Monday, June 17, 2019

To bench or not to bench?

Benches in public city parks offer refuge for city goers

by Mateja Mihinjac
The public bench has become an indispensable part of city life. It represents a primary seating option for taking a rest, conversing with a friend, having a coffee or a meeting, or simply observing the theatre of the street.

However, occasionally a bench is blamed for drug dealing, panhandling, loitering, vagrancy, or homelessness. This has led to calls for eradicating them or revamping them to reduce their attractiveness for prolonged occupation.


This knee-jerk reaction is not uncommon. We’ve written before about target-hardening approacheshostile architecture and even vilifying the trees for crime problems and safety issues.

Criminalizing loitering, especially when perceived as acts of lower social class, is a common example that diminishes use of public space.

Benches in unpeopled downtowns might attract undesirable uses

These simplistic decisions are often underthought, short-lived, and are notorious for
dehumanizing particular groups of people.

The question of removing benches extends beyond the presence street furniture. It is also about civility, ethics and inclusion. This sentiment comes from our New Zealand SafeGrowth Advocate, Sue Ramsay, who argues that the public debate around city planning should not only evolve around walkability but also sitability. Consider, for example, the needs of the elderly and less able groups in public space.

A public bench can provide opportunities for contemplation -
9/11 Tiles for America Memorial in New York City

In a bid to address undesirable uses cities should encourage positive uses of their downtowns if they don’t wish to surrender them to vilified groups. Installation of benches, in particular, is often part of downtown revitalization programs because they attract diverse users and communicate to them they are welcome to use public space.

Importantly, we should be aware that disorder and undesirable behaviors are a symptom of a social problem greater than design.

Revitalizing the street with temporary seating installation in Ottawa

Before vilifying the bench, how about clearly understanding what underlies the problem and targeting collaborative programs that help? How about work programs and skills programs for those with nowhere to go but benches? How about revitalizing downtowns through festivals, activities, local shops and cafes that focus on desirable activities?

A public bench is the epitome of public life. It allows one to both socialize and be alone, yet remain connected to the social world around them. It is the symbol of access to communal outdoor spaces.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Closing a window on a giant

Professor George Kelling - photo Rutgers University 

by Gregory Saville

George Kelling, police scholar and renowned criminologist, died last week. At a time when we thirst for new ideas, Kelling was a giant!

A decade ago, I sat in a sunny Florida conference room packed with 40 police executives gathered to discuss the future of police leadership. At one point I was seated beside Kelling, quite enjoying his easy manner and penetrating ideas. By that point, Kelling’s contribution to policing and crime prevention was legendary, especially an idea he co-authored called the Broken Windows Theory (BWT), also known as quality-of-life policing.


I recall Kelling good-heartedly chastise some police executives in that room when they intimated BWT was zero-tolerance enforcement and aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics. Actually, in contrast to positive crime prevention and BWT research, studies showed that zero tolerance enforcement did not work. 

Yet the reality of our conference discussions was that back at work, far from our vista overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, crime prevention programs were often little more than media-distorted, bureaucratic manipulations. BWT was not zero-tolerance enforcement, but many police departments still applied it that way. 

Kelling repeatedly published articles to correct the combat cop version of BWT: 
“The assertiveness of Broken Windows misdemeanor enforcement, however, does not equate with “zero tolerance” policies and high-arrest strategies, as is sometimes alleged; done correctly, order-maintenance policing does not rely on such practices.”

Our recent Ottawa SafeGrowth training. All through his career, Kelling
insisted on police/community partnerships

Kelling said NYPD worked with private and nonprofit partners and partnered with businesses to improve lighting and streets. However, personally, I saw very few broken windows actually repaired by BWT. 


Kelling’s work represents much more than BWT. He learned the business of policing by walking alongside beat cops in Newark and Kansas City. 

He began his career as a social worker, but in the early 1970s he co-authored a pioneering study into police patrol and discovered routine police patrol had no statistical impact on crime or fear of crime. 

