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Originally published August 17, 2012 at 5:02 PM | Page modified August 17, 2012 at 5:02 PM

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Op-ed: What's all the fuss bout a sandbox in a sidewalk strip?

A planting-strip sandbox created a place for kids to play and brought our neighborhood closer together. Let's make it legal in Seattle to build spaces to connect.

Special to The Times

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ON Aug. 7, our block and most of Seattle held our Night Out Against Crime event. This national event has been celebrated in Seattle now for nearly 30 years. The idea is that something as simple as a block party can make neighbors better able to work together to prevent crime and respond in an emergency. I think we should be doing that on the other 364 days of the year as well.

This is what my wife and I were thinking when we put a sandbox in the planting strip in front of our new house in the Tangletown area of Greenlake. It was a little thing, but it created a gathering place for our kids, neighborhood kids and parents to hang out. Little did we know that the sandbox would spark a debate across the city about creating safe and child-friendly neighborhoods.

Some people, understandably, ask whether it is safe for kids to play in the sandbox near the street. My answer is yes. Our street is very quiet and our minivan is almost always parked next to the sandbox.

More important, being outside and enjoying the neighborhood creates a sense that people care for the place and that you should mind how you drive. If instead we abandon our streets, they become speedways -- making them more dangerous and cutting us off from our neighbors.

A lot has been written about the loss of social capital and community cohesion due to our ever faster retreat into long commutes, phones, TVs, video games and the Internet. (See Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone," www.bowlingalone.com). Our sandbox was to be a tiny bulwark against all that. And it was! Kids from blocks around came over to play. We met their parents. Spontaneous dinner parties happened. Meat was barbecued, drinks were had. All was good.

Someone made an anonymous complaint to the city. It turns out the city does not allow "play structures" in the planting strip. We were subject to a $500-per-day fine. After a couple of minutes puzzling over how bizarre this rule is, I realized the neighbor who made this complaint had done us a favor. He or she helped us start a citywide conversation. People want to talk about how to make the forgotten strips of grass out front a little more kid-friendly.

The city of Seattle launched an internal task force to review street uses like our sandbox. Until they come up with a decision, our sandbox gets to stay. On Tuesday, I delivered petitions signed by kids in our neighborhood to the City Council.

I hope the city task force takes a mostly hands-off approach to the planting strips. Back in 2008, responding to a request by gardeners, regulations were changed to allow planter boxes in planting strips. These rules spell out setbacks from the street and the sidewalk to preserve access to parked cars and that's about it. People have made spectacular use of their planter boxes, growing food and flowers, and beautifying the city.

My suggestion is that we simply allow community-gathering uses that fit within the footprint already greenlighted for planter boxes. Wouldn't it be nice to have a bench in front of your house to sit down with neighbors for a chat? Currently, that will require a permit and cost you hundreds of dollars a year. Or how about a picnic table or a marble chess table? How about a lending library in covered shelves?

The city of Seattle has a great opportunity to help us knit our communities a little tighter by loosening up the rules that govern how we use our planting strips. If that happens, maybe our little sandbox wasn't such a little thing after all.

Paulo Nunes-Ueno lives in northeast Seattle.


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