Monday, May 2, 2022

New principles for building safe neighborhoods

Bloomberg study on Intersection Repair tactical urbanism 

by Gregory Saville

I recently spent time in downtown Toronto and found some great street designs, including Dundas Square - a walkable/event square surrounded by flashing billboards and shops of all sorts. It is like a kind of mini-Times Square, following the pedestrianization of former New York planner Janette Sadik-Khan.

Between the flower pot decorations, the latest tunes from loudspeakers and an evangelical huckster announcing his wares on one side, and a fashion photographer capturing the stylish gaze of his model on the other, Dundas Square seems chaotic at one glance and at another, deliciously exciting. It might generate plenty of activity, but there is nothing inherently crime-generating about this downtown corner. 

Unique Toronto architecture near Dundas Square

Dundas Square is an example of two ideas in SafeGrowth related to community design that have a huge impact on safety – or the opposite – and yet we seldom use them when we aim to build livable and safe places. 


One is the concept called social stabilizers. The term was first coined as part of neighborhood livability in the late 1960s. The idea originally referred to people whose presence and activities help reduce disorder in a neighborhood. Today we draw the term from 2nd Generation CPTED to refer to safe congregation areas for pro-social activities and balanced land uses that minimize places that can tip an area into higher disorder or crime. 

The other concept is called crime disrupters - a term that is related, but different, from stabilizers. While planners can design social stabilizers into new neighborhood plans, for those who live and work in a community, it might be too late to add new designs. So they can use crime disrupters to alter problem areas. 

Street furniture, flowerpots, and plenty of
pro-social activity - stabilizing a downtown area

One example of crime disrupters is pop-up placemaking, sometimes called tactical urbanism. Because it is done by local residents, shop owners or property managers, tactical urbanism cannot only disrupt crime but also stabilize the safety of an area. 

I recently received a Bloomberg research report from my architect friend Mark Lakeman about the stabilizing effect of intersection repair programs on traffic accidents and neighborhood safety. 

Stabilizing neighborhoods and disrupting crime is as much a part of urban design and community building as any other activity. As we create livable communities, and as crime rates rise in our post-Covid era, we should tap into the urban design and community-building tactics at our disposal.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Bus stops and crime - 30 years later

Bus stop location in Scarborough not far from where
Paul Bernardo waited at night to follow and sexually assault women

by Gregory Saville

Between May 1987 and June 1990, Toronto police investigated the case of the Scarborough Rapist - Paul Bernardo. Scarborough is a sprawling suburb of Toronto and at the time the fear of a serial rapist spread across the entire Toronto metro like wildfire, especially along public transit lines. This notorious and horrific case is well-known in Canada and eventually led to the arrest and conviction of Paul Bernardo, the rapist (by that time, tragically, a serial murderer). 

I first learned of this case as a police patrol officer 25 miles west of Scarborough, but we knew very little about the facts at that point. Coincidentally, I was also in urban planning grad school at that time and one of my professors asked me to join a new group conducting field visits and safety reviews on the Toronto transit bus and subway system resulting from the Scarborough rapes. They created their audit form from research on CPTED and they were calling it a safety audit. 

That is how the safety audit was born – out of tragedy and necessity. 

Up to that point, fear of crime patterns was surmised from generic surveys, but specific geographical details were sketchy. We knew from interviews what residents said about fear, but little about the specific places that triggered those fears. The Safety Audit changed all that.

Today, many Scarborough bus stops are not much better than in the late 1980s


A few days ago I helped a local transit committee conduct their first Safety Audit on a bus stop near my home – the first audit of its kind in Colorado. 

What we found was fascinating. We discovered an isolated and remote bus stop location with few nearby opportunities for natural surveillance. We learned that bus drivers reported disorderly incidents on this route and that this stop was the end of the line and was nowhere near restroom facilities. We also uncovered a nearby shopping mall with numerous crime incidents, including a recently burglarized restaurant when we discovered a jimmied front door (we called the police). 

Thus, we were able to report a crime before the owner learned about it. I spoke to him when he arrived and, naturally, the poor fellow wasn’t happy! He was the latest victim of crime in this shopping mall next to our bus stop. 

As this transport committee learns how to use the Safety Audit process, they will eventually have the capacity to conduct other safety reviews across other parts of the transportation system. 

