Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The mentorship of elders - enriching neighbourhood life

Sharing Teens and Elders Project in Olympia, Washington
Photo Senior Services for South Sound

by Tarah Hodgkinson

In our SafeGrowth work, we aim to help people create integrated neighbourhoods inclusive of race, class, age, and ethnicity. We strive to promote the development of local leadership in order to attend to the needs of all residents. Most importantly, the grass-roots leaders and mentors in SafeGrowth neighbourhoods also show up in the amazing ways they build local safety and liveability every day. 

I recently spoke with a community that was lamenting about the fact that Indigenous youth do not have clearly defined elders. I started thinking about the role of elders more broadly, in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, and the important role they play in social cohesion and livability. 


When we think of elders, we often think of Indigenous leaders who have been appointed to represent their community. They are individuals who governments and organizations can turn to in order to liaise with the group or community. For example, Indigenous leaders, as we define them today, often fill a political post that fits colonial and government needs for representation. 

However, the history of elders points to leaders and mentors who emerge organically. These elders did not represent their community or have any authority. Rather they were recognized as advice-givers. According to one author, they developed slowly, asked good questions, had knowledge and were revealed by deed.  

At her art mural in Roma, Queensland in Australia,
Susie Klein is an emerging leader for local youth 

Elders are, in many ways, mentors. They hold knowledge, give advice, and care for others. And both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities need these leaders. Mentoring is one of the most consistent protective factors against offending. As noted by criminologist Irvin Waller, one good mentor can help pull a young person out of a potential life of crime.


But the ways in which we currently set up our neighbourhoods and communities remove opportunities for the emergence of mentors and elders. In Our Kids, Robert Putnam talks extensively about how geographical divides along race and class lines have created neighbourhoods and communities in which young people never meet potential mentors or elders. He goes on to explain how this further polarizes and marginalizes certain areas so that they may never pull themselves out of poverty or cycles of crime. 

When we design neighbourhood living so that it stifles the personal mentorship of elders, we ourselves commit a kind of crime: we rob young people of the opportunity to connect with another generation. It’s no wonder they often feel disassociated from neighbourhood and family life. 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Livability - urban or rural?

Livability and safety is more than idyllic rural life 

by Mateja Mihinjac

This week I came across a recent study suggesting that economic factors are a stronger predictor of prosocial behaviour than “urbanicity” – living in either an urban or non-urban area.

This spiked my interest because we commonly hear that small towns have close-knit communities and always-helpful residents. Yet, at a recent International Colloquium in which our SafeGrowth team presented our findings from rural environments, one of the common threads throughout the whole Colloquium was that small towns and rural communities deal with similar crime and safety challenges to larger cities. 

They are not the idyllic communities romanticized about in movies and novels. Perhaps there is more to it than neighbourhood size and population density?

Rural Barossa Valley, South Australia
Photo Louis Roving, Creative Commons


The study, “Neighbourhood wealth, not urbanicity, predicts prosociality towards strangers” looked at prosocial attitudes across 37 different UK neighbourhoods of various sizes. In each neighbourhood, it measured whether: 

  • individuals posted a lost letter; 
  • returned a dropped item; or 
  • stopped to let someone cross the road. 


It turned out that rural or urban characteristics were less important than expected. Rather than urban characteristics (“urbanicity”) – that might contribute to anonymity and diffusion of responsibility thus resulting in reduced willingness to assist others – it was actually economic deprivation that was the strongest predictor of prosocial attitudes and willingness to assist. 

While these findings might not translate into different contexts across the world (rural areas in the UK are less deprived than their urban counterparts), they do suggest that it is neighbourhood liveability that results in collective prosocial attitudes, in both rural and urban places.


It seems counterintuitive to expect that people living in deprived neighbourhoods are concerned with anything other than basic survival needs. How can they direct their energy into their neighbourhood when they are competing for available resources needed to survive?

Coastal town on Vancouver Island, Canada

Living in a deprived neighbourhood also means that residents are less likely to share the same expectations about the neighbourhood or to trust and work collectively towards common goals. That is why rural or urban, it is neighbourhood trust, shared expectations, and working together that helps build a socially cohesive and liveable neighbourhood.