Although police still deploy police vehicles to patrol willy-nilly, Kelling’s experiment suggested resources are far better spent on crime prevention and other problem-solving strategies - an important lesson I learned from Kelling’s writing!

Beat officers joining our community anti-violence training.
Cops learning about community needs; the key to Kelling's work 

My impression is that Kelling cared much about victims from all walks of life, especially the disenfranchised. One of his former grad students shared with me this thought: “He believed in the power of ideas over the power of papers. He planted these idea seedlings and then nurtured and protected them. He was a true believer in the capacity of the police to do good.”

Perhaps if police leaders had ensured officers were properly trained and supervised in problem-solving methods, the broken windows story might have turned out very different! 

The Washington Post says Kelling’s Broken Windows Theory became “a cornerstone of community policing”. I’m unsure if that is true. But George Kelling’s other ideas and his ethics certainly did. 

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Something for everybody - Teaching children how to play

Brisbane's Botanic Gardens - Photo Creative Commons Lilywatanabe

by Tarah Hodgkinson

While discussing safer cities in her pioneering book, Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs said that “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody” and this includes creating them for everybody. That includes children.

I usually do my best to avoid the children’s area of parks. I’m not a big fan of the running, screaming, whining, crying or even laughing. Kids are great; they are just not for me. But usually once a week I walk through Brisbane’s Botanic Gardens and right past a children’s play area. On a normal day I would breeze on by, yet I recently took notice of a very interesting sign.

Created by the City of Brisbane, this sign asks, “How would you like to play?” It is followed up by 20 images of children signing different options for play, from climbing to sliding to digging. Each image provides a description of the type of activity and how to sign it.

Not only was there signage about how to communicate how to play (emphasizing good communication skills), but it was all-abilities friendly. Children who may be hearing impaired, or delayed in speaking, could communicate with other children what they wanted and be understood.

All-abilities signage

In prior blogs, we have written about the need for all-abilities planning and inclusive neighborhood design.

However, these designs can often emphasize the “disability” side of design with images of wheelchairs or walkers. In this case, all-abilities design is made fun. It is similar to what UK planner Charles Laundry says about making public spaces fun in his landmark book The Creative City and also what we discussed in our previous blogs on design creativity.

What is also impressive here is there is no mention of abilities on the sign. Rather, it is normalized and made part of the overall play experience. Perhaps this is the best way to move forward in all-abilities, inclusive neighborhood design.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Reimagining anti-graffiti

Decades of graffiti in a village underpass

by Mateja Mihinjac

This blog was inspired by a recent trip to my home village of 6,000 residents. Ever since I can remember, every few months the graffiti in the railway underpass near my house is painted over and the broken lights fixed. Shortly after fixing, the signs of vandalism reappear and a few months later the graffiti reappears. This has been occurring for the last 30 years. 

Graffiti at entrance to underpass - 2018

In 2019 after clean-up, graffiti reappears on the opposite side


At the start of my criminology career, I learned that rapid graffiti removal programs were the most efficient way to address the problem because they deny graffiti offenders or “artists” the reward of having their work seen by others. In the 1980s, the famous Broken Windows Theory began with one such program in the New York City subway system’s Clean Car Program – graffiti was removed and vandalism repaired.

Through subsequent research and practical work I learned this approach might not be very effective and cost-beneficial as it is costly, may lead to displacement, fails to account for various motivations in the offenders, and generally fails to permanently eliminate the problem.

Street art in Manhattan, New York

Since then other approaches appeared for addressing graffiti. One approach focuses on anti-graffiti materials and surfaces, increased penalties for “offenders”, and community clean-ups. Another approach designates graffiti walls and education or mural programs for offenders, such as the successful program for talented graffiti artists described in on this blog site by our team member Anna Brassard.

While some cities successfully integrate both approaches, other cities are more polarized in their graffiti management approaches. For example in Ottawa, city leaders maintain a strict no-graffiti policy apart from designated legal graffiti walls and murals under the City’s mural program.

