Wednesday, June 30, 2010

One way out

Boundary route in Winnipeg. Deserted and car friendly.

What, I wonder, do public spaces have to do with livability and crime?

A week ago I spent a few days walking downtown Winnipeg. Some streets seemed very walkable. Others, not so much. Some streets, occupied by the indigent and homeless, reflected a nasty social distress. Other arterial streets functioned as links between areas - boundary routes - little curb appeal, no adjacent shops, poor walkability. They are public spaces where territorial control and eyes on the street don't exist. Boundary routes are for cars, not walkers.

When I was there people were everywhere on downtown Winnipeg streets (in daytime at least)! All this in spite of Winnipeg's ranking in the top crime rate cities in Canada. Then I thought about walking downtown Houston a year ago where people were far more scarce. City comparisons are always risky, especially crime comparisons. But they are interesting.

Houston is a vast, sprawling city of many millions. It has crime problems, placing in the top 10% of high crime cities in the US.

Winnipeg also sprawls, but it has less than a million. It too has crime problems, ranking in the top 5 highest crime cities in Canada.

Houston is valiantly attempting to bring more people downtown and increase walkability, especially in the Theatre District and with the new light rail. Winnipeg has plenty of downtown walkers in summer (my visit coincided with a public celebration), and extensive elevated walkways for winter. Then I noticed traffic flow.

Houston's downtown is more or less a 20 street by 11 street span between I-45 and the Easter Freeway. In spite of extensive expressways about 80% of downtown streets are one-ways.

Winnipeg's downtown is more or less a 15 by 20 street span from the CPR rail yard to the Trans-Canada Hwy and between the river and Route 62. With no expressways to speak of, over 30% of those downtown streets are one-ways.

Is that why walkability seems more palatable in Winnipeg?

Great signage, but few people to read

Walkability is more than parking the car to walk or jog. Walkability is useful destinations within reasonable walking distance - corner stores, schools, food stores, library's and other community activities. Walkability won't stop crime on it's own. However, it's an excellent place to start.

The Houston story is by no means written, as I wrote in a SafeGrowth blog entry last year. Houston has outstanding preventive efforts by many groups, such as Houston's LISC, to build local capacity with programs like their SafeGrowth strategy.

In Winnipeg too there are exceptional preventive efforts, such as community groups tackling crime and award winning problem-solvers cutting auto theft

All those are marvelous and necessary.

Still, I wonder. If downtowns were dominated by people and walkable public spaces versus one-way streets and boundary routes, how many more wins would our preventive efforts celebrate?

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