As we describe in Third Generation CPTED, it is neighbourhood liveability that best improves the conditions that will advance neighbourhoods from a Basic level to Moderate and Advanced levels. We learned long ago that improving neighbourhood liveability provides residents and community workers an effective goal for targeted community development work. 

The most powerful approach for improving liveability and prosocial attitudes is through organized neighbourhood action with the emphasis on building local capacity. This recent study provides yet more research support for our real-life discoveries about what makes places safer. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

Happy trails

Groomed nature walkway in Singapore

by Gregory Saville

Many years ago I spoke to Paolo Soleri, the visionary (and apparently flawed) architect who created arcology, the marrying of architecture and ecology into a new type of city.

I met him at Arcosanti, his experimental city lab in the Arizona desert, and asked him where, among his artistic walls, curved roof apses, and dense architecture, did he plan to include greenery, parks and nature trails? He replied that arcologies attempt to build high density in every direction, including vertically, but do so by leaving nature alone as much as possible. However, Soleri assured me, access to nature will be easier in an arcology because no arcology dweller will ever be more than a kilometer from nature, untouched and pure – parks, streams, and forests. 

That was an inspiring vision, one that seems far away today. I’m unsure how realistic, or desirable, it is to remove nature from within cities, especially given the many environmental and psychological reasons for walkable green space as Stephen Mouzon reports in his book The Original Green

Path and pedestrian bridge along a Denver creek

As we describe in Third Generation CPTED, nature, parks, trails and greenways have a deep psychological role in creating safe places and they will remain an important asset within large cities – whether it's New York’s Central Park or the massive Stanley Park in Vancouver. This is especially true in a time of COVID when everyone wants to get out from cabin fever. 

What about crime along those trails? Park pathways, greenways and nature trails are known in the CPTED business as “movement predictors”, sometimes called architectural desire lines. It is possible to design movement predictors safely or otherwise (unintentionally), depending on where and how designers construct them. 

A few years ago, we were asked to help design a Rails to Trails bikeway from a California train station through some very high crime neighborhoods. The project never happened, but it became clear to me that the single most important method for designing safe movement predictors is insuring users of those spaces are part of the design process. That's why it is such a central feature of all SafeGrowth programming. 

California rail-to-trail bikeway - never built, still scary

Collaborative design far surpasses the landscape architect’s penchant to: 1) look for published design guidelines; 2) design the trail; 3) show residents the results afterward; and 4) hope for the best. 

Our COVID world is creating a powerful impetus for city dwellers all over the world to take to the trails and experience nature. That is a good thing. Let’s ensure those trails are shared and safe. 

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Suicide prevention and neighborhood livability

by Tarah Hodgkinson

September marks suicide prevention month. Numerous events and strategies are popping up around the world from RU OK? Day in Australia to #Bethe1To in the United States. All of these strategies are attempting to address suicide and mental health. 

In many of the neighbourhoods where we work, suicide and mental health is a common topic. Indeed, I spent time with a rural community a few weeks ago in which residents recounted the loss of several young lives to suicide. This has only been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19 related to social isolation and financial insecurity. Fortunately, there are suicide prevention strategies that can make a difference.

Suicide prevention can take many forms. Target hardening approaches try to increase the effort to take one’s life in the hopes of saving lives by making suicide more difficult.

Some of these efforts include physical barriers, such as fencing on tall bridges to prevent jumping. Others are somewhat unintentional, such as removing carbon monoxide from domestic gas supplies in the UK that resulted in almost a 100% decrease in suicides by gas poisoning. 

Designing engaging and inclusive outdoor spaces - a place to go for help


While these kinds of target hardening prevention strategies are useful, and often successful, they do not address the why of suicide. Suicide is often the last resort, an attempt to escape inconceivable pain and trauma. This pain and trauma do not occur in a vacuum but are influenced by a person’s mental health and their environment. One example is long-term mental health problems arising from adolescent bullying in the neighborhood. Another example is adverse childhood experiences within the family.

