Mission District turf battle: How can adults and kids share public play space?

A YouTube video of Dropbox employees and local kids vying over a public field in San Francisco has gone viral. The video, and the resulting public rally, point to some potential oversights in how public space is used.

A group of kids from San Francisco’s Mission District have posted a now viral video of a confrontation between themselves and employees from Dropbox and Airbnb over a city ‘pay to play’ soccer field. Both had the right to be there, but a park policy that allows groups to rent the public space has since sparked a community protest. 

According to the Mission Local news website, tensions between long-time residents and newcomers have been simmering over the use of a soccer field that residents say has always been used on a handshake between teams but the city has begun to rent out more frequently, as the neighborhood fills up with new residents, many of whom work in the tech industry.

The video has garnered 476,013 views since being posted September 25. As a result, residents and community groups rallied on the steps of San Francisco's City Hall Thursday — fighting a policy that allows people to rent out city parks. 

In the video, we witness a conflict that may be more the result of lack of community stewardship by the city than an attitude problem on the part of either the group that rented the field or the kids.

The field is now priced at $27 an hour for a permit, a price that school kids and young adults playing a pick up game of soccer might not be able to afford.

While renting out publicly owned parks and playing fields really isn’t new, it has become more of a hardship and sticking point for some kids who are suffering from a reduction in free athletic programs and other recreational resources.

On September 30, Portland, Oregon, TV station KOIN offered a discouraging perspective on the dwindling amount of recess time kids now have – 20-30 minutes on average. This comes as free after school sports resources available to kids living at lower income levels has also decreased markedly.  

The report pointed to Portland being on par with national averages, and pointed to a recess time decrease since the introduction of the "No Child Left Behind" education policy in 2001. It also cited statistics from the Center on Education Policy that reported that recess time nationally had dropped an average of 50 minutes per week in the sixth year of the program.

Any parent like myself, who volunteers at public schools, knows it can take 10 minutes just to get kids to line up to make it outside, so recess goes by in a blink for many schools.

The local government in Norfolk, Virginia, where my family lives, has built a great model for public recreation center policies. At a local recreation center, kids can get a “facilities use pass” for $10 a year and have access to everything from sports facilities, arts programs, computers and homework help, to new indoor rock climbing walls. 

I volunteer at a local recreational center and watch as kids come from school where recess is very limited. They come in like wild sport-hungry animals and leave happily exhausted, safe, and supervised, hours later.

The Mission District does have a free public recreation center. However, watching the debate over the park does makes me wonder where kids will find open space outdoors to spend their energy if they aren’t blowing off steam during recess. 

It is clear from the Mission District video that while some older youths were expecting and perhaps braced for this confrontation, other younger boys appeared blind-sided by the harsh reality that their field can and has been rented out to the well-heeled newbies.

Meanwhile, the adults sporting corporate team shirts are upset that after having gone through the system and paid for the field time they are being thwarted by angry kids who will not be booted from the field.

A report from San Francisco's NBC affiliate does say that park department officials have suspended adult permits until further notice as they discuss open hours more with local families.

Hopefully, this is a step toward getting everyone to play nice, rather than allowing this situation to escalate into an hostile “us versus them” fight over open space, with kids losing out in the end.

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