Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The wall and the window - Mystery in space

Doune Castle as Camelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail
- photo Danny Linville 

Reading studies on crime and place I was recently struck by a mystery among environmental criminology researchers who study CPTED, particularly territoriality (the wall) and natural surveillance (the window).

It brought to mind other concept errors in crime and place research, specifically crime generators, permeability, cul de sacs, and the Achilles Heel within routine activity theory. This time the mystery cycles around guardianship.

Here’s the storyline…

Researchers regale the power of natural surveillance to enhance guardianship. Guardianship presumes to increase the risk that offenders will be seen and caught. Natural surveillance has appeal because you can observe whether a space has lighting, sightlines and nearby windows. Because surveillance presumably will produce more preventive action by residents (or reluctance by offenders to show up), you can then measure what happens.


Natural surveillance assumes that people who see something out of place will act, thereby providing guardianship. Thus it is “real”. It's an assumption borne out nicely in low-crime, upper income areas but not so much in lower-income, high crime areas where residents are afraid to step outdoors and when they do their presence doesn’t deter anything.

Fences, windows and flowers creating territorial control on a San Diego public walkway 
On the other hand researchers question the power of territoriality to enhance guardianship, mainly because they say territoriality lacks "definitional rigor" and it isn’t “real”. Floral decorations or landscaping…is that it? Maybe it’s access control, walls and gates? Even worse, territoriality varies from place to place. Horrors!

They suggest natural surveillance is preferable to territoriality because it seems more measurable. That’s how they solve the mystery of territoriality. They ignore or downplay it, label it with   definitional problems and claim it isn't "real".


Historian Howard Zinn warns us about such storylines: “Realism is seductive because once you have accepted the reasonable notion that you should base your actions on reality, you are too often led to accept without much questioning someone else’s version of what that reality is.”

Consider this: If territoriality isn’t real, then how is guardianship any better? And why shouldn’t territoriality vary from place to place?“The real world,” says Zinn, “is infinitely complex and constantly changing.”

Perhaps social science research methods are too simplistic to tell us anything complex? Perhaps it is guardianship that has a definitional problem, especially given territoriality’s much longer provenance.

What provenance? Consider Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, Robert Ardry’s The Territorial Imperative, Edward Hall’s The Hidden Dimension, Oscar Newman's Defensible Space, and Alice Coleman's Utopia on Trial. And all that territorial work still continues today such as Kevin Leydon’s study on walkability and social capital.

Windows overlooking infamous Kitty Genovese Murder scene in New York

CPTED practitioners seldom complain about such things because context always comes first.

For example in SafeGrowth practitioners and residents use a Risk Assessment Matrix for surveys, safety audits, site visits, and asset maps. Together they create a profile of the neighborhood and what residents feel about it. Only then do they determine to what extent designs enhance territoriality.

Overcoming "definitional rigor"?

Simple: Ask the residents and work with them to discover what they feel enhances their territorial control, a method known as action research and action learning. Mystery solved.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

...this is a bed

Temporary homeless shelter on city bench - photo Spring Advertising

My blog on London's design out crime spikes to deter homeless haunted my thoughts until I read a recent story from Vancouver.

RainCity Housing is one of those hard-working non-profits we don't hear enough about. They provide social housing, help those with mental illness and addictions and work to get the homeless into housing. Spring Advertising is a creative advertising firm who worked with RainCity to design an innovative bench cover that morphs into a temporary shelter at night.

It's a far cry from homeless spikes. Of course as an ad stunt it's obviously no solution to homelessness. Then again, neither are the spikes that cruelly dot London's landscape.

We might not have the answer to the problem of homelessness but as the RainCity/Spring collaboration suggests, we can still be humane.

In the day it's a bench... the night it transforms into a bench shelter.
- photos by Spring Advertising

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Graff war in the streets of Melbourne

Street mural defaced by tagging; elsewhere, a rare event. Photo by Michael Clayton-Jones, The Age

My architect friend Frank Stoks sent me a news clip of an emerging graff war in Melbourne.  Frank is a well-known CPTED expert in New Zealand. Back in the 1980s questions from his PhD thesis comprised the basis for the Toronto's Women's Safety Audit - now the United Nations Safety Audit.

