Thursday, February 14, 2019

Addiction is the problem - drug courts and crime

Vancouver Law Courts - traditional courthouses are formal and intimidating.
Photo by Joe Mabel, Creative Commons
by Tarah Hodgkinson

A colleague and I were discussing petty theft and property crime in his community. After consulting the community, we were told that very few people reported these incidents to the police. I asked him what he thought was going on with so many people experiencing petty theft from their property.

“It’s addiction” he responded.

This was not a new revelation. Research often finds that addiction is a driving factor for stolen property. We have discussed this a number of times in this blog.

However, the illness of addiction is rarely taken into account when convicting individuals who commit a crime just to get their next score. Consequently, the justice system becomes a revolving door for those battling substance abuse. Unable to obtain their drug of choice legitimately, they turn to illegitimate activities like petty theft, robbery or even the sex trade.

Pineville, Oregon county court - Criminal courts are far from the reality
of street-level drug addition
Photo Ian Poelett, Creative Commons

Many addictive substances like alcohol are legal and many alcoholics hold regular jobs and pay for their addiction without engaging in crime. But drug addicts who end up in criminal court are defined as burglars, robbers or sex workers. In reality, they are better defined as individuals living with substance abuse and very little support for addressing their addiction. Drug courts offer an alternative.


Drug courts take a public health approach to substance abuse disorder. All parties work together including lawyers, police, public health professionals, drug counsellors and members in the community. Unlike a traditional criminal court, drug courts are specifically focused on helping addicted offenders into long term recovery.

Drug courts can be housed in regular office buildings
next to drug treatment facilities

Drug courts are particularly important for marginalized populations that already suffer additional roadblocks on the road to recovery. While different drug courts have different configurations, they are gaining support around the world, such as in Canada, the United States and Australia.

Many crime prevention tactics in CPTED, for example, focus on preventing opportunities for property crime. However, if we don’t consider the social factors influencing some of these crimes, then those battling substance addictions merely find another way to feed their habit.


It’s easy to think that we just need harsher laws for drug use. But anyone who has dealt with addiction personally, or watched someone experience it first hand, knows that punishment and deterrence tactics rarely work.

Why do people get addicted in the first place? The answers are complex. While drug courts may not resolve every cause of addiction, they do offer a public health approach to what is largely a public health problem, not a criminal one.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Clean-up in paradise - Barbados & litter control

Pirates of the Carribean - Exploring an underwater wreck
during deep-water dives in the tourist mecca that is Barbados
by Gregory Saville

It’s difficult to get worked up about crime in a place like Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados. Surrounded by lush beaches, palm trees and bathed in tropical sun, most visitors to the Island are unaware of the recent surge in gun crime or fears about drugs. To be clear, Barbados does have among the lowest crime rates of all the nearby Caribbean Islands, isolated somewhat from the political unrest in nearby Venezuela and blessed with competent police services.

The wharf in downtown Bridgetown
Instead, what you notice in the city is the energy and bustle during daytime and the quaint Victorian and Georgian architecture, high ventilated gables and wide verandas along the narrow, serpentine streets. But if you look closely there is something missing: litter and graffiti.


Bridgetown and the surrounding areas seem remarkably free of litter, garbage and graffiti. True, there are some spots, here and there. And graffiti pops up now and then. But overall, the streets (and the beaches, for that matter), are remarkably clean.

Litter containers, graffiti-less walls
This is in stark contrast to other tourist destinations where garbage is a common fact of life. New Orleans, for example, following the Mardi Gras festival, is a mess. Even after clean-up, the city has litter everywhere. And as we know from CPTED 1 theory, the image of a place has an impact on perceptions of safety and security.

Bustling streets and downtown shopping

It wasn’t always this way in Bridgetown. Graffiti was rampant and litter and illegal dumping were of major concern. Newspaper editorials carped about the problem and tourism experts warned about its impact.

Anti-litter and clean-up campaigns and community-led groups like the Barbados Guardians have effectively cut litter significantly. Anti-graffiti programs in schools have brought a new public discourse to the issue.

Serpentine streets in Bridgetown
There is no doubt many larger environmental problems remain unresolved like over-filled land waste sites, ocean plastic dumps, and others. But, at least with street litter and graffiti, Bridgetown shows it is possible to marshal public opinion and local commitment, with the help of government, and change the lives of everyday people for the better.