Metro Denver bus stop location a few days ago during our Safety Audit
- many similarities to other cities


Safety audits are not new to this blog. Seven years ago, Tarah blogged on how to teach high school students the art of the Safety Audit in Every time they want to count you out – use your voice.

Four years ago I blogged on safety audits in A Tool for the Archeology of Fear. I described the mistake CPTED practitioners make when they confuse safety audits with CPTED surveys or visual checklist inspections. Some conflate Safety Audits with Jane’s Walks or Night-Out-Against-Crime. They too are wrong.

Then, two years ago, Mateja blogged on how she digitized our Safety Audit process for measuring fear in downtown Saskatoon.

What struck me this week is not how much the committee members enjoyed the Safety Audit process. That is a comment SafeGrowth advocates hear commonly during our training. Rather, the most striking thing was how similar design and location problems arise over and over at bus stops here and elsewhere. 

We have taught audits from Melbourne Australia, Christchurch New Zealand, San Diego California, and Calgary Alberta, to New York City, and Helsingborg Sweden. We usually uncover similar fear and crime opportunity risks in those cities just as they existed in Scarborough during the Paul Bernardo rapes 30 years ago. 

Will we never learn?

Monday, April 11, 2022

Headlines do not define us - Part 3

Hamilton, Ontario skyline from the Niagara Escarpment 
photo by Nhl4hamilton at English Wikipedia, Creative Commons

Last month we began a series of blogs about the impact of local news on community engagement. The first blog covered Denver, Colorado, and two weeks ago the second covered Ljubljana, Slovenia. This week we conclude with news coverage from Hamilton, Ontario.

by Tarah Hodgkinson

As with our last two blogs on crime news, much of the focus in Canada is on the war in Ukraine but, as in Denver and Ljubljana, crime stories continue. Here are some recent crime stories from Hamilton, Ontario.


In this story, a man went to meet the private and online seller of a luxury car and when he went to test drive it, locked the doors and took off with the vehicle. He is still at large. This story confirms the narrative that people should be careful selling (and buying) their items online. 

This incident demonstrates some of the unique ways offenders are adapting in order to steal cars. Since electronic immobilizers were mandated in Canada in 2007, auto theft has plummeted

This is largely because you can’t turn over the ignition without the key. As such, many offenders are finding alternative ways to access the keys to cars, such as burglary and robbery. 


In this story, police caught an armed bank robber who stole cash from two banks in Hamilton’s east end. He went into the bank, handed the teller a note saying it was a bank robbery and he was armed and took off with an undisclosed amount of cash. 

This story follows some common themes in crime reporting: it is discrete, easy to understand, and there is a clear villain and hero. Similar to the auto theft story, it is also a somewhat unique event in the 21st century. Bank robberies are far less common now that security has been improved and bank tellers have very little cash at their stations. 

Hamilton is a former steel town hard hit by COVID


In this story, police are investigating a shooting in downtown Hamilton leaving one person hospitalized. The two assailants fled the scene and the police are encouraging local residents to inspect their security cameras for any footage of the incident. 

While there is very little information provided in this story, we still see many of the criteria of newsworthiness: it is easy to understand, there is a clear victim, and the event was short-lived. It is also a rare and violent event. Shootings are incredibly uncommon in Canada, especially compared to our southern neighbours. However, these kinds of incidents have the ability to instill a sense of fear in neighborhood residents who are provided very little detail about what actually happened and if it might happen to them next. This is similar to crime stories in Denver.


You will note that all three crime stories in Hamilton are similar to those told in Ljubljana and Denver in one crucial respect – while they differ in seriousness, they are all informed by the local police. 

According to Criminologist Vincent Sacco, the police are the main source of crime news for journalists because of the relationship that is mutually beneficial. Journalists receive ongoing access to crime news and the police are positioned as the experts or “owners” of the problem. 

This may be why residents who comment about crimes in news media directly refer to police in their observations. It may also be why stories about police ineffectiveness or controversy also show up on many front pages. Residents see police and crime as intimately the same story!

