Saturday, October 6, 2018

Big Apple Rot - New York's Street Scaffolds

Sidewalk scaffolding at night in New York
by Tarah Hodgkinson 

Strolling down the streets of New York is always awe-inspiring. The buildings are beautiful and the streets are alive with the bustle of a city that never sleeps. But in the last few visits to New York I have had a hard time looking up at the buildings in Manhattan. Shielding my view, block after block, are scaffolds on building fronts covering sidewalks. These scaffolds cover sidewalks and make it difficult to walk through the already crowded streets.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one concerned as I found numerous articles about the issue. I also found that due to numerous accidents related to falling building facades and bricks from New York’s aging buildings, the city enacted Local Law 11, requiring an engineering brickwork check on building facades every five years.

Over 7,700 building scaffolds cover New York City sidewalks

Since New York is an older metropolis, it makes sense that the city does not want people getting injured from falling debris. But is it possible that everyone is checking their brickwork at the same time? There had to be more to it.


One NYC Buildings Dept map shows over 7,700 scaffold sheds

THE IMPACT OF LAW 11

It turns out it costs roughly $25,000 to put up the scaffolding to do the appropriate work on a building fa├žade. However, half of that cost is paid to put that scaffolding up, and the other half is paid when taking it down. Reports indicated that many building owners were simply avoiding the teardown costs and retaining the scaffolding as a permanent protection against liability.

Perhaps this pricing model is part of the reason for all the scaffolding. If you have to pay to have it taken down, why bother?

I would argue there are a few reasons to take it down. It impedes pedestrian traffic and it’s difficult to navigate if you have mobility issues (imagine trying to get around these with a wheelchair). The excessive scaffolding also reduces street visibility, requires extra lighting (and higher energy costs) to enhance visibility at night and takes away from the historic beauty of New York City.

There must be a better way to protect pedestrians

Why not rewrite city policy and instead create an incentive system to take down the scaffolding? What if property owners paid $30,000 to put the scaffolding up, but received $5,000 when it was taken down? I have no idea if this fits into the current payment scheme, but it seems this change would trigger more demand to remove all that unnecessary scaffolding.

While it may not address the sheer number of buildings that require these five-year checks, it would help to restore the Big Apple’s walkability and visibility that is so important for street life and safety.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Small is beautiful - Pastor Barry and Islandview


GoogleEarth view of the Episcopal Church and Detroit's Islandview neighborhood

by Gregory Saville

With 267 murders last year, Detroit has a city population of 700,000 and murder rate 8 times the national average. It suffers a decimated tax base and in 2013, the largest city bankruptcy in US history. Naturally, you might associate it with crime, racial inequity, and blight. But would you associate it with urban innovation and rebirth?

With a renaissance of late, a lively downtown Detroit looks far different than a decade ago. And while that transformation is triggered by large, corporate reinvestment, it is the inner and outer suburbs where much of the blight and crime originates. How, I wondered this past week on project work in Detroit, does a neighborhood reinvent itself?

Neighborhood hubs can emerge from local churches
PASTOR BARRY

Then I met Pastor Barry Randolf at his Episcopal Church in the Lower Eastside neighborhood of Islandview. Not only has Islandview begun transformation, but Pastor Barry and his team have grand visions for the years ahead. Our task was to teach the SafeGrowth program in the neighborhood and work with our new friends at the Restorative City initiative.

New initiatives have fertile ground in a place like Islandview thanks, in no small measure, to Pastor Barry. He leads his church with programs like a community garden, a tea manufacturer, T-shirt design company, landscaping company, an employment program, a bike repair shop, mentorship programs, media production workshop, audio/video production, and others.

Community gardening on church property

SPEARHEADING LOCAL LEADERSHIP

Not only does the church provide opportunities for jobs and work, but it also spearheads a community development corporation to build and purchase affordable housing (213 units in the neighborhood thus far). Pastor Barry told me that he and his team locate small numbers of market-rate housing across from well-designed, affordable housing to help stabilize and diversify the neighborhood. They then hire local residents to work with builders and learn the skills of construction. 

