Monday, May 23, 2016

Edgewater - I am not the Lizard King

Urban planner Jeff Speck equates dense, well-built and walkable cities with economic growth, environmental resilience and a safer, more livable life. In his book Walkable City he provides plenty of evidence to prove it.

This week I visited Edgewater, a small city (population 5,000) enveloped by the urban fabric that is Metro Denver. It is medium income, has diverse ethnic groups and comprises mixed residential with a commercial street of a few blocks. It is close to what Speck describes.

Edgewater street furniture, walkable streets, and human scale
From a city map it is undistinguished from surrounding Denver suburbs, until you look at its crime.

Orange and red areas showing higher crime areas, Edgewater shows lower crime rates in yellow - crime map from
As the map above shows, except for a few crimes, its crime rate is far below surrounding neighborhoods particularly one crime hotspot to the north.

The question is why? Urban design is not the only reason, but as I’ve shown in blogs on permeability in Langley and High Line Park in Manhattan, it can matter a great deal.


Planning students learn about early movements to plan cities. One history textbook that some read is Land Use Planning from 1959. A phrase in that book is instructive:
“The unit of design in New Towns is no longer each separate lot, street or building; it is the whole community; a co-ordinated entity…beauty as well as convenience is produced by the rational relations of the individual parts…”
Unfortunately that philosophy did not survive. Instead, land hungry developers gobbled up huge swaths of city edges to build suburban sprawl, regional shopping malls, supersized box stores and pedestrian-hostile commercial strips.

The idea of planned and walkable neighborhoods was lost. But not, apparently, in Edgewater.

Murals, bicycle racks, and even-grade sidewalk curbs for handicap accessibility 

Edgewater clearly works - even the quiet afternoon when I visited had walkers for whom I had to wait before taking photos. There are no more cops here than elsewhere, yet people feel safe and comfortable while walking. Why does it work?

Speck says there are four ingredients to walkability: a reason to walk, a safe walk, a comfortable walk and something interesting to see and do. Edgewater seems to capture most of them.

The residential streets are narrow and tree-lined. Most of them are within a 15 minute walk of the mini-downtown. That downtown is neatly streetscaped and has diverse uses such as restaurants, coffee-shops, a local pub, and other amenities that provide locals a reason to come here. The downtown has only 4 blocks and they are short, about 75 feet each.

Color, flowers and sculptures - Edgewater sidewalk 

Flowers sponsored by students from a local 4th Grade class
Shops are also easily walkable - the distance of one store to another, door-to-door, is no more than 15 feet. Street flower pots are planted by local school children, murals cover blank walls and street furniture, like angled benches, provides both interest and comfort.


Only a few blocks outside of Edgewater, in yet another pedestrian-hostile commercial strip, the automobile remerges as King. You can almost hear it holler: I am the Lizard King, I can do anything. (Apologies to Jim Morrison).

Just outside Edgewater, hostility awaits the walker - Cars are the Lizard King 
Here intersections are ugly and vast, speeds are high and walkers are treated like invaders. Such places force people to stay inside their car and avoid all social contact except during moments of road rage.

Speck says: "The worst idea we’ve ever had was suburban sprawl…the reorganization and creation of the landscape around the requirement for automobile use." We will probably need autos for a long time to come, but we need walkability even more. Let's get our priorities right.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Hostile architecture, CPTED and the homeless

A homeless man sleeping rough - photo by Franco Folini - Creative Commons

How often have we watched the bamboozled scientist in a dystopian horror film claiming: I am only the inventor of the new robot … I’m not responsible for how it is used! as we watch that robot trash the laboratory into smithereens?

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design - CPTED - is a powerful crime prevention technology that is vulnerable to misuse by the ill-trained or the untrained, especially regarding homelessness.

Last year the International CPTED Association ran a session on Homelessness and CPTED at its annual conference. The result was an ICA White Paper about CPTED and the homeless. Myself and Randall Atlas co-wrote the paper with the help of some dedicated ICA members. We submitted it to offer some practical and ethical guidelines to CPTED practitioners regarding homelessness.