The stories also fit specific criteria outlined in a Canadian criminology textbook by Sacco and Kennedy, The Criminal Event

In the "Golden Horseshoe" megalopolis of southern Ontario,
Hamilton is a city with a metro population of over 700,000 

In my master’s degree, I worked with my mentor, Dr. Sacco at Queen’s University. Sacco’s book is a well-known Canadian intro textbook. He explains that crime news often contributes to a skewed understanding of crime in our neighbourhoods. He outlines four main reasons for this:

  • There is rarely any link between the amount of crime news and the amount of crime in an area.
  • Rare crimes like violence get the most attention while common, but less interesting, crimes like property or white-collar crimes are ignored. 
  • Crime news overexaggerates the effectiveness of police by emphasizing offenses that result in arrests. 
  • Crime news ignores the extent of the criminal justice system by focusing only on the initial stages of arrest and detention. 

Sacco explains that crime news ignores the complex relationship between social conditions and crime – something we observed in all three cities. Further, there are factors that make crimes more newsworthy in all three cities of Ljubljana, Denver, and Hamilton. Crimes are newsworthy if they are short-lived, simple to understand, and predictable with dramatic narratives and clear heroes/victims/villains. 

Hamilton City Hall - an industrial city in transition


Crime reporting has significant implications for local residents in neighbourhoods. First, reporting may result in fear of crime. When citizens are afraid, they often retreat into their homes, meaning there are fewer eyes on the street and more opportunities for crime. That makes community crime prevention difficult. 

Second, when crime news creates the impression that police are the owners of the crime narrative, local residents are less inclined to engage in crime prevention because they don’t see themselves as part of the solution. This is a constant problem we confront in our SafeGrowth work. 

We believe that neighbourhood residents are among the best suited to prevent crime. We support residents in reclaiming the crime prevention narrative and we help them establish ownership over their own crime problems. SafeGrowth helps contextualize the frightening crime headlines by providing residents the tools to collect their own data and build their own understandings of crime issues, often in collaboration with local police. 

In doing so, they see the truth behind the crime stories and they analyse their fears so they can build their own local solutions. From Denver to Ljubljana to Hamilton, we are convinced that is the way forward.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Headlines do not define us - Part 2

Ljubljanica river banks in the Slovenian capital city
Photo AleŇ° Kravos, Creative Commons

Last week we began a series of blogs about the impact of local news on neighborhood perceptions and how different media styles affect community engagement. The last blog discussed media coverage in Denver, Colorado. This week Mateja takes our analysis to Slovenia.

by Mateja Mihinjac

Like in many other parts of the world, Slovenian daily news likewise has disproportionately covered the Ukrainian war for over a month. Sadly, local crime remains uninhibited despite this global crisis. In fact, it is possible that crime may increase during these times or shortly afterwards.


One news story that raised eyebrows was a brazen armed robbery of a jewellery store committed in daylight adjacent to the city’s municipal building.

Two robbers, one of whom was armed, tied up an employee and then escaped via the historic part of the city. There was a description of the two perpetrators, however, readers commented that this was of no use since the perpetrators would have already disguised themselves once they escaped. Those responsible for the robbery have not yet been apprehended.

As in last week’s blog, reader comments also mentioned police issues. Readers complained that police foot patrols that were once present in the city centre are now absent. They believed such a presence could deter crime and provide reassurance to city-goers. There is scientific evidence supporting these comments. Research shows that police foot patrols can help reduce robberies.

Preseren Square, main activity node in Ljubljana


This story reports on a domestic homicide from last year when an 80-year-old man murdered his sleeping wife by repeatedly hitting her on her head with an axe. The story reports details of how he hit her at least 34-times causing her to die at the scene. The story questions whether the accused will be fit to stand trial considering his frail health and possible impaired judgment at the time of the act. The report offers a dry description of facts.

While the cases of domestic homicide are difficult to comprehend, they are sadly all too common and have increased in Slovenia during COVID lockdowns. Domestic violence most often occurs behind closed doors and in neighbourhoods where people are disengaged from one another. In Slovenia, it is not uncommon to expect that what happens at home is a private matter, especially in rural areas.


The final news story involves a 25-year-old perpetrator who broke in, stole items, and then set fire in several locations across Ljubljana city centre including the COVID test location, a market stand, and a rubbish bin. The perpetrator was apprehended owing to witness information about his movements. The rest of the report provides basic facts about the event and the police statement. Readers’ comments, however, are highly judgmental about the apprehended young man and suggest he must be bored for engaging in such acts or that he needs to “learn to do some real job”.

This case attracted extra attention as the country is currently on high alert for forest fires, so any open fire is strictly prohibited. Over the past two weeks, firefighters had to extinguish several forest fires and police suspect these fires have been set intentionally.

