Monday, April 25, 2016

The sky-people and two-way streets

There is a group I call the storytellers-in-the-sky. They are researchers who tell stories of predicting and analyzing crime from the vantage point of far above the reality on the street - usually employing Big Data to slice and dice stats and find some mysterious crime patterns that will, presumably, help us resolve crime.

We’re still waiting for that last part. In the meantime there are others who do street research - action research - the hard work that makes a difference block by block. Evaluations of this action research is slower to arise and tedious to collect. But it is promising and shows real results.

Now and then, the sky-people and the street people meet up. Such was the case with some decent research lately uncovering what street research types like SafeGrowth and CPTED practitioners have been saying all along! If done properly, converting one-way streets to two-way streets cuts traffic speeds and crime at the same time.


A recently published online study in the Journal of Planning and Education Research shows how to reverse unsafe conditions on one-way city streets. And even though traffic flow increased on the two-way converted street, traffic accidents went down.

The study, Two-Way Street Conversions discovered road safety improved with two-way streets and simultaneously revealed impressive crime declines in both auto thefts and robberies by over 30 percent.

Two-ways vs one-ways to cut crime
Action-based research like that is exactly what we need to transform neighborhoods. We don’t need more macro, sky stories, for example research trying to figure out if crime is a social epidemic.

The epidemic hypothesis is simple, if duh-inducing: A high crime area infects nearby neighborhoods like a virus which, if untreated, spreads to other neighborhoods.

It’s the obvious implication that gets sky-like: To fix the situation we need to come up with a vaccine to protect unaffected neighborhoods. Presumably we then treat the sick neighborhood with some preventive cure. I’m not sure if that’s exactly how the sky-plot goes but if so, I’m reminded of Sheldon’s line from Big Bang: Bazinga!


Sadly, sky-storytellers see crimes as inanimate objects with no social history. They call them crime generators and crime hotspots, presumably to better measure such things and remain objective like the scientist studying the lab rat. Hotspots and crime generators are real things of course, but they definitely do have a cultural and social history not to be ignored.

More to the point, crime generators are places like fast food restaurants frequented by the indigent and drug addicted looking for cheap food. Crime hotspots are places like taverns frequented by the poor and jobless looking for alcohol-relief.

The message lost on the storytellers-in-the-sky is that the conditions creating such places are the very conditions that trigger both crime motives and opportunities in the first place. That’s the message of action-researchers and it’s as simple as a two-way street.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Reversing the by-stander effect: For Kitty

Last week the New York Times ran an article called Remembering Kitty Genovese, a haunting story about the young woman murdered late one night in 1964 in front of her home as she returned from work. According to news reports plenty of people witnessed or heard Kitty’s murder, but they did nothing.

I blogged about this a few years ago in A cry from the dark. 

In CPTED this is known as the by-stander effect and it refutes natural surveillance as a form of guardianship to prevent crime.

New York bar scene in 1963 - screenshot from Remembering Kitty
Ironically, journalists eventually discovered one witness did in fact call police and another initially hollered at the murderer, but none of that mattered to Kitty nor to public sentiment. As the Times story said: A paradigm of danger and indifference in an anonymous city had taken hold. 


Studies in environmental psychology now confirm the by-stander effect. In CPTED today we know natural surveillance is but one small part of a much bigger prevention story.

Second Generation CPTED teaches us that eyes on the street are not enough if they are eyes that don’t care or belong to people too afraid to act. Creating a genuine sense of connection between neighbors is how guardianship through surveillance works best. Without that social cohesion there is no community for people to care about. Research has also demonstrated how social cohesion cuts crime or how its absence triggers it.

Parking lot where Kitty Genovese parked the night of her murder - screenshot from Remembering Kitty

Murderer Winston Moseley died in prison two weeks ago. Kitty’s brother Bill published a letter to the Moseley family that said: …my family’s better angels do now express our condolences to the Moseley family. What do we owe to all our fellow beings? … Let us join with the hope of shared egalitarian equanimity. 

Last October The Witness premiered at the New York Film Festival, a documentary following Bill Genovese’s efforts to examine Kitty’s life and speak to Moseley in prison prior to his death.

Bill Genovese is right; Egalitarian equanimity - probably through social cohesion - should become our rallying cry in the 21st Century neighborhood. That much, at least, we owe to Kitty.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The City-by-the-Bay - Paradise lost?

Golden Gate Bridge in the City-by-the-Bay
The strength of a democracy and the quality of life enjoyed by its citizens are determined in large measure by the ability of the police to discharge their duties. - Herman Goldstein, Policing a Free Society, 1977

It was called the playpen of countercultures, a place where “sirens make white streaks of sound in the sky” and “a grownup swinging town” (Frank Sinatra said that). I recently visited San Francisco en route from our SafeGrowth summit.

I love this town! It has art, music, walkability, interesting streets, and culture at every turn. If you're bored here, check your pulse.

