Saturday, May 28, 2011

The power of few - Part 1

The newest batch of NYPD recruits

Some criminologists believe a small number of places or people cause disproportionate crime. I wrote on this recently regarding Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto and chronic offenders in Vancouver.

For example, Professor Lawrence Sherman now shows up on YouTube with the title, How Criminology Can Save States from Bankruptcy.

He says preventing crime is not about expanding prisons. It's about targeted incapacitation of the chronic few and reinvesting in crime prevention.

Sherman claims we'll be better off encouraging governments to "cut the prison population, save that money and invest in local policing".

He's right about misspent funds. I'm just not sure policing is where the money should go.

For example, in Toronto collective bargainers raised the police budget to almost $1 Billion dollars for 5,700 sworn cops (compared to the 2010 NYPD budget of $4.3 Billion for 47,000 cops). No doubt police there do many positive things. But it is worth $1 Billion?


Lately, the Toronto badge is a tad tarnished by scandals like the G20 fiasco, slut walks, and race issues.

To be fair, controversy is no stranger to policing anywhere. Yet spending just under $1 Billion for the 2011 police budget begs the question, What's our return on investment?

On one hand, Toronto has a persistent low crime rate compared to large US cities. On the other hand, crime rate drops are ubiquitous. It's unlikely Toronto's police budget is responsible for dropping crime - similar drops are underway everywhere, including cities where police budgets are not growing, like New York.

Consider also worsening Toronto social ills such as vertial poverty that feeds crime, rising gun violence, and persistent street gangs.

Are we really getting bang for our prevention buck?

Toronto Police in the late 1800s

Criminologist Irvin Waller thinks not. He says it is municipal governments themselves who need direct accountability and more competency in crime prevention.

That begins with re-allocating who should direct and administer prevention and justice funds. Unlike Sherman, Waller doesn't seem to think policing is where the money should go.

In Less Law, More Order, Waller claims that

"Americans believe two to one that more money and effort should go into education and job training than deterring crime by paying for more police, prisons and judges...the majority believe that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

If only our decision-makers would listen.

NEXT: What criminology can offer

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Solving vertical poverty

What happens when you build low income residential units upwards and not outwards? Those familiar with CPTED will recall Oscar Newman's Defensible Space work in the 1970s and 1960s describing how this is usually a bad idea.

In places that do just that sort of thing like New York, Chicago and Toronto, you end up with vertical poverty.

The United Way in Toronto has just released a fascinating study called Vertical Poverty documenting disparity in 3-D urban space. Toronto has for decades tried to make the sprawling and cost inefficient suburbs more efficient with high rise residential. Vertical Poverty tells one chapter in that sad tale.

It also describes the San Romanoway apartments solution that led to some of the earliest breakthroughs in SafeGrowth. Check it out HERE.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sidewalk sleeping in Toronto

I'm with a Jeckel-and-Hyde Toronto this week. Like many successful cities, in some places there are vibrant and hip streets that absolutely fizzle with energy. In others, the homeless and indigent remind us nowhere is perfect.

Homelessness shows up in my SafeGrowth blogs on Vancouver, Seattle, and Houston.

I've also posted local solutions to homelessness in Portland and Colorado.

Walking downtown Toronto this week I saw more absolute homelessness than I've seen in a long time in this city.

In 1998 mayors across Canada declared homelessness a national disaster. Since then it hasn't improved. In many other countries, like the US, it is even worse.

In 2008 the University of Ottawa's Institute for the Prevention of Crime published a study called Homelessness, Victimization and Crime: Knowledge and Recommendations - a rather sterile title that seems to understate the tragic drama of an ignored person asleep on a sidewalk grate.

Luckily the report thoroughly lays out the dimensions of homelessness for Canada and urban places everywhere.

It reveals how homeless people are more likely to become involved in, and victims of, crime (mostly minor crime like public disorder). And while many homeless are incarcerated, a high proportion suffer from mental disorders and addictions rarely treated in the prison system.

...ignored in front of City Hall

The report offers up solutions like housing, shelters, social assistance, mental health treatment, and addiction programs. It offers controversial solutions like repealing laws that prohibit children with behavioral problems from attending mainstream schools. (It's those same kids who end up on the street.)

Sadly, as a walk in downtown Toronto and most other large urban cities confirms, four years after their report too many downtown streets are still the home of sidewalk sleepers.

Solutions on the page do nothing for tragedy on the stage. We need to do more.

Read their report HERE.

[NOTE: SafeGrowth's host site, Google's Blogger, has been offline this week for repairs]

Friday, May 6, 2011

The cult of the mouse - Celebration

Idyllic design does not eradicate crime

This week I visited a lovely central Florida town. Annual family income: twice the Florida average. Poverty rate: same as similar towns elsewhere. Crime rate: low. (It did recently suffer it's first murder in 14 years and another troubled fellow committed suicide).

Of 100 homes sold this past year 40% were foreclosures, just like other towns suffering the Great Recession.

For a small town this is all fairly typical, except for one thing. This town is the world-famous, Disney-built, Celebration.

This is a model of new urbanism, a place of NY Times feature stories, and a place where best selling books are written.

Truman and Stepford's wives would love Celebration

Celebration is a cultural archetype; think films like Stepford Wives and The Truman Show. One Celebration street runs straight into Disney World.

Acolytes glorify Celebration as a return to Mayberry. In 2001 the Urban Land Institute called it the "community of the year". They ignored the lack of elected government and the control by a corporation that owns Celebration. Definitely not typical!

Detractors revile Celebration as the cult of the mouse. They describe an "oppressive Declaration of Covenants" restricting political signs, house colors, unruly pets and so on. They ignore that restrictive covenants are common in suburbs everywhere!

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

What I saw:

• A picturesque, downtown and enchanting lakeside boardwalk
• Relaxed strolling areas, rocking chairs, beautiful architecture
• Abundant shoppers and walkers - most, it seemed, were tourists
• No downtown grocery or drug stores (walkability?)
• A closed-down cinema but open ice-cream shoppe
• No visible graffiti or vandalism.

When it comes to urban habitat, we tend to judge everything. Our yardsticks range from aesthetics and walkability to prosperity and safety. By some measures (aesthetics and environmental sustainability here versus gas-guzzling suburbs) Celebration succeeds over other places. By other measures, less so.

Celebration offers a special kind of lifestyle choice. Some would not choose it. Others would.

It's fascinating. I've blogged before about urban scale and crime. As the recent murder and suicide confirm, idyllic large-scale design cannot eradicate all social ills. Yet I would probably try living there.

At least for awhile.