A company in Seattle tosses homeless people's possessions into the garbage!
Photo by David Shankbone, David Shankbone (own work), CC BY 2.5
Homelessness is a complex problem and using CPTED tactics is risky business. We are ethically responsible for how we use CPTED! That is why we wrote the ICA White Paper. Turns out, it was just in time.


Last week a news article Privatizing the Clearing of Homeless Encampments described what recently happened in Seattle when CPTED became hostile architecture. A private company was hired by the city to abate homeless encampments (Translation - trash their property). According the the news article, that company’s logo was: Let us help you develop a CPTED plan to help deter unwanted issues!

By no means do I diminish the impact of homelessness on residents and their families, but deter unwanted issues? Do we really consider homeless people the unwanted? Do we think they are best handled with metal anti-sleeping spikes? Are we really helping by target hardening them away from our park benches?

The news article tells the official story:
City officials say they offer the people they encounter shelter options. But they admit that only about 40 percent of people kicked out of illegal homeless encampments end up in city shelters—most are simply shunted to some other location.
Surely we can do better!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Rebirth in policing - PBL Conference 2016

The myth of the Phoenix...arising from its own ashes - Image by Random Wallpapers 
Ancient Greece is the birthplace of modern democracy and among its most powerful legends was the Phoenix, the mythical bird that upon death regenerates in the ashes of its predecessor. The Phoenix represents the fall of a failed society and its rise into something greater.

The state of our democracy and the Phoenix came to mind this week while reflecting on the turbulence in policing. Some of that turbulence shows up in this blog over the past 5 years in
Yet the history of policing has shown, like the Phoenix, it can arise anew. For example, Problem-Oriented Policing and community policing in the 1980s arose from the abuses of the 1960s. If there was ever a time for a police Phoenix, this is it.

The 2016 Conference of the Police Society for Problem-Based Learning is the best place to find it. The PBL group has been creating new ways forward for a decade, such as emotional intelligence training, new field training, and upgraded academy training.

This year’s conference theme Warriors, Guardians, Problem-Solvers - Defining Roles Through PBL  seizes on the central recommendation of President Obama’s Task Force Report on 21st Century Policing to transform police warriors to community guardians. Seven years ago this was the same theme recommended by educator and legal specialist Gerry Cleveland in his 2009 blog, Neighborhood Safety - The Guardian and the Vanguard.


Retired Boston police commissioner Edward F. Davis will keynote the event. Commissioner Davis is not only a leader in alternative policing models, he is also well versed in responding to crisis. He was top cop during the Boston Marathon terror attack.

Says the conference brochure: “Police tactics are under a microscope. There are many causes for this turbulent climate but at the top of the list is police training and how police leaders and trainers respond. The focus of our conference is to provide some answers for trainers and leaders that will clarify police roles in the 21st Century.”

Answers like that certainly sound like the beginning of an authentic Phoenix-rebirth.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Fort McMurray forest fires

International Space Station view of Fort McMurray wildfires, northern Alberta
How quickly things change. Back in 2008, City Planner Tracy Tester of Fort McMurray, Alberta, set up SafeGrowth training and program development for her Northern Alberta city. Tracey had been working on the idea for awhile and it finally came together.

A few years later all that hard work resulted in a city-wide Crime Reduction Plan approved by council in 2011. It was one of the first of its kind to adopt SafeGrowth.

A few years later student planner Jennica Collette, on assignment for Tracey, helped put a part of that plan in action and worked with a neighborhood to mobilize against crime.  Jennica is currently a SafeGrowth Advocate who has blogged here.

All that stellar work by such dedicated change agents is now going up in flames! I am not being literary, but rather literal.

News clips of Fort McMurray wildfire exodus
The city of Fort McMurray, surrounded by a dry northern Canadian boreal forest and a raging forest fire, is currently burning. Over 80,000 people have been evacuated and much of the city has been destroyed by fire.

Thankfully news reports say everyone was evacuated in time and no one is seriously hurt - including Tracey and Jennica.  As Sue Ramsay described after the devastating Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand a few years ago, people are resilient. They will return and rebuild.

We send our condolences to Jennica, Tracey, their families (including some of mine who also fled the city) and all our Fort McMurray friends and family. May you find your way safely home to rebuild your city and your lives.

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