What I Learned By Trespassing


Image credit: John Kratz, used under Creative Commons license.

When I was a kid, a more unruly friend of mine taught me that I could get to my friends' houses in half the time by taking shortcuts through people's backyards. It was revelatory to me. Having always followed the winding yet somewhat arbitrary routes laid out by footpaths, roads and the fences and buildings that contained them, I was suddenly introduced to hidden passageways, secret paths, and a new way of looking at the town I had always grown up in.

I recently got to thinking about those times again, and I wondered about what trespassing teaches us about the world around us. Before I go on, I should note that my trespassing days did not last long. Being a naturally risk-averse person, and certainly a kid that hated getting in trouble, it only took a few angry shouts from neighbors who (very justifiably!) didn't like young delinquents traipsing past their bedroom windows, and I was back to taking the long route along the sidewalk.

But the experience stuck with me.

There Are Many Layers of Reality
Much like learning a new language teaches us that grammar and vocabulary are social constructs, I no longer saw the buildings, fences and streets around me as the permanent, immovable boundaries of my reality that they had once seemed. They too were social constructs—tools that we had put in place to fulfill a certain purpose, be it housing, transportation, or marking out certain legal rights or obligations. Underneath them was a whole different reality that had been carved out by nature over thousands, even millions, of years.

Rules Are a Means to More Important Ends
I'm not for a second suggesting that we should abolish private property, or adopt a free-for-all approach to access to land. For better or worse, our collective rules on private property, rights of way, and public land help shape how we interact with each other and should, in theory at least, help to ensure social order and cooperation. But they are tools, not the ideological absolutes that some people claim them to be. And, if we're interested in stability, resilience and well-being, we need to be willing to shape them and reform them to ensure that they work for everybody. (Including the preservation of our natural environment.)

Property Rights Must Balance Complex Needs
From carlessness as second class citizenship and a dangerous lack of sidewalks, to the complex struggles between conservation and access to natural resources, our decisions on property rights must balance many important and often competing interests. As Lloyd showed in his post on the tragic case of a mom charged with homicide when her son was hit by a hit-and-run driver, all too often we see knee-jerk reactions to protect the powerful and the status quo.

As with any crucial debate, we'll get a whole lot further if we keep our true end goals in mind—and that means understanding that the lines we draw on maps, and the bricks, mortar and fences that follow them, are not set in stone (even if they are often made of it). If may have taken me a few shortcuts through neighbors yards to find that out (sorry, Mr and Mrs Jones!), but I learned a valuable lesson in the process.

More on Planning, Environment and Property Rights
Conservation Want Biodiversity, The Poor Want Biomass
Mom Charged with Homicide After Son is Killed in Hit-and-Run
Communities Designed for Cars are Not Just Unsustainable, They Are Deadly
Being Carless in America is Like Second Class Citizenship

Tags: Cities | Communities

Best of TreeHugger