That is, of course, the basic message of SafeGrowth. Bridgetown shows how that is possible with graffiti and litter control.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Smart cities & collective intelligence - Singapore's story

by Mateja Mihinjac

Never did the reality of rapidly changing and technologically advanced cities become more apparent than during my recent visit to Singapore. Coming from a small European town with narrow medieval streets, city squares and few high rises in its city core, arriving in Singapore felt like time travel. Modern architecture, multi-level pathways and an interplay between city design and nature was, in my eyes, a very different and futuristic image of modern cities.


This city of 5.5 million inhabitants was designated a 2015 UNESCO Creative City of Design. It puts great emphasis on its innovation and aesthetic design, and is one of the leading smart cities in the world. Singapore is also one of the safest Asian cities that boasts the highest quality of life in the region.

The Singapore Design Masterplan Committee developed a 2025 design masterplan envisioning a technologically advanced and environmentally sustainable innovative city with opportunities for enjoying all the ample activities that the city has to offer.

However, despite referring to people-centered design, much of Singapore’s infrastructure culminated from top-down planning. The 2025 plan describes how they “actively engaged industry and public sector stakeholders through interviews and focus group discussions”, but ultimately it fails to consider a deeper level of community involvement and how citizens will develop a stronger sense of community, pride, and neighborliness from design innovations.

As we know in SafeGrowth, in many cities this top-down process often results in citizens becoming disconnected from the plans and decisions made by city agencies. That, in turn, affects ownership and sustainability over the long term as we attempt to enhance social cohesion in neighborhoods.

Smart City strategist Boyd Cohen emphasizes this people-centered point in a recent article when he claims: “Cities must move from treating citizens as recipients of services, or even customers, to participants in the co-creation of improved quality of life.”


This people-centered message is well established in neighborhood-based planning. In our SafeGrowth book, my chapter describes neighborhood engagement as an essential part of SafeGrowth planning. The message of the chapter is fundamental; citizens need to become co-creators of their cities.

Fortunately, this is the latest trend in Smart Cities – a shift from a technological and corporate/government planning system toward citizen-driven planning where citizens become co-creators of decisions, solutions and design.

Unfortunately, despite institutional collaboration, Singapore still appears to be driven top-down by the city government and it lacks a coherent citizen component. By comparison, cities such as Vienna, Austria, and Medellin, Columbia are examples showing how equity and social inclusion can play a part in future smart cities.

At the core of citizen-driven smart cities are empowered, smart citizens who collaborate in the development of the city. It is an approach called collective intelligence, and it arises from two ingredients: technology that supports the social and everyday activities of average people; and planning that involves citizens establishing the activities they want in the city they call home.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Hijacked communities & the rule of law

Independence Hall, Philadelphia - the origins of U.S. law
by Gregory Saville

Thinking of the upcoming year and a resolution on how to improve our SafeGrowth work, I recently watched two new films on the brilliant Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, On The Basis of Sex and RBG.

The life of Justice Ginsberg illustrates the very complex role of law and how law influences social causes – for example, protecting one group from the injustice of another, safeguarding civil rights for oppressed minorities or enforcing the rights of women. Important causes.

But, as an adolescent, I didn’t think much about the law. It rarely, if ever, deterred my mischief-making, usually because I didn’t know it existed. As a cop I considered it a blunt tool to do the job. Penalties were out of touch and enforcement was handcuffed by archaic rules.

The Imagine mosaic in Strawberry Fields, NY -
John Lennon fought for justice using peaceful protest and music

As a crime prevention consultant, law seemed an irrelevant part of safer communities. We’ve cut crime in high crime neighborhoods and not used formal law at all. Nada!

Jane Jacobs once said, “the public peace is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves…”

So, if neighborhoods are kept safe by informal rules and voluntary standards, why bother with formal law? What purpose can it possibly serve except to provide over-zealous litigation attorneys fodder for excessive contingency fees and enforcement officials a reason to exist?


We’ve blogged before on how safe neighborhoods emerge from organized groups trained to come up with solutions to problems. As we describe in our new SafeGrowth book, there are few more powerful tools than local leaders of influence working with properly trained and resourced residents and community partners. In fact, that’s the training we provide for neighborhood activation – 1st & 2nd Generation CPTED, conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, and organizing skills. Residents thrive when they know what to do and how to do it.