Clearly, suicide prevention can do much more than a marketing campaign to tell people to reach out, or by making suicide more difficult. 

While the risk factors for suicide range from individual to ecological, there are numerous ways that we can make our neighbourhoods and communities more resilient to suicide. These include structural changes such as affordable and accessible housing and shelter, paying people a living wage, creating neighborhood opportunities for youth and the elderly and inexpensive access to health care including locally-based, mental health and trauma-informed care. 

If we are to fully address and mitigate suicide, these structural changes are integral in the creation of a healthy neighborhood

Healthy and liveable neighbourhoods, where people are connected, cohesive and cared for play an important role in improving mental health and preventing suicide. And we all have a role to play in that kind of prevention. 

Monday, August 31, 2020

Back to the future

by Gregory Saville

Today I spoke to some colleagues in Europe about teaching a virtual course in SafeGrowth to students at a Swedish Technical University. It was remarkable in a number of ways. First, although cultural differences between countries make it difficult to apply anything from one place to another, I was amazed at the many similarities between different people in different cultures. It seems we are not all that different. 

But it was another dimension to our conversation that struck me as surreal.

We were using Zoom, speaking in real-time, watching each other’s expressions thousands of miles, and many times zones apart. We showed different images on our computer files and used shared digital calendars to plan the workshop. I had never before met one of those colleagues and yet here we were, quite comfortable getting to share ideas and stories.

We dialed into our call as easy as changing chairs in a coffee shop. There was no difficulty or stress in setting up the meeting (aside from me fumbling with the wrong dial-in code). There was no fear of sharing with someone I had never before met in person.

Such is the reality of daily living in, not only a pandemic, but in the second decade of the 21st Century. 

You may think that is all so, well, ho-hum. But it is actually quite remarkable! 


It's a hot and muggy summer afternoon in 1961 and journalist Jane Jacobs is banging away on her Underwood typewriter in New York’s Greenwich Village. Her ideas will later turn into one of the most famous urban reform books of her generation “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”. Consider the reality of her world at that time, only one lifetime ago.

A typewriter of 1961 - photo Creative Commons

Overseas commercial jet travel was less than a decade old and a rare event for average citizens. Propeller airplanes were commonly used for overseas travel. Passenger ships were popular for commercial passage to and from Europe (I travelled to Britain on one as a kid 6 years later). Television was a novelty and broadcast in black-and-white. TV signals arrived via cumbersome TV “rabbit ears”. 

Suffice to say the internet and computers did not exist for private citizens. Laptop computers would not be invented for decades to come. For entertainment and amusement, kids would go outside and play. Just imagine! Music was unrecognizable compared to what airs today – the Beatles appearance in the U.S. was still 3 years away. 

In many neighborhoods, ice trucks transported huge ice blocks for home freezer boxes. Widely distributed electronic refrigerators were just being manufactured. Milk arrived at the front door of many homes in the form of a milkman placing milk bottles on your doorstep. Newspapers were delivered by the paperboy to each doorstep and the main source for immediate news was radio. 

During hot and muggy days of a New York summer, apartments like those of Jacobs became sweltering ovens, even with fans and open windows. Air conditioning units were far too large for common use – the rotary compressor was invented only four years earlier. 

The Greenwich Village apartment building where Jacobs lived in 1961

Crime flourished in many neighborhood pockets and, in the decades that followed, many American cities, in particular, would experience an unimaginable explosion of urban crime. The justice system of 1961 was, frankly, utterly unprepared for the crime storm on the horizon. 


Now fast forward 60 years from today to 2080! 

What new technologies will shape daily lives? How will we travel and how will we communicate? Will this pandemic, or the next, force us into permanent social distances and some futuristic face covering? Will personal intimacy be relegated to staged meet-ups and software date matching? We have worked with the Swedish Helsingborg City 2022 Smart City initiative and they ask these very questions about our cities of tomorrow.

How will we communicate in 2080?

