the Code and even to designate certain roadways as “play streets.”

A Pilot Project

On September 28, 2015, Belœil’s City Council agreed to “set up a pilot project to enable young people to play freely in targeted residential streets and apply traffic calming measures for the safety of all users.”

Council approved the pilot project called “In My Street, We Play!” (Dans ma rue, on joue!) on April 25, 2016. It proposes to encourage children and adults to play freely in residential streets chosen by residents. “We want to send a positive message with this project: all users belong on residential streets,” says councillor Verret. “When children, parents, grandparents or adults engage in friendly games outside, it just enlivens the whole neighbourhood and promotes a cohesive community!”

On May 24, 2016, Council added a new provision to its by-law stating that any participant in street games authorized by the City had to abide by the rules of a code of conduct, which was annexed to the regulations.

Photo Credit: City of Belœil

Code of Conduct

The purpose of this code of conduct is to ensure the safety of participants in street activities and peaceful coexistence among all users of the roadway. It includes the following provisions:

• Observe the period during which safe free play is allowed, i.e. 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

• Participants to exercise vigilance or provide parental supervision, as applicable.

• Participants to show courtesy and share the roadway with cars.

• Clear the roadway after the game.

• Avoid playing in areas with curves and intersections.

• Be respectful of neighbours’ reasonable expectation of quiet.

Criteria for Allowing Free Play on a Street

Several conditions apply when designating a street for play. The application must come from a resident, but the city can take the initiative. Only local streets can be designated, which excludes collector lanes and major thoroughfares. The street must be straight and provide good visual clearance to motorists. Commercial areas with high traffic are excluded. There must be street lights to ensure evening visibility.

Administrative Process

Designation of a play street involves an administrative process that may seem cumbersome but has proved effective and responsive to residents’ wishes.

A resident must apply to the Citizens’ Office to have their street designated. After acknowledging receipt of the application, the office then forwards a request to the Public Works Department. The department then conducts a preliminary analysis and sends the file to the Traffic Committee, which makes a recommendation to Council.

If the City approves the request, a consultation process begins:

• The Communications Department sends a notice to residents stating that they have 15 days to submit written comments to the Citizens’ Office.

• Comments are sent to the local alderperson.

• Following the consultation, the alderperson meets with residents who have expressed views and subsequently presents the results of this process to Council.

The proposal must get two-thirds approval from riverside residents for the City to approve it. A lack of response is considered a positive response.

Council then approves a motion to allow the designation. Once the decision is made, the Public Works Department is required to install proper signage. Residents receive a congratulatory kit explaining the code of conduct and indicating the section of the street where play is allowed. Once the work is completed, the Communications Department advertises the news on the City’s website and to media.

If the proposal is rejected, the Communications Department forwards the decision to residents of the street and the Public Works Department closes the file.

In summer, the whole process usually takes about a month.

Congratulatory Kit

Whenever a street is designated, residents receive a kit that contains the following:

• A thank you letter informing them of the outcome and next steps

• A certificate of recognition

• The code of conduct

• A small treat for children and adults (temporary tattoo with the image of the project).

Free Play in 24 Streets

Six months after launching the project, the City had allowed free play on 24 streets. Twenty-seven applications had been processed, and five were still pending. The response was largely positive, representing nearly 800 families.

Belœil has established itself as a leader in the promotion of physical activity with the development of the cycling network, increased accessibility to parks, a program (Boîte-O-Sports) providing free sports equipment, etc. Belœil Mayor Diane Lavoie made a point of highlighting this fact at the launch of the pilot project. “Our proposal for free play in residential streets is part of our vision for an active city,” she said.

Belœil has also been a “child-friendly municipality” since 2014.

Awards and Bandwagon Effect

The pilot project has earned major awards for the City of Belœil in 2016.

On June 2nd, in Granby, an award from the Carrefour Action municipale et famille (CAMF) celebrated this municipal project for improving the quality of life for families and seniors. CAMF noted that “the City of Beloeil had inspired other municipalities to consider similar projects to enable young people to play freely in targeted residential streets. The regulatory process governing the practice of free play, while it is much more complex than it seems, comprises several steps that other Quebec municipalities can now emulate.”

On October 7th, in Rivière-du-Loup, the project received the Award of Merit from the Association québécoise du loisir municipal (AQLM) in the category of municipalities or districts with a population of 10,000 to 50,000. The day before, city officials had presented a workshop on the project as part of the 17th Annual Conference on Municipal Leisure. Some 80 participants from all corners of the province showed great interest in the initiative.

On November 24th, in Montreal, Belœil received the Friendly and Supportive Municipality Award at the International Francophone Conference of Healthy Towns and Villages and Healthy Cities of the World Health Organization. At this event, Belœil was also honoured with the 2016 Health and Family Challenge Award by Capsana, a social organization that promotes physical and mental health.

In late November, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), an opposition party, announced that it would table a bill in the National Assembly to allow free play in the streets of all the municipalities in the province.

Belœil still receives many requests for information on the pilot project. The City has developed a toolkit exclusively for municipalities and interested organizations. The kit has been sent to a dozen agencies and about twenty cities, districts or regional county municipalities, including Québec and Montreal.

Pending provincial legislation, municipalities can amend their by-laws to end police action against children who only want to move, so that they can rediscover the benefits of the roadway as a place where to get exercise.

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