True, it’s housing costs are out of reach and traffic is a nightmare. But consider the rest: Eclectic and world famous architecture. Birthplace of the United Nations. Mother to Silicon Valley and the world’s biggest tech startups. Home to film noir, hippies, the largest and oldest Chinatown outside Asia, cable cars and the Golden Gate bridge.

San Francisco is one of the world’s great cities.

Eclectic architecture, vibrant streets
All except for one glaring problem: Major scandals in the SFPD - the San Francisco Police Department!

There are cases of officer theft, coverups, and racism. One incident of police racism from 2012 may have tainted 3,000 criminal cases. And right after that, another group of officers were snagged in yet another racism controversy last year.


Then there are the police shootings of homeless men!

Disturbing videos have been showing up on YouTube. One from a shooting of a homeless man appeared yesterday.

Another shooting from December has gone viral. I rarely post graphic YouTube videos as they tell little of the full story and I find them gratuitous. Yet, even to the dispassionate observer, it is becoming obvious that an ominous pattern is emerging.


Retired SFPD police chief George Gascon - and current San Francisco district attorney - is leading the call for accountability in San Fransisco. I met Gascon a few years ago at a national police leadership workshop and he seemed an astute leader. If he's calling for reform, there are serious problems!

And now the federal government is investigating? How does this happen? Are the combat cops in charge?

I have known a few San Francisco officers over the years and they were as conscientious and dedicated as anywhere. I know one particular police executive, a friend of mine, who spent years in San Francisco PD and today is among the most outstanding police leaders in the country. Trustworthy and true, she exemplifies excellence!


Perhaps these charges are overblown, media hype? One thing is certain: The ability of SFPD to discharge their duties determines, to a large measure, the quality of life citizens enjoy in that great city.

San Francisco is a fabulous place and it deserves a great police department.

A great city deserves a great police department

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Placemaking - Kiwi-style

The placemaking tactic called Intersection Repair made a recent appearance in the southern hemisphere.

A few years ago SafeGrowth Advocate Sue Ramsay ran some SafeGrowth training in her New Zealand city of Christchurch in two different neighborhoods. Thanks to the Riccarton West neighborhood SafeGrowth team, they have created a first for New Zealand.

Christchurch is the city rebuilding itself after suffering such a devastating earthquake a few years ago. Sue and other former leaders in that city saw neighborhood revitalization as a great way to move forward as the bulldozers and builders reconstructed.

The West Riccarton team has been working on activating their neighborhood and they recently completed their first intersection repair project. The time lapse video tells the story.

Congratulations to all involved! Another step forward.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

"Once we fix the broken windows, then what?"

Policing New York with Broken Windows

How does democratic policing differ from military regimes and police states? That question was best asked in the now classic Policing a Free Society by Herman Goldstein, the leading police scholar of the past 25 years.

Nowhere do those differences surface more sharply than when social unrest arises or public confidence falters. How do democratic cops respond? Adhering to democratic principles, Goldstein suggests, is the key.


In truth, democratic policing shows up when leaders step up, admit fault, and set sail upon the turbulent sea of reform.

Such sailing shows up in the recent statements and actions of two police leaders - NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton and Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsay (now retired).

In New York police have made a major shift in enforcement strategies.

The article "Why Manhattan isn't going to arrest people for littering and public drinking", describes the end of the quality-of-life enforcement model of the Broken Window theory instituted in the early 1990s under Commission Bill Bratton.


Quality-of-life enforcement and Broken Windows was controversial from the start. Research has not been kind to it - crime declines occurred in places without it. The unintended consequence of Broken Windows was alienation of law-abiding minority communities who saw racism in every arrest.

In New York again, twenty years later, Commissioner Bratton is modifying policing strategies. That is one meaning of democratic policing - changing to meet the times, the data, and public sentiment.

And 90 miles south, in his brilliant Ted Talk, Commissioner Ramsay asks; "Once we fix the broken windows, then what?" Once we fix the broken windows, then what? The critical missing question!

Today it is answered pragmatically in SafeGrowth and academically in Robert Sampson’s book Great American City.

As Bratton and Ramsay demonstrate, great democratic policing is not when cops enforce the law, as important as that occasionally might be. It is when cops embrace the power of cohesive communities (and the dignity of human rights within them), adopt strategies that build them, partner with organizations that master them, and then guard them with every fiber.

Monday, February 29, 2016

"My course is set for an uncharted sea"

Cities everywhere have Infernos - usually invisible from downtown towers 

The quote above is from a 14th Century poem by Dante in which the first part is called Inferno, a hell in which the author makes his way past unimaginable, underworld horrors towards salvation.

In urban parlance Dante’s Inferno is an allegory for skid rows, ghettos, and high crime neighborhoods where drug dealers and gang bangers rule like medieval war lords.

