Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Arcosanti - Our future?

Arcosanti - arcologies are Paulo Solare's model for a new style of city - photo Arcosanti
This week we end the first decade of the 21st Century. What does our future hold for safe and vital urban places?

This time of year prognosticators creep out from under crystal balls and offer us variations on Mad Max, Bladerunner, or a United Federation of Planets. Rarely do we get practical, real-life models on what that future might look like in our cities.

Not so for architect Paulo Solari and his urban laboratory called Arcosanti. This week I re-visited this futuristic arcology in the Arizona desert.

Arcologies show up in popular fiction such as William Gibson's Zero Count, and Niven and Pournelle's Oath of Fealty.

It's where the future noir sci-fi film Bladerunner took inspiration for the Tyrell megacorporation HQ (now a popular staple in cyberpunk literature).

Arcosanti is the first-ever model of an arcology. Real-life versions are now planned near Abu Dhabi (Masdar City) and near Shanghai (Dongtan - halted during the recession).

Touring the real arcology is much more modest than the visions

Arcosanti was the first - an urban laboratory for creating lean alternatives to sprawl. Arcologies are future cities that fuse architecture and ecology. While 60 percent of land in today's city is for cars, roads, and auto services, a similar sized archeology eliminates the car entirely within the city. Since arcological land development grows 3-D (upwards as well as outwards) no place is farther than a half mile from the natural environment - rivers, lakes, trails, agricultural fields, forests. That is, no farther for all city dwellers, not just the privileged few.

When I went to criminology grad school I learned nothing about futures like this. There was plenty of abstract theorizing in windowless rooms. But few of the theorizers had the foggiest about crime in such future places. Classes were blind to the crime potential in the future.

I originally traveled to Arcosanti 18 years ago and took a course in arcological design. I learned how it was possible to place living, working and public spaces within easy walking distance. I asked Paulo Solari what he thought about crime and prevention in such a place. He told me the future residents would need to create their own methods - he was the piano maker, not the piano player.

Lunch at Arcosanti

At the time that seemed reasonable. Architects cannot account for every social eventuality. Still, as we know in CPTED, criminologists, planners, and architects were sound asleep in the 1950s when modernism led to public housing like the crime infested Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis and the San Romanoway apartments in Toronto.

Clearly we must tread carefully.

While futuristic thinking may be difficult - and futuristic modeling rare - we owe much to visionaries like Paulo Solari for helping us to think ahead in a bold, new way.

If you want to learn more about arcology as planning for the future, read Arcosanti: An Urban Laboratory.

And...Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"I dare" - an antidote to the naysayers

Autobiography of Kiran Bedi

As we saw in my recent blogs of New York's Comstat program, police leadership can make a difference in community safety. But what does excellent leadership look like? How about the fIrst female police officer, and police chief, in India - Kiran Bedi! Watch Kiran in her presentation this month. See it HERE.

Naysayers whine: "Look what happened to her, she didn't last!" Didn't last? For decades she worked on the streets and in the police organization to make things better. How much more can we ask?

Naysayers complain: "But she didn't change Indian society! What is different?" Change India? Even Mahatma Gandhi didn't do that. But he, and she, have made a huge difference.

Naysayers criticize: "The statistics from her prison reforms didn't get better under her rule!" It's important to remember statistics are not always used in the service of honesty.

What is the truth about the first woman police officer in India? Who is this leader? What can she teach us about policing, crime prevention, and being a decent human being?

Always the naysayers. It's easy to listen to their lullaby of cynicism. It's easy to miss the point.

Don't be fooled. Find out for yourself.

Helen Mirren narrated a documentary film about this remarkable woman. See a trailer HERE.

Her autobiography is online HERE.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sunset on the Arabian peninsula

The world's largest dancing water fountain

Getting people to use public spaces seems like a lost art. There are many ways to create intriguing public spaces. Water is among the best tool. A family member recently sent me a YouTube of the Dubai fountain, the world's largest.

Musical fountains with dancing waters have been around for many years. The most famous stateside is probably the Bellagio Hotel fountain in Las Vegas, made famous by the film Ocean's Eleven.

Not to be outdone, last year the city of Dubai opened the world's biggest fountain with dancing waters. Copying some of the Bellagio's musical themes, the Dubai fountain shoots water 50 storeys high and uses over 6,000 lights.