Ljubljana is noted as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe


I am lucky to live in a fairly safe country. The national homicide rate is around 1 per 100.000 inhabitants. Rates vary by city (the capital city Ljubljana’s rate is below 1 while Celje’s – the third-largest city – is 2.6) but overall serious crime is rare. Unlike the situation in Denver reported last week, in Slovenia the rarity of shootings and homicide is reflected in scarce reporting of serious crimes in the news media.

However, there are some implications from Slovenian news not directly mentioned in these reports. They are obvious to those of us engaged in SafeGrowth programming:
  • Neighbourhoods need to offer something for everyone. Youth and young people, especially, require extra stimulation and access to activities that fulfil them. Consider, for example, how intentional fire setting is commonly attributed to youth and how more inclusive opportunities for youth offer a deterrent.
  • We should work to eliminate the mantra that what happens behind closed doors is no one’s business. Support structures within neighbourhoods should offer assistance for family conflicts to both the perpetrators and victims. Building up neighbourhood social cohesion will help reverse people remaining disengaged from one another.
  • Police-community relationships are important for a balanced neighbourhood and those relationships can only be built by a direct and positive interaction between the police and residents. Properly deployed foot patrols, with well-trained officers, offer the first step toward this positive interaction. Research supports police patrols as integral to community or neighbourhood policing models.

It might be too early to tell what impacts the current war will have on local crime trends, however, one thing is certain. We should not disregard the impacts of global affairs. Our neighbourhoods are not insulated from their surroundings. Spending extra attention on community-building and creating resilient neighbourhoods is the best insurance policy against the potential post-war effects of increasing crime and the worsening news headlines that may become a new reality.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Headlines do not define us - Part 1


News headlines matter when it comes to neighborhood safety
photo Huffington Post online

by Gregory Saville

As we read the horrific daily news from the Russia/Ukraine war, usually somewhere close by are crime headlines. When we write about, work towards, and teach others how to use SafeGrowth to build safer neighborhoods, we run into local fears about crime. Sometimes fears are debilitating and residents are too afraid to leave their front doors. Other times, they are outraged by some local crime and it mobilizes them. In all cases, local perceptions are driven not only by experience, but by stories.

Local engagement hinges on the role of media in story-telling. I often analyze the content of a news organization’s headlines to see how reporting will help or hinder a SafeGrowth program in a new city. 

With that in mind, Mateja, Tarah, and I decided to write three different blogs over the next month on media story headlines where we live. Tarah will write about reports in and around Hamilton, Ontario in Canada. Mateja will write about reports in and around her city of Ljubljana in Slovenia. Today in Part 1, I will write about reports in and around Denver, Colorado.

Our deep-dive will compare the latest crime stories in local and national news related to our cities. We will examine how media reports those crime stories (Blood and gore? Perceptions of residents?) And we will assess the police/law enforcement response or role in those media stories. 

How do our different cities compare?

We will compare crime reporting in three different cities
- public perceptions matter when it comes to preventing crime


The United States is a country where firearms are easily available, so the chance that guns end up in the wrong hands is multiplied a hundredfold. A decade ago I wrote the Washington/BC murder mystery blog and reported that when a burglar breaks into a Washington home there is a 1 in 20 chance of finding a handgun versus 1 in 500 in British Columbia. There is a mass or school shooting somewhere in the U.S. a few times a month

Thus American crime stories focus on guns, shootings, and horrific firearms crimes. 

This week, I read a Denver Post news article about “A 14-year-old was shot dead early Friday morning in NE Denver". The story had very few details. We learn only that juveniles were involved. We learn nothing about how juveniles got hold of firearms! (See my murder-mystery blog above). So while sensational murders show up on the front page, we learn little about them or what caused them. In this environment of perpetual fear-mongering, neighborhoods are, understandably, fearful of a wave of crime.

These types of stories are common in Denver in spite of the fact that Denver’s crime rate is significantly lower than many other American cities. Reality, it seems, plays little role in the reporting of crime.

Denver's crime is lower than most large American cities,
but you'd never know it from the news


Another story in Friday’s headline documented the one-year anniversary of a grocery store mass killing in Boulder in 2021. 