Street art is a regular feature of urban life throughout the world
Conversely, the mayor of the Colombian capital of Bogota has decriminalized graffiti after a tragic event in 2011 when a young artist was fatally shot. Apart from designated off-limit surfaces, graffiti artists in Bogota are free to express their creativity across the city. Graffiti is now integrated into city life and, interestingly, has become a major attraction for visitors.

I don’t argue for one approach over another since different contexts require different solutions. However, if an approach remains unsuccessful over a number of decades, such as in the railway underpass in my home village, it is time to consider alternative strategies. One missing link, however, is the limited voice of local community members.


In her reflection on developing a graffiti strategy for the city of Melbourne, criminologist Alison Young recommended against the city’s zero-tolerance approach with increased criminalization of graffiti artists, the approach which local government had adopted at the time.

She argued for self-regulation where property owners and local public would have a say in the image and identity of their local part of public space by either retaining it or by requesting the local government to remove the newly emerged graffiti. The thinking was that if local communities were given an opportunity for such self-governance, they might develop a greater sense of ownership and care for the local environment.

Melbourne's tourist approach to graffiti
Photo Creative Commons, Bernard Spragg 

The Melbourne strategy has worked - today the city has a successful street graffiti program receiving world-wide acclaim. That success has turned into a major tourist attraction and economic success story for Melbourne including the popular Melbourne Street Art Tours by local tour companies and the annual Melbourne Stencil Festival.

Since 2010 the city has applied a hybrid approach where they now include the voice of business owners in deciding whether graffiti should be retained.

Melbourne provides an innovative answer to the question of whether we should eliminate graffiti, accept it, or channel freedom of expression in a positive direction for the artists and local communities. Despite a plethora of graffiti management practices, one thing is certain: graffiti is here to stay.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Seattle is Dying? Clearing smoke, breaking mirrors

Homeless camp in Philadelphia
by Gregory Saville

Johann Schropfer was an 18th Century charlatan and swindler famous for his projections of "ghosts" in smoke-filled rooms during seances. That trick was the origin of the smoke and mirrors scam, an illusion perpetrated by someone with something up their sleeve - in Schropfer's case, fraud.

A friend recently texted me the TV documentary Seattle is Dying about homelessness in Seattle. The website of the Seattle KOMO TV station that made the film says: "It's about parents who won't take their children into the public parks they pay for. It's about filth and degradation all around us. And theft and crime."

Homeless shelter in Canberra, Australia
- photo Creative Commons, John Scotas

There's nothing new about blight and fear in urban America. We've blogged on homelessness for years and have been working on the International CPTED Association homelessness committee to develop strategies for CPTED practitioners.

Nor is there anything new about Seattle's homelessness problem. Social workers, police, and others who work with the homeless have justifiably complained about insufficient support and ineffective actions. Politicians struggle to find answers. No doubt this is serious.

But is Seattle's homelessness any different from other places? Local media are supposed to focus on local stories, hopefully, so some good comes out of the coverage. Consider the Los Angeles story about Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless musician befriended by LA Times columnist Steve Lopez, who wrote articles and a book on his story (later featured in the 2009 film The Soloist). That turned into millions of dollars in city support for the LA skid row.

What's different in Seattle? Local media now claim Seattle's problem is the worst in the country. Is it?

Homelessness in Toronto


Then I saw a Fox News broadcast about the KOMO documentary and heard this from a right-wing pundit: "Seattle is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. It is among the most liberal and as a direct result of that Seattle is now a haven for homelessness and drug use." That, says Fox News, is the reason for Seattle's problems. That is also, I suspect, how a smoke and mirrors illusion starts.

Here are lessons to help you smash those mirrors and clear that smoke:
  • Lesson #1: Crime stats around homelessness are notoriously difficult to collect. Those cited in the film are sloppy enough to make a criminologist cringe. 
  • Lesson #2: Homeless stats are even more difficult. Some use nightly street counts, others use shelter counts. Problem is, eastern cities tend to offer mandatory shelter beds for every homeless person (due to more extreme winter weather), whereas many western cities do not. That means homeless counts are inflated in some cities and not in others. Blame the weather, not the politics.
  • Lesson #3: Then there is what criminologists call the base rate problem. To equate a homeless population with a city population base depends on whether you include the inner city, the metro area, or other geographies.  

