Sunday, August 24, 2014

The latest crime trends - up or down?

Increasing crime rates. Are the good times gone? - Photo by David Smith

Just arrived: The January-June crime statistics for 2013 !

Each summer the FBI releases semi-annual results from year before crime statistics. To criminology geeks like me they are like candy. And guess what! For the 73 cities over 250,000 population crime is the same it has been for decades. Down!

But not everywhere!


Murder, the most reliably reported crime, is still declining. In Philadelphia murders are down -36%, New York -19%, New Orleans -20% and San Antonio -41%.

Why? In the Big Apple maybe broken windows or stop and frisk policing works? Yet both are controversial. Plus cops have been accused of cooking the books. In New Orleans I'd like to think Hollygrove's SafeGrowth program had at least some impact along with the new CeaseFire anti-gang program.

The truth is it's difficult to claim victory from programs in one place when crime falls in other places without those programs. Doing so is willful blindness.

Urban unrest and gangs - a growing problem in cities?

Speaking of willful blindness, there are criminologists who claim auto crime is down due to the spread of more sophisticated security technology. They ignore that crime declined across many categories (in many countries), when security technology was absent (as in domestic violence). When crime categories plummet together, how logical is it that security technology explains auto theft declines but nothing else? 


There are much more important things than crime theory-squabbles. Alarmingly, murders are climbing  in a number of cities. In Las Vegas murder was up 56% (from 32 to 50), in Indianapolis 41%, (46-65), Cincinnati 45% (22-32), Baltimore 9% (105 - 115), Memphis 7% (56-60), and Dallas 17% (62-73). Are these statistically significant or normal variations?

Either way it is troubling. In a few of those cities new police programs are already in place. Memphis uses the predictive policing program called Blue Crush. Apparently, at least with murder, it isn't working.

Are the good times over?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Discovering the city at night

Uplighting sidewalk tree canopies with green tint - all photos from Ian Dryden

A few months ago I met award-winning industrial designer Ian Dryden from the city of Melbourne, Australia. He taught me about Melbourne's street lighting program. Given the links between fear and street (in)activity, this is a very big deal.

Most cities get poor grades for night lighting. Melbourne gets an A.

Melbourne has an incredibly active downtown night life. It wasn't always. One long-term resident told me it was once a waste-land with few people daring to walk dark downtown streets. When the city changed direction and chose to attract an evening crowd to socialize in a safe, positive way, designers and planners stepped up.

Decorative lighting above and below bridges
Ian and his colleagues were among them. Melbourne's public lighting program is sophisticated. It creates both a luminous and carbon neutral city, no small feat with current energy costs.

They light parks, tram stops, news stands, benches, and sidewalks. They string interesting blue (and energy efficient) LEDs above intersections. Where most cities inadvertently obstruct street lights with tree canopies, Melbourne embellishes them with tinted uplighting.

New induction lighting for Swanson Street tram stops
This week the 2014 Australian Smart Lighting Summit is in Melbourne and they get to celebrate among lighting peers. They should. Congratulations!

Melbourne park lighting
Blue LEDs over intersection - a canopy of stars

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Police reform? Better start swimmin'

The virtual hacker group Anonymous responding to recent police shooting in Missouri

It's impossible to write about small wins cutting crime and ignore police controversies that go viral. This weekend teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri in a struggle with a police officer.

Aside from mainstream media we know little about how events happened. We do know Michael Brown's death is triggering protests, riots, and national attention. It has gone viral. Now the online vigilante group Anonymous is threatening to post the personal information of Ferguson police department members unless politicians create a Mike Brown's Law with strict national standards for police misconduct across the USA.

Some steps have already been taken along these lines. In 1994 the government passed a crime bill that expanded a form of civil enforcement called the Consent Decree. It is allows the federal government to install legal oversight over police when civil rights have been abused.

Since then 20 police departments have been subject to Consent Decrees including Detroit, New Orleans, Los Angeles and the latest in Seattle. In Seattle some officers are pushing back with a counter suit to roll back the proposed use-of-force controls.


Next year author Joe Domanick will publish Blue: The Ruin and Redemption of the LAPD about the Consent Decree in LA and what happened. In his blog Domanick describes police resistance to such changes:

...while police officers and their thinking is far more diverse than 20 years-ago, old, bad habits are nevertheless still being passed down from one cop generation to another.  They die hard. And police of a certain generation don’t like change, particularly liberal reform that they perceive only makes their jobs harder and more complex...

It all makes me think of Dylan's lyrics:

Gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown

Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'

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 an ad stunt is 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 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 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)