Homelessness affects locals and the homeless - local communities
can take up their cause directly 

Yet we have learned over the past few years that neighborhood activation does not always work. In more and more cases, specific causes for local communities (land use gentrification; infrastructure improvements) are derailed into social causes for society at large (social inequity; unfair legal system). This derailing usually takes the form of hijacking by interest groups – powerful developers want one thing. Social activists want another.

To be clear, activists are a great ally for implementing neighborhood safety plans. After all, Jane Jacobs began her career as an activist. But hijacking is a terrible way to build social cohesion.


Hijacking derails conflict resolution and it derails organized plans. I have seen hijackers declare “micro-aggressions” to attack those who disagree with their cause. It’s an effective derailing method. After all, who can defend against specious claims of prejudice or biased intent when another person’s intention is unknown?

Equally, I have seen powerful politicians derail neighborhood safety plans by touting scientific studies on security and CCTV. It happens when police executives defend questionable police tactics, like stop-and-frisk, and cite sketchy research.

Fifty years ago Jane Jacobs took up the local cause of
neighborhood destruction from this NY apartment

Those too are effective derailments. After all, who can argue with “science” if the quality of those studies is unknown by the public or written in obscure statistical jargon that only an encryption expert could decipher?

Hijacking works because residents often have difficulty choosing one social cause over another in order to accomplish the safety they desire. Interestingly, they rarely have difficulty selecting specific local crime problems that demolish their quality of life. That’s why we spend so much time carefully assessing local problems and analyzing specific crimes. That is why community-collected data and collaborative analysis drives the SafeGrowth plan.


Sadly, even those efforts can fail in the face of powerful political derailment. It is at those precise moments - as local efforts falter and special interests hijack local plans for improvement - when we can call on the very same legal principles that apply to large scale social causes and the interests of the powerful. That is because, in an open democracy with rule of law, those same legal principles are also available to the neighborhood. True, they are difficult to muster, especially with expensive legal costs. They may take a long time – courts are painfully slow and inefficient (it took Ginsberg decades to help change laws discriminating against women).

Private security patrolling Honduran streets -
No local influence on safety planning and a breakdown in law

Law represents a procedural method for taking arguments public. It is no guarantee and my lawyer friends insist law should be used only as a last resort. Legal procedure requires removing the issue from local politics and – at least theoretically – from politics at large. The law demands arguments from different sides, with clearly established rules of evidence. It strives, albeit imperfectly, for an objective airing of facts. It is, in many cases, our last line of defense against derailments.

In SafeGrowth we strive to establish a collaborative environment and a civil way to resolve conflict. We train and we organize. In a vast majority of cases, we are successful. But not in every case.

I have always thought the law was a terribly ineffective system of truth or justice. But, when all else fails, the rule of law is probably the best last resort available to us. In Politics, Aristotle claimed, “it is more proper that law should govern than any one of the citizens”. The life of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg shows how true that is.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Self-care and New Year's resolutions

Art Walk in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico - Pedestrians take over the
street to socialize and enjoy evening art

by Tarah Hodgkinson

We spend many hours in our SafeGrowth training emphasizing the power of connectedness, social capital, and friendship circles. In her book, The Village Effect, Susan Pinker explains how current research points to a connection with others as the biggest contributor to psychological and physiological health. And this connection cannot be replaced with interactions like a screen (Skype and Facetime cannot replace in-person contact).

Thus, this cult of self-care has it wrong. Playing on your phone or binging on Netflix alone may actually be doing more harm than good.

Every year, at this time, I spend a few weeks leading up to the holidays wrapping presents for a charity gift wrapping station. Every year I ask my friends if they would like to join me. And every year, despite the short time requirements, the fun atmosphere, and the holiday spirit, I receive the following response: Oh that sounds great, but I’m just too busy and stressed.

Volunteer gift-wrapping in Burnaby, Canada
for the Multiple Sclerosis Society 

The holidays are a busy time for everyone. Many people are wrapping up projects at work or school, doing their own holiday shopping or attending holiday events and parties. There is a lot going on. But I wasn’t wrapping alone because others, like me, had found time to come out and volunteer. Why, I wondered, can’t I convince my friends to do the same?