Sleeping homeless on the street outside a resort in Honduras


Here are some actual stats for 2016 - 2018:

In other words, cities like Miami, Tulsa and Oklahoma City have homeless rates much worse than Seattle. Interestingly, Tulsa and Oklahoma City are among the most conservative cities in the country and Tulsa has a homeless rate double that of Seattle! The KOMO documentary fails to mention that. Why?

Sleeping spot for a Denver homeless person


KOMO News 4 is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, among the most infamous media conglomerates and, according to some political scientists, a close ally of the Trump administration.

Political researchers have studied Sinclair and their outlets and concluded Sinclair has engaged in a litany of biased practices in news reporting and faced intense scrutiny from media critics, as well as some from its own station employees, for the conservative slant of their stations' news reporting.

The Nobel winning Center for Public Integrity has repeatedly raised the alarm about bias at Sinclair stations.

And now the KOMO/Sinclair conglomerate tell us "Seattle is Dying". Is this a case of Fox News pundits using smoke and mirrors for another attack on liberal cities at a time when political polarization is epidemic?

Homelessness truly is a serious problem. It deserves proper research and someone telling the whole story. The suffering of those on the street - and the frustration of well-intentioned professionals like social workers, police, and others - deserve no less. As we have advocated repeatedly, homelessness is a modern scourge we must solve.

To offer up a smoke and mirrors claim that "liberal" cities are the culprit and then use a documentary that ignores crucial homelessness data in other cities makes me wonder; Would Johann Schropfer be impressed?

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Science and art - activating space with knowledge

Activating Brisbane with outdoor science

by Tarah Hodgkinson

We have written a number of blogs about activating public space with public art. From music festivals to large murals, neighbourhoods around the world bring people together to observe and interact around art. However, in Brisbane this year, art was mixed with science.

Last month, the city of Brisbane was celebrating all things science in the public sphere. Brisbane had a massive science festival. This included exhibits at the Queensland science museum, an outdoor festival, and perhaps the most engaging: technology-inspired art exhibits around the city. These exhibits, called Curiocity, married together art and science into an interactive and beautiful combination for local residents and tourists alike. The exhibits were placed along the Brisbane river and free for everyone, making them easily accessible and activating these spaces 24 hours day.

Accessible and free - science for the public in Brisbane

Artists, scientists and technicians combine experience in robotics, music, art and technology to create these interactive experiences. The exhibits included “Sky Brisbane” an air-jet activated grid of colourful fabric plumes that move based on the movement of the observer and “Scatter” solar-powered spinning loud speakers that scatter sound as the listener moves throughout the exhibit. These exhibits could be further engaged with through a phone app that was accessed through a scannable bar code at each installation.

"The Universe" outdoor science exhibit, Prague, Czech Republic
- photo Creative Commons Packa 
These kinds of exhibits are not new but definitely are growing in popularity and size. For example, in North Vancouver Canada, Capilano suspension bridge puts on a beautiful holiday light show at the end of each year. Last year they included an interactive light display that turned on and changed colour based on the noise made. Passers-by engaged in clapping, stomping and cheering to see what kinds of colour combinations they could make.

Vancouver's Capilano Suspension Bridge
- Photo Creative Commons Markus Saynevirta


While we often talk about how public art can bring people out and activate space, this combination of technology and art could offer not only further public engagement, but also celebrate and expand science in the public forum. Science festivals that include these kinds of exhibits can encourage curiosity and celebrate the advancement of knowledge, while remaining accessible and enjoyable.

In a time when science and evidence is being replaced by personal opinion and fake news, perhaps the celebration of science in the public realm will not only bring folks out and activate public space but will also encourage thoughtful conversation and curiosity about knowledge and inquiry.