I spent the past week in a pretty rough neighborhood – it doesn’t matter where since it could be any large city. I was working with an amazing community group to transform their neighborhood into something better.

Dilapidated housing, drug addicts, high crime - the modern Inferno

Part of our week included visiting one portion of that neighborhood, for all intents an Inferno of open-air drug markets, among the worst anywhere. It is always sobering to visit such places, though sober isn’t the right word to describe the hundreds of addicts who call it home.

Surely a place strewn with heroin syringes, dense with garbage and litter, and blighted with the effluent of a drug shooting gallery is not a place for children. Yet there they were, coming home from school, walking past their drug dealing older brothers hanging on the corners of dilapidated sidewalks, waiting for inevitable customers from both far and near.

Children do not belong here, yet there they were
So many violent deaths from deals gone wrong! So many indigent addicts testing out some new strain of heroin while indifferent dealers wait nearby to see if their latest product kills or turns a profit.

Unlike other parts of the neighborhood, residents in the Inferno barely eke out a living. Many are afraid but haven’t the means to leave. Crime is rampant, but rents are cheap.


To the emergency doctors, beat cops, paramedics, social workers and community development specialists who work in such places, Infernos are a workplace where they learn the full measure of frustration.

To the addicts, homeless, and poverty-stricken trapped in the deprivation and disparity that replaces life with survival, Infernos are the prisons that shame the modern democracy.

To the drug dealers, their handlers, traffickers and their cartel overlords, and all the criminal parasites who pocket the urban fabric like the boils of the Black Plague, Infernos are their retail store and, in some ways, their prison too!

Waiting, very carefully, for clandestine photos away from ever-present drug dealers

Traveling through Inferno, Dante discovers that sin is a product of desire – an irony here given the preponderance of drug addiction. But eventually, through hard work and a wise, caring guide, Dante is led out of Inferno.

The labor of my colleagues this week was inspiring. Their goal is to guide their community with wisdom, courage and hard work, away from Inferno and toward something better. They live the words written by Dante 700 years ago; “and we came forth to contemplate the stars.” 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

An alternate future for neighborhood living

Night lighting along cohousing common walkway - photo McAmant & Durrett

Given the unsustainabity of sprawl, the persistence of crime hotspots, and the unending call for a stonger sense of community, there is a thirst for on-the-ground examples of cohesive, safer and resilient neighborhoods. Cohousing is one.

I’ve been visiting cohousing projects around Denver over the past few months and working with a group establishing an art and culture oriented cohousing community. Here is what I’ve learned.

Cohousing is not for everyone. Some prefer towering condo apartments. Others prefer remote homes hidden in the bush. Those, of course, are legitimate choices.

However the overall trend is in the opposite direction. Over 80% of the developed world lives in urbanized cities. The UN says the majority of the world is now urban. More people migrate into cities than ever before. The truth is, cyber-creep notwithstanding, we are urban and we are social.


I’ve been following the cohousing movement for 20 years. I described cohousing here 5 years ago -  Avoiding a wire-esque future and Fernwood Urban Village in Victoria, BC.

Most cohousing projects look like 25-35 unit condominiums with private residences and amenities similar to those anywhere. Yet cohousing communities are designed differently because they are designed by and for residents themselves in collaboration with architects. Cars are kept to perimeter parking and pedestrian walkways, gardens, and common greenspace areas are in the center.

Tour of community house dining room at Nyland Cohousing - Lafayette, Colorado
Cohousing governance is painfully democratic, intricate, and based on extended friendship networks. Those networks emerge from things like carpooling, shared childcare, sharing tools and common facilities like workshops and community gardens. Networks emerge from regular training in conflict resolution, mediation, and governance methods - the latest version is sociocracy. In the cohousing group I work with we are offering training in emotional intelligence skills.

Cohousing architecture includes a central common house with a library, guest rooms, play areas for kids and a large dining/kitchen area for community meals a few times a week.

Homes along the common walkway at Nyland Cohousing


A few years ago the Cohousing Association of the United States funded a national survey of the cohousing phenomenon. How successful is cohousing and how does it differ?

Here is what it found:
  • Cohousers described more opportunities for personal growth, especially with group trainings in communication and conflict resolution
  • In 2011 there were 118 completed U.S. cohousing projects - another 100 under construction. 
  • Cohousing was more financially stable during the Great Recession
  • During the recession, less than a dozen cohousing units were foreclosed, out of thousands - far below national rates 

Lounge and fireplace at Nyland common house - a place to relax

In my experience, cohousing has lower crime and a greater desire for collaboration on difficult problems. They live more sustainably with shared gardening, recycling and ride sharing. And at the very core of social sustainability, they seem to call police less frequently to solve most problems that they instead solve themselves.

There are still issues to resolve in cohousing. For example internal conflict is lessened but it is not absent. But on whole cohousing is the most cohesive, safe and resilient neighborhood design I've seen yet. It’s a model worth considering in the 21st Century city.