Melbourne Australia is a remarkable city of culture and walkability. Our SafeGrowth teams continue their exceptional work in 4 neighborhoods, recently highlighted at a recent Australian criminology conference. Melbourne is also known for its vast array of street art and graffiti, particularly in laneways, much of it under city supervision mentioned in an earlier blog, Eyes Wide Open, Magnificent Melbourne.

Now, according to this news clip, a graff war has broken out between the street artists commissioned by the city to create the murals and some culture jamming taggers who are not. Says one street artist: "The council is commissioning the work to stop tagging and not including the guys who have come from the graffiti background, so they're alienating the scene."

Check it out here.

Taggers slash a street mural in Melbourne - Photo by Black Mark - Vandalism @ Brunswick Station

Thursday, July 10, 2014

There are no spectators

"Innovations involve imaginative leaps capable of carrying us beyond existing practice." - David Morley (1980)
Today I have been reflecting on an old friend.

So many prevention, policing and planning programs today seem seem like throwaway ideas in a sea of mediocrity. Few last long and even fewer work. Yet everyone has a shtick. Sadly most are just new gizmos and old ideas rehashed. As they say in Canada, they are all stick and no puck.

At a time when so many troubled neighborhoods face the social turbulence that is crime and violence, where is the original thinking? Where is the creativity and wisdom?

Long ago, when I began my graduate studies in planning, human ecology and environmental criminology, I met someone who taught and lived that kind of creativity. His wisdom changed my life. He is the friend I mentioned above and last week he died after a long bout with cancer.


Professor David Morley was my supervisor at the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University in Toronto. He was the smartest scholar I have known (I have known some greats).

Professor David Morley
Never shy of conceptual rigor, David was one of those who taught that an ounce of action is worth a ton of theories. His field was action research and action learning which included advanced methods of group collaboration and community participation, the very lifeblood of creativity. Thanks to David those methods are now embedded in SafeGrowth planning theory.

He wrote profusely but for me his two best works were Making Cities Work: The Dynamics of Innovation (1980) and Planning in Turbulence (1986).


Both books are full of ideas on how to activate community groups and how to engage residents to change their own neighborhoods.  There are no techno-fixes here - no CCTV, no anti-homeless spikes, and no burglary foggers. There is just hard work in community development. Today, thirty years after David co-wrote those books, we need those methods, and David's wisdom, more than ever.

At a time when I had just decided to leave a career as a street cop, and I might have gone in many different directions to places of uncertain destination, David Morley gently and passionately taught me to think big, think important and, while riding the turbulent currents that carry us in life, never forget there are no spectators. Goodbye David and thank you for your gifts, guidance, and friendship.

"...perhaps only under the tension of threatening and uncertain environments are collective innovations likely." - David Morley, (1986)

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The curse of abandoned lots

What to do with abandoned lots? Photo - Belmont community SafeGrowth Team 

SafeGrowth teams in Philadelphia and Newark this week produced some remarkable gems for transforming troubled areas. They tackled neglected parks, drug infested commercial corridors, and blighted playgrounds.

One of my favorites was a team from the Belmont community in Philadelphia who zeroed on an abandoned lot. Abandoned lots are not just an eyesore. This one triggered disorder, health and squatting problems for the entire for the neighborhood.

The Belmont team came up with some fascinating ideas for rehabilitation and in a tabletop exercise solicited us for some new ideas.

It was a bright side to this creeping plague. One estimate puts the number of abandoned lots at astronomical levels. It says in 2010 there were 12,000 in Detroit, 40,000 in Philadelphia and 90,000 in Baltimore alone...that's not a typo - 90,000!


The POP Center Guidebook on the topic lists solutions but few actually deal with the root of the problem. Most are superficial situational prevention tactics - changing the environment, installing CCTV, enforcing building codes, and cleanup campaigns. A few are a bit more substantive such as financing to rehabilitate or reuse the property.

More specific help appears in horticulture magazines, especially one interesting decade-long study comparing blighted lots with greened vacant lots. Greening was linked to significant reductions in gun assaults across most of Philadelphia and significant reductions in vandalism in one section of the city.

