Saturday, December 28, 2013

Better angels of our nature - Ode to 2014

The perfect way to start a new year is to take a big picture look at our future trajectory. For that, one book stands above all others - Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature.

This summer I linked to a TED Talk by Pinker when I first described his work in my blog Rising above the swamp.

I've just re-read Better Angels and it's terrific. Pinker shines a beam of analysis through the dark media images of "breaking news exclusives" and instant access to every hell-in-a-hand-basket story in every corner of the globe. In doing so he reveals that violence world-wide is on the decline. Contrary to media stories, things are getting better, not worse!

Pinker is no slouch waxing eloquent. He is an award-winning, Harvard based, Canadian-born experimental and cognitive psychologist. Twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Time Magazine named him one of the world's 100 most influential scientists.

Peter Singer's review says it all:

"The central thesis of “Better Angels” is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence. The decline in violence holds for violence in the family, in neighborhoods, between tribes and between states. "

Pinker's book Better Angels of Our Nature reexamines the history of violence

Enter the naysayers: Edward S. Herman and David Peterson's On The Alleged Decline of Violence.

First they say Pinker ventures too far outside his field of expertise. Now there's an irony-drenched slam (Herman is a professor of finance and Peterson a journalist).

Then they claim Pinker "completely ignores the kind of violence that is built into the structure of social relations and shows up…as unequal life chances…such as the savage global class war of the 1 percent against the other 99”.

Wandering so blithely onto the thin ice of political polemics, I wonder how long it would take their "savage global class war" to crash through the frozen pond of cultural relativism upon witnessing the bloody genocidal slaughter of the Mongol invasions or a half million murdered during the Christian Inquisitions?

Perhaps the long-term decline of violence will not persist. Perhaps war will break out over environmental collapse or an empty island in the East China Sea. There are plenty of problems to fix, especially the environment! And crime still persists.

But I'm a bit weary of the cynical, sky-is-falling crowd…when it isn't. Stewart Brand says "It is sometimes fashionable to despise modernity. A more appropriate response is gratitude." 

I agree.

A new year is upon us. Let's take a breath, appreciate our remarkable historical progress, and then reset our sights on our many remaining problems. Including crime.

Happy New Year!

We still allow places of high crime risk. We can do better.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A perfect storm for Christmas - cutting murders

Last week New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu announced early results from their homicide reduction program. Unknown at the conference, this creates a fantastic new opportunity. It all starts with the following hypothesis:

Neighborhoods infused with SafeGrowth will help violence reduction strategies like Ceasefire to cut crime more effectively and longer than neighborhoods without.

New Orleans homicide strategy includes the Chicago-style Interrupters, blight reduction and other SafeGrowth-like programs. It also includes David Kennedy's anti-gang violence program called Ceasefire. It's this latter program that caught my eye.

New Orleans' Hollygrove neighborhood - photo Megan Carr
For years I've been a supporter of David Kennedy's Ceasefire. And David is still on the job in places like New York. Ceasefire tackles neighborhoods wracked by violence by calling-in gang members and giving them a choice between arrest and targeted sanction or job training, counseling, housing, and social help.

The message to gang members: We care about you because you are part of our community, but the violence has to stop! As Mayor Landrieu said at the press conference, "the laws of engagement on the streets of New Orleans have changed."

He credits Ceasefire with a big reduction in homicides.


Here's the thing; New Orleans' Hollygrove neighborhood already had a huge decline in homicides when residents and AARP instituted SafeGrowth and other programs a few years ago. Murders declined from over 24 to less than 6 with no Ceasefire whatsoever.

That's not to slam Ceasefire - it's a good program. True, there has been some criticism that Ceasefire doesn't work or just fizzles out. But now we have the perfect storm for a researcher, an ideal opportunity to test the hypotheses that SafeGrowth creates conditions for programs like Ceasefire to sustain lower homicide rates longer than in other neighborhoods!

I gave up my own evaluation research years ago. Practitioner work takes too much time. But I always encourage researchers to dig in. This meets all the conditions for a natural experiment...a perfect holiday gift for an enterprising criminologist. It could help communities everywhere.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Visioning - the first step

Map showing assets in Christchurch neighborhood

Arriving in my email this week was the above asset map of a neighborhood in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was provided by a talented community development worker in a neighborhood embarking on a SafeGrowth program we started last month.

It portrays the positive assets in a place rather than the negative liabilities, like a crime hotspot map. What a great first step to a better future.

I'm always mystified when I watch a crime prevention or police problem solving strategy that starts out by outlining the dimensions of some problem but neglects the positive assets on those same streets.

It's not surprising. After all, that is how all scientific endeavors begin: observe the problem, hypothesize the cause, measure and test the data to prove or disprove the hypotheses. Very logical. It helps solve nagging problems so things can move forward.

Sadly, too often that approach doesn't really move things forward because that's not how a community grows and flourishes.


In neighborhood planning the first step for building or rebuilding a community is the visioning process, a kind of deep dive into the wishes and desires of residents for the future they want. How can a place move forward if it doesn't know where "forward" is? Asset maps are one way to get a concrete idea of all the positive things a place has to offer.

Another is a community visioning weekend workshop. The video below shows a Philadelphia neighborhood, led by the Philadelphia Local Initiative Support Corporation, and it reveals how communities can envision where they want to go in the years ahead.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Facing violence with native intelligence

Santa Martina, Chile - Latin America contains a half billion residents and some of the most beautiful geography anywhere - photo Roberto Contreras

Nowhere do lessons of urban safety, CPTED, and SafeGrowth apply more than to the half billion residents of Latin America. Amid one of the world's most dynamic and expanding regions, it has some of the most beautiful geography on the planet. It also contains three of the worlds most violent countries.

In September, International CPTED Association vice-president Macarena Rau-Vargas gave an impassioned presentation at the (now global) Ted Talk in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Students of Latin American culture know very well the long list of social reformers who have worked and written about positive change in that region over the decades. Macarena is the latest in that impressive progeny.

As her Ted Talk illustrates she is as imminently practical as she is unwavering, a fact she illustrates when she describes having a gun pointed at her head by a gang member.

Macarena's Ted Talk video is below (english captioning is available on the menu). I have worked alongside, and been impressed by, Macarena for years. I am also lucky to call her a friend. Watch the Ted Talk and you'll see why.