It is beautiful to watch. See it below.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Untapping kinetic energy - civic potential under the surface

The SPARC Philosophy - Alexandria, LA

When it comes to community development, it's easy to miss the latent capacity under the surface. I call it social kinetic energy and it's visible only for those who look carefully. Or for those special leaders who make it work. I met one this week.

Case in point: Alexandria, Louisiana.

As with many cities, this community has some terrific areas and wonderful downtown architecture. It also has some not-so-terrific challenges. Between those two polarities are anomalies that often arise in the public realm.

A beautiful streetscaped downtown, but no pedestrians

A street sign meant to protect pedestrians, but blocking the sidewalk forcing them onto the street

It's weird what we do in urban places.


After my photo tour of surface issues, I attended Alexandria's SPARC planning and safety summit. There I saw fascinating speakers on thoughtful planning. Later I ran a SafeGrowth session and met engaged, committed participants from the community, city hall, police, and others.

Then I met one of those rare leaders committed to making that kinetic energy work - re-elected Mayor Jaques Roy. He absolutely got what SafeGrowth can mean in his community. He is also just the quality of civic leader to muster the community energy to make it happen.

Watch some clips on YouTube.

This is how positive change happens. We need more civic leaders like Mayor Roy!

Friday, December 3, 2010

New chairs at the Comstat table

The headlines proclaim victory. Are they right?

Last blog I talked about what caused dips in NY crime. There is no doubt something remarkable began in New York during the 1990s. It coincided with a wholesale reform in the New York Police Department. There is doubt whether those reforms caused the crime declines.

In NYPD Battles Crime, Eli Silverman says it was those reforms that did the job. Conversely, in The Great American Crime Decline Franklin Zimring suggests demographics and other factors probably triggered most, but not all, of New York's (and the entire country's) declines.

Most, but not all? He tantalizes us by adding that NYPD's reforms may have accounted for up to 35% of their decline. If that's the case he says, "it would be by far the biggest crime prevention achievement in the recorded history of policing."

There were many parts to those reforms, for example the broken windows theory (which I argue is less a theory and more a group of descriptive symbols). The most famous of those reforms was called Comstat (sometimes called Compstat).

Crime maps are the cornerstone of comstat

Comstat is short for comparison statistics, Comstat uses current crime statistics and maps to hold mid-level supervisors accountable for cutting crime. They do this in regular (sometimes heated) meetings at the Comstat table with the Chief as inquisitor. As my last blog suggests, senior officers often hate being hauled on the Comstat carpet for crime increases.

Today, some police executives have adopted it, such as in New Orleans, while others doubt that it works. Baltimore police suspended it at one point.

Advocates war with critics and journalists eat it up. This is especially the case in recent scandals.

I think sitting at the Comstat table did bring the neighborhood crime pulse to mid-level commanders in a new way. Accountability for crime is not a bad table to sit at even though it is a lopsided table with missing chairs. Why lopsided? Because cops can't do it all.

Police can tackle crime as it happens, catch bad guys on a crime spree, or stem a flow of drugs and gun shootings. Comstat helps them do that better. It's an overdue step forward. Sadly, as with all progress, one step forward can become two steps backwards.


As Silverman describes, as time went on cops resorted too often on heavy use of force, alienating some of the community. Surveys showed a downturn in public confidence. About the future of Comstat and the leadership reforms Silverman asks: "Can the center hold?"

That's the wrong question. The police are not the center - the community is! Police are untrained to tackle the roots of crime, the social, economic and psychological causes. The comstat table needs chairs for those more able to tackle those roots: non-profits, business associations, faith groups, and community development organizations. Consider the importance of schools, social services, housing, cultural activities, transportation, and investors.

It won't be easy to sit at the same table. Not all crime data and discussions are appropriate in public. Neighborhoods are not always representative or properly organized. For their part police are accustomed to re-acting, not pro-acting. After all, comstat crimes are always after-the-fact (otherwise they wouldn't show up on a crime map). And the Intelligence-Led Policing folk might think of the new chairs as eyes and ears for cops rather than smarter brains for everyone.

Still, because the discussion is difficult doesn't excuse others from the table especially given what's at stake - creating opportunities to develop communities and combine the roots with the branches of the crime tree.

The incoming New Orleans police chief has taken a small step forward by inviting community representatives to observe his comstat meetings.

Geller and Belsky's new book provides a more thorough path to tread

Bill Geller and Lisa Belsky's new book Building Our Way Out of Crime shows what the next step might look like.

Ultimately, when it comes to tackling crime, holding the center is easier when it is more thoroughly and legitimately shared with resourceful hands outside the organization.