Friday, August 31, 2012

In the eye of the beholder

Fear and risk are two very different things. Solving one does not always solve the other.

I live in one of the most livable towns in the country. It has a variety of bookstores, an active and safe teen skate park, accommodation for the elderly, alternative housing options like cohousing, and two local industries.

There are over 40 restaurants for just 8,000 people (obviously a tourist town) and a festival every weekend from spring till winter. It has one of the most successful farmers markets and a vibrant and architecturally interesting downtown.

There hasn't been a murder in the city for decades and last year there were 52 violent crimes (mostly minor assaults) in the county with about 29,000 residents producing a county violence rate of 17 violent incidents per 100,000 residents.

In short, it is safe and vibrant.

Gotham City crime

New York City is also one of the most vibrant cities in the country and by every meaningful measure, it dwarfs my town. It has thousands of restaurants, bookstores, festivals, and every other amenity imaginable serving a city of over 8 million. It has a lower crime rate than most large cities. Yet, in comparison to my town the violent crime rate last year in NYC was 55 violent crimes per 100,000 residents.

In other words, the violent crime rate there was three times higher than here.

Yet a former neighbor, a young woman who lived in New York until recently, describes feeling much safer on New York streets than here. She is more concerned about walking home in the dark here than walking there even though her actual risk is 3 times higher (To be fair I doubt she knew the different rates, only how she felt).


The Truth about Risk

Perception and risk are two entirely different animals. I have spent many years working in high crime places. I learn about the cues of environment, attitude of the locals, and actual crime risks. My first lesson - we may feel safe but not be so.

This week I read a great blog about crime risk by Sam Harris titled The Truth about Violence. He cites four basic safety principles including how to avoid dangerous places and people.

Harris also describes a truism about us: It is unpleasant to study the details of crime and violence—and for this reason many of us never do. I am convinced, however, that some planning and preparation can greatly reduce a person’s risk.

I agree.

Read Harris's blog. It's worthwhile.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Parking lots can't vote

In too many places vehicles run the show when it comes to urban design. 

Reflecting on the allure of a pleasant downtown stroll in the fading days of late summer, a thought occurs; the quality of urban design sets the stage for crime or vitality.

Downtowns can draw people in for pleasant strolls or for traversing a no-man's land where drug dealers, hookers, and gang-bangers ply their trade with impunity in dark nooks and crannies.

In one way or another land uses are the key to urban safety and from what I saw this summer, success or failure depends on one particular type of land use - the surface parking lot.


We obsess on the parking lot as though cars are old enough to want their own room. They are everywhere. By some estimates they comprise up to 30% of downtown land use. It's as though cars have their own vote in the urban household.  And if you talk to developers and shop owners, they do.

Yet to anyone amendable to reason and unwilling to sing the praise of the status quo, most parking lots are shameful. They are under-lit (or over-lit), poorly designed and offer poor access controls (or fortress-like walls). They are perfect spots for crime. CPTED consultant John Roberts has written a passionate story about suburban parking lot crime in Target: Wal-Mart.

Similar risks exist in urban parking lots. The obvious design flaw is wayfinding. Wayfinding is an abysmal mess in most parking lots. Wayfinding is one of the easiest problems to solve. A few years ago Saskatoon planner Elisabeth Miller and myself created a design guidebook including 24 design recommendations for surface parking lots.

Here are a few other examples:

Wayfinding, made easy, across a surface parking lot in San Diega
Parking lots need clearly designed access points - Saskatoon, Canada
Pedestrian walkway in Saskatoon parking lot

Covered walkway in Seattle - photo Marie Bailey

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Theatre of the Absurd - Fast and Furious

I get mystified by large G government attempts to tackle crime, unless they invoke neighborhoods directly in local problem solving.

This week Stratfor published a follow-up report about just such a program - the Alcohol/Tobacco/Firearms program Fast and Furious. It was a get-tough-on-crime sting operation that turned into a gun-walking catastrophe more appropriately named Lost and Spuriousness.

Recall the border patrol agent found shot to death by Fast and Furious guns in 2010 that led to the initial congressional investigation. Fast and Furious was supposed to stem the free flow of guns that fuel the narco-insurgency and gang killings in Mexico. Then over 1,000 guns went "missing" and are suspected to have ended up in the hands of gang members. One example was the Monterrey night-club massacre last year.


