Sunday, July 24, 2016

Shadowland

Sunset over New York
Public housing is an enigma in the fabric of the city. On one hand, most public housing is decent, safe and important. It provides an invaluable service offering affordable housing to those who, for various reasons, are left out.

On the other hand, far too much public housing results in the projects, unsafe warrens of drug dealers and crime.

In some ways, the worst side of unrepaired and ignored public housing emerges as a shadowland across the modern city, places that breed gang activity and fear. Our early SafeGrowth work began in such a place in Toronto.

The original defensible space writing of Oscar Newman was based on public housing in the 1970s, much of that in New York.

Public housing in Manhattan along the Hudson River

I recently spent time working in New York City. Anyone who studies or practices crime prevention will know the work of Oscar Newman, a Canadian-born, New York architect who created defensible space theory - also known in some circles as crime prevention through environmental design - CPTED.

Jake Blumgart’s Next City article about public housing in New York highlights the work of Newman with the New York City Housing Authority. It discusses his conclusions about design flaws and crime opportunity - the basic principles of 1st Generation CPTED - and how he later modified those early assertions about design and incorporated social factors into his formulations (after considerable criticism).

It describes Newman’s realization about the larger role of social structure of public housing - concentrating poor residents in one project, youth-to-adult tenure policies, and percent tenants on welfare. Those familiar with the Second Generation CPTED will recognize the revised ideas as the Capacity Principle. Second generation strategies in public housing show considerable promise, as reported by DeKeseredy.

Repairs underway at a public housing apartment in New York
COMMUNITIES OF INTEREST

A careful reading of early Newman’s Defensible Space, and especially his later Community of Interest reveals that he eventually came to consider design only one part of the crime opportunity equation. He was figuring this out as early as 1976:

"Research on residential crime patterns in 150,000 New York City public housing units has established that the combined effect of the residents' social characteristics and the projects' design affects the crime rate." 

Still, I doubt that Newman really calculated all the complicated shadowland equations of public housing. There is much work yet to be done.

2 Replies so far - Add your comment

  1. I've been addressing parallel issues with alternative shelters, such as homeless camps. Many cities have declared camps horrible, but their experience is limited to poorly planned nightmare camps. It's the same thing we see with public housing -- poorly designed, unsupported, etc. projects go downhill fast. Good camps can be just as safe and effective as good housing. We've built some great camps here in Oregon that are great models for the rest of the country.

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  2. Thanks Tod - I am familiar with the successful Dignity Village camp in Portland. It does look like a good interim step. Also, the International CPTED Association just published a White Paper on Homelessness (www.cpted.net) covering other options - especially the Homes First program. Long way to go to be sure, but progress is being made, as you say.

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