Self-care has become a buzzword for this time of year. Stressed out from the holidays? You need to self-care! And anything can be self care, from treating yourself to week-long retreats to binging on Netflix, drinking a bottle of wine and ordering pizza from the couch. As long as you see your well-being as something you alone control, and spend money doing that, then the self-care market has done its job. Yet, somehow, it doesn’t seem like anyone feels more cared for.

Volunteer-run, outdoor neighborhood reading library in Ljubljana, Slovenia
- photo by Marusa Babnik

In truth, self-care really has nothing to do with the self at all.

The holiday season often leaves us reflecting on the previous year and looking forward to our possibilities, but we tend to follow a particular script when we plan for the new year. We set new goals about losing weight, getting healthy or giving up a vice. We think “this year will be better, because I will get fit and find love.” We load up on self help books and websites, buy new gadgets like fit-bits and tell ourselves that this will make us happy and fulfilled. Then we do it all again the next year.

If we really want to self-care, we need to be around people, we need connection, and we need to help others. If the holidays are stressing you out, and you need a New Year’s resolution, here’s one: I will spend more effort getting involved in my neighbourhood?

Caring about others might just be the best way to care for yourself.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Meanwhile spaces - from liabilities to assets

Vacant land in Baltimore, fenced, blighted and ugly
by Mateja Mihinjac

Vacant land is concerning because it attracts vandalism, provides refuge for drug activity and squatting, and attracts other undesirable behavior. In SafeGrowth we often find vacant lots and empty properties are associated with crime and disorder.

Fortunately, there are ways to transform these liabilities into assets. In our work, we encourage communities to activate vacant land in order to prevent a downward spiral of neighborhood disorder emerging from empty properties. This form of activation is also known as meanwhile spaces.


Land vacancy is a prevalent issue especially in formerly highly industrialized cities across North America that are dealing with the consequences of economic downturn. Some of these cities suffer from hypervacancy where 25-50% of properties per census tract have been neglected.

New York developers restricting access to the river
while vacant land sits unused

We know from 1st Generation CPTED that this is due to poor territoriality or ownership resulting in decreased quality of life. We know from 2nd Generation CPTED that different neighborhoods have different thresholds for tolerating social destabilators (like vacant land), before they tip into social disorder. A timely response to vacancies can halt the slide into disorder.

Some cities have successfully rebuilt former factory buildings into housing. Others, as I've written in prior blogs, transform vacant lots into community gardens and community gathering places. And yet there are many cities that still struggle with vacant land and the consequences of poor upkeep, disorderly conduct, and crime.


Cities across North America and Europe are increasingly activating vacant land – a phenomena sometimes called meanwhile spaces – and temporarily using it to boost the local economy, provide jobs, advocate for social justice, and attract prosocial activities. These include pop-up markets and shops, placemaking, festivals, food trucks, art installations, programs by non-profits and civic collectives, and other activities that benefit the local community.

Meanwhile spaces are a form of tactical urbanism allowing local participation, and they also help developers see what people want in a particular space.

In Baltimore, there are plans to turn this blank wall into a projector
screen for neighborhood movie nights

In Paris, one place was transformed into a temporary marketplace with diverse, small enterprises. It gave community groups and startups use of a rent-free space rent free until 2020 when the developer intends to commence with the construction.

Another example, from a prior blog, was SafeGrowth advocate Brad Vassallo's description of the pop-up market-place in Philadelphia, a city suffering over 40,000 vacant lots.

In Christchurch, New Zealand, an entire downtown commercial area, destroyed following a devastating earthquake, was transformed into a beautiful shipping-container shopping district. It was a temporary solution that now has wide acceptance and popular appeal (and may become a permanent feature of the city).

Christchurch NZ shipping container shopping district


There are many low-cost and low-risk ways that meanwhile spaces can respond to the needs of residents and their neighborhoods. Creative design strategies can adapt quickly to changing conditions, such as layering multiple activities into one space, thereby injecting life and vibrancy into the local community.

Meanwhile spaces strengthen local relationships, build resilience and provide ownership to spaces that could otherwise attract undesirable activity. They may also signify a shift in modern city planning toward temporary and more responsive use of space.

However, what resonates most with me as a criminologist is the importance of a dedicated local community for transforming vacant spaces from liabilities into assets, thus preventing crime and disorder.