Another interesting approach appears in an architectural article about a Philadelphia program turning blighted lots into produce generating mini-farms.

Still another idea is a Rhode Island program turning abandoned lots into community gardens. The Philadelphia SafeGrowth presentation on abandoned lots, like all the SafeGrowth presentations this week, was inspiring. It showed how we can turn these places around.

Rhode Island urban community garden. Turning abandoned lots into fun. Photo Maravillosospaisajes

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Spiking anti-social behavior?

Anti-loitering, anti-sleeping spikes show up everywhere - photo by Disconnected Landscapes

Homelessness in England is up and news reports now call it Anti-Social Behavior. In the UK, Design Out Crime has had success reducing ASB, but not always. Some solutions, unfortunately, have been a disaster. Case in point: Anti-sleeping spikes to deter homeless transients.

Bench dividers and seating spikes have long been used by target hardeners as a loitering deterrent. Now some properties in London use spikes to deter the homeless from sleeping on windows and doorway entrances near their stores. Even the Mayor of London hates the idea. Public outrage agrees.

Anti-spiking activists

Anti-spiking groups have now taken action and poured cement over spikes. They complain that spiking is unethical when program budgets to house the homeless are cut to the bone.

Activists dressed as city workers use rapid cement to cover spikes - photo by Vice 
One online petition to remove anti-homeless spikes reached 120,000 names in a single week.

Not that it needs repeating yet again on this blog, but opportunity reduction by itself is insufficient. Singular strategies that attack crime and place alone - and not the conditions that give rise to them - divert attention from long-term solutions. They lull us into believing the problem is gone when it isn't.

This is an important lesson for target hardeners. Fail to use collaborative solutions and targeted social strategies - or do so without a coherent plan to apply 2nd Generation CPTED - and risk a backlash of unintended consequences.

The Irony

Less than a mile from this latest controversy are the buildings of the award-winning Design Against Crime Centre at Central St Martin's College. Professor Lorraine Gamman and her talented team have led socially responsive crime prevention design projects for ages.

Why don't the target hardeners just ask experts like Lorraine's group how to work with the homeless and build more inclusive and safe environments?

My favorite Lorraine quote:"Spikes are part of an outdated fortress aesthetic not welcome in communities, where there is recognition that urban design needs to be inclusive."

Store removes anti-homeless spikes after protests - photo Guy Corbishly, Demotix, The Guardian

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Fine grain design - the permeability remedy

Laneway in Langley - flowers, color, and personal touches

Yesterday I walked another small town, this time the village of Langley in Washington State, and found a gem. It reminded me of themes from the book Happy City and what my social planner friend Wendy Sarkissian says about making spaces work well. "We must pay careful – and loving – attention to the fine grain. The divine dwells in the details."

That was true last week in my blog on Brandon where high-density, low income housing so dramatically outshone nearby low-density suburban sprawl. And it was true yesterday in Langley where plants, paintings, murals, and all sorts of personal embellishments adorned laneways, alleys and the walkways between them. More importantly, those adornments were installed and maintained with loving attention by the owners of adjacent shops and residents living nearby.

Walkways need attention - plants, windows and natural surveillance 
Wisely, the town council did not regulate away these informal design details in some regulatory panic. That was wise. It is a step towards the fine grained urban design that will succeed where design guidelines will not. And it looks beautiful. (They were busy too! I waited for ages to take pictures without people walking in the alleyways). People say they don't like alleyways and high density until they see how well it can work.

In her 2012 presentation What's Psychology got to do with NIMBY? Wendy reminds us in order to show residents how it works "we must retrieve and embrace our lost sociological and psychological wisdom about what makes good housing and good neighborhoods."

In Langley lanes were decorated with flowers and windows looked down upon those flower-strewn spaces. Beauty and natural surveillance work better when they go hand in hand.

Decorations, landscaping, clear sightlines and windows - details matter
Skillful attention to the fine grain is precisely why the permeability-is-bad crowd miss the point. They believe more people walking and driving through an area increases crime risks because more potential criminals can access crime opportunities anonymously.

We don't need gated communities to be safe. What places inside Brandon and Langley show is that even places with plenty of flow-through can be made safe with the right kind of density, fine grain design, and locals who care.