Monday, June 20, 2016

The nightmare that won't end

Police directing people away from the Orlando nightclub where 49 died
Our work to help neighborhoods tackle crime was overshadowed this week when 49 people were killed by a murderer, madman or terrorist in an Orlando nightclub! Two weeks earlier that murderer sauntered into a local gun store and shopped an assault rifle and handgun from a gun dealer who would later claim “I don’t make the law”

Mass murder is not at all the same type of preventable crime as other crimes that we tackle. On one hand it accounts for a tiny minority of violent incidents each year. Yet taken on whole, the annual American mass murder toll is mind-numbing
  • 2016 - 49 killed in an Orlando nightclub
  • 2015-  9 killed at an Oregon college
  • 2015 - 14 killed by a terror couple in San Bernadino, 
  • 2013 - 12 killed in a Washington DC Navy Yard 
  • 2012-  26 killed, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook school 
  • 2012 - 12 killed in a Colorado movie theatre 


By my own calculations, since 2014, the number killed in mass murders (more than 4 killed at a single event) totals 694 victims! That is less than 3% of total of homicide victims in those years. About 14,000 people are murdered in the U.S. each year. 

To be clear, most murders are not mass murders but rather domestic violence killings and gang and drug shootings. 

Most mass murders are not terror related
Still, mass murders are the most gut-wrenching. And most mass murders have nothing to do with terrorism. Over 90% of mass murders since 2014 resulted from domestic violence or criminal madmen. 

None of which solves the problem. 

It is difficult for me to ignore the same arguments of reason and evidence against off-the-shelf assault rifles that I offered four years ago after the Newtown, Connecticut school murders


Instead pundits blather on about terrorism, background checks, LGBT hate crimes and mental illness. They dismiss gun control, probably because with millions of firearms in private hands, gun control is a hopeless genie long out of the bottle. 

We are left to watch President Obama delivering his 15th mass murder speech. And in spite of it all, the American gun/murder formula continues to produce yet more atrocities year after year.  It’s like a nightmare that won’t end.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

"What attracts people most is other people"

Just as I was writing about homelessness and walkable public spaces I received a Vimeo from SafeGrowth friend Sue Ramsay in New Zealand. It is a 4 minute video uncovering simple urban design and social programming features that make a public space fantastic.

It is all based on William H. Whyte’s 1980 book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, and to a lesser extent his follow-up book, City: Rediscovering The Center.

Whyte was born 100 years ago and he became mentor to Jane Jacobs and inspiration for the New York place-making group Project for Public Spaces.

Screenshot from William Whyte: In His Own Words by Clarence Eckerson Jr., Streetfilms 
For CPTED practitioners, William H. Whyte is among the bright lights in the history of urban design. He invented the idea of urban carrying capacity - later called tipping points - used throughout 2nd Generation CPTED. Like any student of urban affairs and planning he loved cities. He envisioned  the return of the Agora to the modern city and, best of all, showed us how to get there.

His ideas for reclaiming civilized, walkable, and fun urban places are simple, obvious and oddly ignored in too many cities. Here are a few that show up in the video:
  • the wonderful invention that is the movable chair
  • musicians and street arts make a place fun
  • fountains cannot induce sitting unless there are decent places to sit
  • protect access to the sun
  • water should be accessible, touchable, and slapable
  • street personalities make a public place more amicable.
Thanks to Sue for reminding us about one of our pioneers.

Water in public spaces should be touchable and slapable - Screenshot from William Whyte: In His Own Words

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.