What will our streets and neighborhoods look like? Will we get climate change under control or will the number and intensity of weather catastrophes erase coastal cities and trigger mass migrations like never before in history? Or will renewable technologies create electric vehicles and flying drones to transport us in highways in the sky? Certainly, those technologies are already in our grasp. Will artificial technologies transform our cities into Smart Cities in which we need no longer worry about car crashes, traffic jams, or traffic? Will cars exist?

The technologies we take for granted today would be fantastical to the Jane Jacobs of 1961. As she pounded away at her typewriter in a humid and stuffy hot New York afternoon, today’s world would be as alien as a Martian from the 1950s science fiction film, War of the Worlds

If we are to believe Einstein (I place my bets on Albert), then time travel is quite impossible. So, there is no way to know what will unfold by 2080. Some of you reading these words will be alive to see those times and I wonder what you will see. 

Today, as I chatted with friends far away, with technologies unimaginable long ago, it occurred that the ideas we develop, the actions we take, and the virtual courses we teach, represent an important drop in the proverbial pond of time. Jacobs wrote well. We learn from her words even today. For the sake of our progeny, may we offer the same kind of wisdom for their future!

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Essential spaces for healthy city living

Urban apartments without social or green spaces nearby
- a recipe for trouble

By Mateja Mihinjac

During coronavirus lockdowns, there is much talk about essential and frontline workers and how we depend on their services. Indeed, they have been paramount in supporting us for many months. 

After weeks of the crisis, essential workers are exhausted from working overtime. Many others in lockdown, quarantine, shelter in place, or any other manifestation of physical distancing, experience psychological effects of cabin fever.

Some apartments lack any decent social space



In this new reality, many of us experience mental tension and emotional distress, in some cases resulting from the serious psychological impacts of isolation, including depression and anxiety.

It is no surprise that so many of us are finding ways to alleviate these symptoms through nature. Green urban parks are busy offering refuge for local residents during sunny days. In my own neighbourhood I regularly meet walkers and hikers despite being instructed to stay home. Similarly, people in our coastal towns cannot resist outdoor sun craving while lying on the beach – many were fined for doing so during stay-at-home orders.

Others feared the consequences and remained at home.

Pre-COVID green, social spaces in New York

As I noted in March in my blog on Resilience during COVID, in European countries such as Italy, France, and Spain that practice stricter forms of lockdowns, thousands of residents sit on their (often tiny) balconies to enjoy the fresh air, soak in some sun, and connect with their neighbours on other balconies. Yet far too many citizens are deprived of that opportunity as well.

Those living in city apartments without balconies are stuck between four walls. One example is Melbourne public housing towers where residents are ordered to remain in their small apartments for weeks without balconies to resort to in lieu of green space.

Rooftop gardens offer great social spaces

Unfortunately, similar stories of essential space deprivation are common for those living in socially and economically deprived areas. In these places, people are deprived because their neighbourhoods have the least green space and few places to socialize, which in turn contributes to poor physical, social and emotional health. The deficit of essential green social spaces repeats itself across North AmericaAustralia, and Europe.


We know very well about the benefits of green infrastructure for health and emotional wellbeing. The effect of green space on alleviating the symptoms of mental tension and improving emotional and physical health outcomes is well documented.

Because of their prominence, I consider green spaces essential spaces. Access to essential green spaces is indispensable and should be widely accessible in all cities. 

Nested between apartment towers and busy streets,
pocket mini-parks offer respite


Green infrastructure has even been associated with lower crime and has well-known benefits for building social capital. Green urban spaces will help us buffer the effects of negative social impacts that will ensue from this period and they will speed the post-pandemic recovery.

In SafeGrowth we consider these essential green spaces the linchpin for planning safe and livable neighbourhoods, especially those neighbourhoods already employing advanced neighbourhood governance and planning systems like SafeGrowth. 

My hope is that with the many changes unfolding in post-pandemic cities we prioritize essential green spaces over grey spaces of concrete and asphalt. We owe everyone access to essential green spaces in all corners of our future neighbourhoods.