Friday, May 31, 2013

It takes a village

Newhallville lighting before changes - photo David Nyberg, Safe Streets Coalition


I just received an interesting link to a recent article published on the website of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. It offers strong contrast to Wendy Sarkissian's experience in New Haven CT  reported here last month. In this excerpt from their article, Julia Ryan and Andrea Pereira, community developers extraordinaire of the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC), offer a remarkable story of success in Newhallville after our SafeGrowth training.
A collaborative approach to addressing crime can yield remarkable, sustained reductions in crime. It also can produce new housing, businesses, and parks in places where such investment was previously unthinkable, transforming troubled places into vibrant, connected communities.

The strategy is quite straightforward. To tackle crime from multiple angles, you need a team and a plan, preferably one founded on solid information about the genesis of a problem and the conditions keeping it alive. As team members act on the plan, they need to hold each other accountable.


Historically, the Newhallville neighborhood has seen some of New Haven’s worst violence. In early 2011, four of the city’s 10 homicides occurred there. Local leaders recognize that the crime challenges stem from the interconnected problems of blight, fear, drug dealing, and gang activity, so they are pursuing an array of mutually reinforcing solutions.

To guide their diagnosis of Newhallville’s problems, the New Haven team has drawn on training provided by international crime prevention expert Gregory Saville, with support from LISC. SafeGrowth champions a process by which neighborhood leaders, planners, police officers, and others work together to weigh how factors in the physical, social, and economic environment might be altered to make places safe and vibrant.

As part of SafeGrowth, NHS team members have conducted multiple safety audits of problem spots. They have convened residents to talk about persistent issues and have invited input from a journalist familiar with the area. The information complements traditional crime data in painting a picture of problems, including hints at why crime in Newhallville has not yielded to prior interventions.

From website of NHS - Neighborhood Housing Society

Using that framework, NHS and its partners are focusing on Lilac Street, a particularly troubled block. The team’s actions have already contributed to a 50 percent drop in crime by improving lighting and sight lines on Lilac Street. Recently members secured an agreement with the City to add another 230 lights—a sign of how well joint community-police plans are received by municipal decision makers. 

In addition, members are exploring new organizing strategies, including a neighborhood watch and walking groups that increase “eyes on the street” and on properties slated for NHS rehabilitation. New Haven Police are backing the effort with beat officers assigned to Newhallville.

To those who might say that such approaches are too complex to be realistic in resource-strained times, LISC’s response is: Can we afford not to leverage each other’s strengths, especially given the interconnected nature of safety and revitalization?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Stockholm is burning - back to our future

This past week, following a police shooting, a civilized Sweden erupted into days of rioting from the immigrant suburbs of their capital city. In fact, streets are burning now as I write this.

In 2005 this happened in the underprivileged immigrant suburb of Chichy, Paris. In 2011 it started in Tottenham, the immigrant suburbs of London following (yet again) a police shooting. In every case a police related death of a local resident sparked the riots.

Is the European experiment unravelling when it's immigrant suburbs live such a fragile thread away from chaos. Is European immigration really that different from the US and Canada?

Canada has immigration rates higher than European cities. Yet Canada's occasional hockey riots or student tuition protests seem petty by comparison and - forgive my petulance - more the stuff of privileged millennials. Recent Canadian First Nations native protests have far more legitimacy in my biased view (though native people are neither immigrants nor suburban).

Swedish cops in Husby, Stockholm. Photo by Johan Nilsson, Getty Images

Richard Florida has been prophesizing about new urban geographies following the Great Recession - especially the suburban poor. I don't think he expected the explosion to start in Europe, and certainly not in peaceful Sweden.

The European conflagrations are not your typical Mayday riots spawned by rabble-rousing anarchist-communist radicals. Suburban immigrant riots, police shootings, and race issues are a very different thing. In so many ways it reminds me of the urban American riots during the turbulent 1960s, except this time it is suburban and immigrant-based.

I wonder if suburban poverty and crime in North America will take us back to that future?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Good fences make good neighbors?

In the file under pathetic behavior, a video came to my attention this week. CPTED creates defensible space by dividing space into semi-private and private zones. Occasionally this is done with fencing. I've blogged on fences before.

Some think fences are signs of mutual respect. Robert Frost's famous poem "Mending Wall" re-popularizes Plato's and later Ben Franklin's phrase "good fences make good neighbors". At the end of his poem Frost asks, "Why do they make good neighbors?"

One blogger I've read believes good fences represent the equality of neighbors while protecting the independence of each. For him keeping fences in repair is good citizenship. Another contends fences "maintain the fabric of community."


It's true the fabric of a community is maintained by mutual respect with minimal ambiguities. But if only a fence can do that then how much "mutual respect" really exists? Can't neighbors reach a respectful, reasonable agreement to balance privacy with communal sharing?

The bulldozer-caper in the video above suggests the answer: No! (At least for the ill-tempered or the insane). Fences, apparently, don't make good neighbors. Good neighbors make good neighbors.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Campus safety - the fear vs risk paradox

Biomedical Research building, University of Toronto


Novices to CPTED sometimes see things with a clarity others lack. Jennica Collette is a planning student at the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. She and fellow students recently completed their first CPTED study. In this guest blog she summarizes their findings and comes to similar conclusions as reported by Harvard University design students in March.

As part of a University of Waterloo social planning class, a group of fellow students and myself wanted to know how urban form influenced safety, both actual and perceived. We chose university campuses, a context that was relevant and familiar, and compared our suburban campus at University of Waterloo to the urban campus at University of Toronto. It was our first CPTED experience.

We started by familiarizing ourselves with CPTED lingo including Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space Theory and Jane Jacob’s "eyes on the street". We looked at reported statistics and charts as well as perceived safety through site visits and random interviews. The results weren’t what we expected.

Initially we assumed the University of Toronto was less safe. Why? Perhaps the strong association between large urban centres and crime or the idea that people who don’t necessarily “belong” at the University can wander through the campus freely and easily. But during interviews we were told both campuses felt safe. Other than identifying some areas of concern, like poorly lit loading areas in Toronto or a woodlot trail in Waterloo, there were rarely moments where students felt like they were in any danger.

Library at the University of Waterloo
When we crunched the numbers we discovered, on a per student basis, there were more crimes at the University of Waterloo than the University of Toronto. Granted, both of these campuses experienced very few serious crimes, mostly petty theft and mischief, but there were simply more of them in Waterloo.


One of the most significant differences between the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo was the presence of people. Even during reading week Toronto’s campus was bustling with activity. In Waterloo, during the weekends and evenings, you could count the people on one hand.

Toronto’s safe environment can be attributed to a combination of multiple uses, permeable grid form and high densities. The Royal Ontario Museum, the Ontario Legislative building, and Queen’s Park all lie within the campus boundary and the grid form makes the campus as much a waypoint as a destination.

Street vendors activating the street at the University of Toronto
In Waterloo a ring road topped off with berms surrounds the campus. We were told buildings were oriented with crowd control in mind rather than legibility. All this makes the campus particularly unappealing for a visitor.

Does built form influence actual and perceived safety? Our first CPTED experience confirmed it does. What we found mostly is that there is so much more to safety than movement predictors and improving lighting (though that is part of it). From a planning perspective a large part of making environments safe is activating spaces and activating communities. It turns out that is also the conclusion of Second-generation CPTED.

Whether it a campus or residential neighbourhood, the key seems to be having people present who are engaged in their environments.