The Stratfor report describes some consequences of that investigation:

1. More ATF gun inspectors in southern Arizona to monitor gun sales of 430 firearms dealers in six counties on the Mexican border. Previously there were 3 inspectors monitoring 143 dealers each; now there are 8 monitoring 53 each.

2. New reporting requirements for gun dealers have helped stem the flow of bulk assault rifle purchases. Now the cartels have difficulty replenishing their supplies of M60 machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and M-72 anti-tank rockets.

We are told the cartels have little difficulty obtaining their preferred weapons of choice, the AR15, M16, and the AK47 from thousands of gun dealers in Arizona, Texas and California.

US gang proxies purchase the guns for the narcos, none of whom can be apprehended via the tough-on-illegal-immigration Arizona law (most of which was struck down by the Supreme Court last month).

Is it me, or does this all sound like the Theatre of the Absurd?

Tough on narco-guns with the Theatre of the Absurd 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

CPTED at the London Olympics

Night-time London hosting the 2012 Olympics

The London 2012 Olympics are almost over. Aside from some unsympathetic rain (like Vancouver's 2010 winter Olympics), things seem successful. In spite of a major gaffe with a private security company (the military came to the rescue), the Games are fascinating and safe. Was CPTED  involved?

Back in 2000 myself and Australian social planner Wendy Sarkissian provided CPTED training for the Sydney 2000 Olympics design staff. To our knowledge it was the first (and last) time an Olympics specifically employed CPTED strategies.

No longer.

This year the largest transport system in Europe, Transport for London, is benefiting from CPTED training. The IRA years gave London a head start as authorities created anti-terrorist designs like see-through trash receptacles making it difficult to hide bombs.

Now those lessons are expanded through the work of my old friend Dr. Tim Pascoe (an international director of the ICA) and his colleague Kate Broadhurst. They have presented a specialized training-for-trainers course to transport officials.

Pascoe and Broadhurst with their students from Transport for London
Their training combines CPTED along with skills to identify potential targets that offenders might select. This allows transport officials to more efficiently deploy CPTED at high risk locations.

Transport for London brings hundreds of thousands of Olympic fans safely to the games each day. The full story is in the latest CPTED Perspective newsletter.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Sci-fi policing and the Holy Grail

"When predictive experts fail they are just replaced by a new group who say they can do better." John Ralston Saul

The prediction game is making the rounds again. If we are to believe the New York Times and the Huffington Post, there is this tiny corner of criminology where computer scientists and math types squirrel away like mad scientists decrypting secret code.

The predictive experts are the latest media darlings. No facetiousness intended. If prediction delivers on what it promises and becomes an early warning sign to improve community-based, proactive problem solving you can count me in.

IBM and Memphis Police

The latest iteration, this one from IBM, is on a crusade and they have some new friends in police departments like Memphis.  Memphis points to their new predictive policing program called "Blue CRUSH" to account for a 26% crime drop in the past five years.

Sci-fi policing in real-time! Kewl. The mad scientists are positively tingling. IBM's background report explains it all.

Wait! Not so fast.

From 2002 to 2011 Tampa had a 72% felony crime plunge. Police say Tampa did it with proactive problem solving, analysis from their crime mapping unit, and a compstat performance review to hold area managers accountable. Others point to demographics. Tampa had a 40% increase in 50-64 yr olds with the financial resources to trickle some positive mojo into the local economy. That in turn mitigated, or displaced, younger crime-prone age groups.

Either way, predictive policing had nothing to do with it.

Predictive policing and the promise of sci-fi
Still, I have a soft spot for the sci-fi promise. My blogs show it; Solving the city with math and Predictive policing and the PreCog paradox are the latest examples.

Disclaimer: In 1988 I co-published a predictive spatial analysis on probable locations of professional auto thieves. In the 1990s we expanded that into a tipping point theory predicting how neighborhoods tip into crime. Sci-fi policing groupie? Guilty as charged.

All great fun. All beside the point.

Police resources nowadays, razor thin and bloated on salaries, can scarcely afford expensive math experiments. Tampa did fine without it. Would they do better with it? Maybe. But if demographics are the primary cause of crime declines then we're fooling ourselves with fancy math and ignoring the root social causes that trigger it in the first place.

Anyway I'll continue reading about it. After all, who can resist such appealing titles like Poisson-based regression analysis of aggregate crime?

Not me.