With baseball cap and passion, Pastor Barry shows us housing under renovation
sponsored by the church housing corporation

Pastor Barry’s work is widely featured in local media and we were thrilled to offer our SafeGrowth tools to Islandview’s considerable toolkit. For me, the Islandview story illustrates the value of local organization and the power of competent neighborhood planning. As we say in our SafeGrowth Vision Statement, the successful 21st Century city will be based on a linked network of self-governing and self-learning neighborhoods

A few units of nearby affordable housing.
Small diverse pockets of housing can stabilize neighborhoods.
When it comes to designing out crime beyond superficial security strategies, urban development and community-building like this digs at the roots of crime. With apologies to E. F. Schumacher, small truly is beautiful. Thanks, Pastor Barry, for the reminder.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Gentrification vs the cultural creatives

Doing it right - Denver artists spruce up a local storefront

by Gregory Saville

It was November 22, 2017, and a sidewalk sign just went up outside a Denver coffee shop. It read:  “Happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2011”. The neighborhood exploded in outrage and the latest Internet meme was born. Realizing his massive gaffe, the owner dumped the sign, apologized, and has suffered a PR disaster ever since.

Gentrification is an ugly word these days. In SafeGrowth we spend much time in troubled places facing reinvestment and redevelopment. What can be done about crime prevention efforts and gentrification?

GENTRIFICATION IS NO JOKE

The cycle is well-known. Older neighborhoods suffering blight and crime turn into run-down wastelands. Groups looking for affordable spaces - artists, students or working class folks - move in and begin to fix them up. They build play areas for kids, bocce ball courts for elders and handball courts for kids, or gazebos in parks for weekend barbeques. Residents patronize local Mom & Pop stores. Artists set up studio lofts and paint interesting murals in alleys and eventually open spaces to showcase their art.

Movie night on the neighborhood basketball court

Richard Florida once described this process glowingly and called such groups Cultural Creatives who end up bringing a new life to old neighborhoods.

Then the new life evolves into a cultural economy that triggers waves of consumer spending, especially by real estate investors looking to capitalize on the “cool factor”. Reinvestment displaces low-income apartments as rents increase to accompany investment.

Ultimately the Creatives are forced out, and the area becomes the latest wealthy, unaffordable hangout for Hipsters.

It is called gentrification and it is the real estate version of hostile architecture. In his latest book Florida no longer speaks so glowingly of the process and now claims Creative Class migration ends up becoming a winner-take-all game that makes things worse.

EXCLUSIONARY DISPLACEMENT

A recent study on gentrification by the Federal Reserve Bank says:
"In its early phases, gentrification may not result in displacement, but over time, in the absence of protections, tenants may be forced to move." 
Pop-up neighborhood bookstore in New York City

The study concludes that gentrification often leads to exclusionary displacement unless careful planning and protections are put in place. Even in places where cities try to protect affordability, some owners install “poor doors” for low-income residents and other doors for the rest (a practice recently outlawed in New York City).

Obviously we must be vigilant. In SafeGrowth our motto “To-For-With-By” proclaims that we work with residents and enact strategies by residents versus to or for them.

In our new SafeGrowth book Mateja Mihinjac describes the SafeGrowth principle called Neighborhood Activation. It shows how we navigate through the gentrification conundrum because, ultimately, all those engaged in crime prevention and urban redevelopment must be careful to do no harm.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Security and beauty - A new kind of fencing

Decorative fencing in British Columbia
by Tarah Hodgkinson

On a recent walk in Burnaby, British Columbia, what was normally an uninteresting and car-dominated street, offered a surprise. As I turned a corner, I was delighted to see a major change since my last visit. The city had built a vertical park! A beautiful walking space including bike lanes, areas to sit, green spaces and artistic architecture.

What was most interesting was the way in which they city had treated the neighboring houses. Along this vertical park, the city had installed decorative visibility fences. Essentially these fences are neither wooden fences with no visibility nor chain-link fences with visibility but a hideous look.

Presenting the street with a more attractive, look
These fences are particularly interesting because they address an important issue for corner homes and homes on edges of land-use changes, in this case, residential to commercial. Homes in these locations are often at increased risk of burglary and vandalism.

Tall wooden fences can simply block the external view of an intruder once they are over the fence, making it easier for these individuals to commit a crime. Additionally, residents cannot see if a threat exists on the other side of the fence. Chain link fencing, however, often gives the impression of “fortress” mentality and can increase feelings of fear, making the neighborhood appear hardened. Chain link fences are also quite easy to climb.

Vibrant colors make a difference
These decorative visibility fences provided visibility to both residents and surrounding eyes. At the same time, they create a beautiful linear space for folks to walk through. They are also difficult to climb.

This vertical park and the accompanying decorative visibility fences are a great example of finding beautiful ways to address privacy and safety in neighborhoods on the edges of commercial use.