This journalism was an attempt at “investigative” reporting, although without a great deal of actual investigation. One resident described how he attempted to mentally recover by playing his cello at the streetside memorial to the victims. The Boulder mayor acknowledged the impact but said the shooting does not define their community. 

The story ended by citing research about the harm to emotional well-being within neighborhoods after mass shootings. It is encouraging that there are news editors asking these more in-depth questions to follow up on the long-term neighborhood. Their message: People are resilient! Now THAT is something SafeGrowth can work with.


Sadly, the most alarming news coverage was not shootings. It was the coverage on police accountability. Yesterday’s media carried stories on “Unsealed memos reveal concerns by Denver police about internal “leadership failure” during 2020 protests” 

The implication of internal police turmoil has as deep an impact on neighborhood confidence as crime stories. Most people want to be confident and trusting of their police and, in fact, most are. They might support police reforms, but research indicates they overwhelmingly oppose defunding

But, perhaps the most disturbing of all recent coverage was not shootings or accountability, rather it was this local news video clip about the city of Wheat Ridge in suburban Denver. 

Long-term motel tenants feel forced out by the new Wheat Ridge ordinance

This story dealt with increasing police calls for service that were generated from a cluster of motels along an interstate highway. The clip quotes a local police Chief who promotes the long-ago discredited “broken windows” crime theory as a reason to take action on local motels. 

Wheat Ridge now has an ordinance to crack down on motel owners forcing many long-term motel residents out of their apartments. The implication is that they will end up on the street, and not in the local homeless shelter (if you have been inside shelters, you know why). 

From a SafeGrowth perspective, it is hard to know what is worse: 

  • a police official using a discredited crime theory to take action, or; 
  • a municipality more concerned about disorder at a motel strip and less concerned about throwing residents into homelessness.

Will the municipality find affordable homes for the evicted residents? Will the motel policy cut crime or merely displace it? Will the evicted simply add to the homelessness in Wheat Ridge? Hard to say - but it seems this news outlet, at least, is keeping watch. News stories can help, or hinder, public safety. 

Next week: Crime coverage in the Slovenian capital city of Ljubljana.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Books 2 Prisoners - Capacity building from the inside/out

Tarah Hodgkinson

This week, one of my friends, and colleague, Jeffrey Bradley, came to give a guest lecture in my course on victimology. While he has a range of experiences with victim services, most notably, he spoke about his experience volunteering with Books 2 Prisoners

Books 2 Prisoners (B2P) first started in Seattle in 1972. Since then, it has spread to parts of Canada, including Ottawa where my friend Jeff co-chairs their local chapter. B2P receives requests for books from prisoners, local volunteers source these books through donations and/or crowd-sourcing, and these books are mailed to the correctional facility. B2P is an important pathway to support literature in prison, as it is one of the only ways to provide books and much of the material that enters Canadian prisons are censored for revolutionary content. 

One of the key messages I’m trying to drive home with my students is that victims and offenders are frequently the same people. As such, B2P is an important victim service, since many prisoners have suffered significant victimization and trauma in their own life. 

The impact of books in prison is well documented. Reviews of the literature have found that most stated commitments to education in prison are severely lacking in practice and any access to educational materials is an improvement. In addition, literature contributes to prisoners’ well-being and sense of self in an unforgiving and oppressive system like prison. Chris Hedges’ new book The Class documents this impact in an accessible, engaging, and even heartbreaking way. 


As we said in the last blog, Wild Horse Redemption, we cannot ignore the rehabilitation of offenders back into society as part of neighourhood building. Many of the neighbourhoods we work in have been devastated by legislation that punishes poor people of colour (think the War on Drugs) and contributes to mass incarceration. Children grow up without parents and siblings as these folks are imprisoned for minor possession charges or simply trying to survive in a community where all legitimate means of earning an income have disappeared.  

A major part of the SafeGrowth movement is building local capacity. B2P provides those who are currently incarcerated with some of the necessary materials to improve their situation. 

But that’s not enough since, as we said last week, eventually, almost all offenders end up back in society. Prisoners need better support for their mental and emotional well-being. They need healthy food and safe conditions. They need job training AND job opportunities when they leave prison. Most importantly, they need a system that doesn’t benefit from keeping them incarcerated through privatization and the equivalent of slave labour. 

SafeGrowth is all about grassroots and community-led strategies for revolutionary change. B2P is just one example of these strategies, working to support one of our most marginalized populations.