Sunday, August 18, 2019

Where the green grass grows - Rural crime

by Tarah Hodgkinson

When we think about crime, we tend to think about the city. We think about robberies, gangs and guns and we imagine dark alleys or vacant lots. We don’t tend to associate rural areas with crime. We often romanticize them as idyllic places where life is slower, people know their neighbors and crime is rare.

However, the data does not support these imaginings. In Canada, for example, with only two exceptions, the top 20 highest crime rate communities are all towns or small cities in rural areas.

Imagining crime beyond the city can be difficult. While the overall number of incidents are lower in rural areas, crime rates in rural Canada and Australia are often higher than their urban counterparts. In the U.S., although large urban cities like New Orleans, Atlanta, and Chicago compete for the title of crime capital, the States with the highest crime rates are among the most rural – Alaska, New Mexico and Nevada.


Rural issues are different as well.  The recent research reveals high rates of theft and violence, particularly domestic violence, impaired driving and the use of crystal methamphetamine. In areas of drought, water theft is a major problem.

Rural crime is intimately linked to changes that have affected rural communities such as a reduction in job opportunities, poverty, few opportunities for youth, and a lack of access to mental health and addiction treatment services. Additionally, many rural communities are ethnically homogenous, but rural policies often alienate indigenous populations.

Further, increases in immigration have led to increasing tensions and scapegoating onto these already marginalized groups. This is in spite of the reality that legitimate research on immigration and crime reveals that immigration leads to a decrease - or zero effect - on crime.

Rural crime also poses unique problems for prevention. For example, building local capacity in rural communities is much different than in urban areas. While rural areas account for approximately 17% of the population in North America, developing crime prevention strategies is no easy feat where distances are not walkable, services are difficult to access, and local stakeholders are few.

These problems are exacerbated when most research on the causes and solutions to crime comes from studies in urban areas. It is no small matter that CPTED was a product of large cities and none of the original writers spoke of rural areas.


Rural criminology is a new branch of criminology trying to better understand these issues. There is now a rural criminology division at the American Society of Criminology and a centre for rural criminology at the University of New England in New South Wales, Australia. However, these groups are relatively new and their ideas are still emerging.

Only in recent years have we seen research emerging in the conferences of the International CPTED Association about crime prevention in rural areas.

At this point, there are no easy answers to preventing crime in rural communities. We have seen some success in smaller communities in Canada where SafeGrowth has been adopted wholeheartedly by local leaders, such as in North Battleford, Canada. However, as we gain a better understanding of the rural correlates of crime, we continue to adapt our methods and strategies to these new contexts - what SafeGrowth has always done.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Cop reality shows and the harm they do

NYPD anti-terrorism officers in Times Square
by Gregory Saville

I just watched the latest TV reality cop show. There are now almost 50 such programs on television screens around the developed world, most jumping on the bandwagon of the successful Cops program from 1989 ("what you gonna do when they come for you"?).

To those of us living in the active-shooter-killing-field that is modern America, it’s tempting to see cop reality shows as, well…reality. This is especially so considering the horrific news of 32 innocents fatally shot by domestic white terrorists over the past week in Texas, Ohio and California. Cop reality shows must be real! Right?

But the truth about cop reality shows is quite different and to those working to reduce crime in the long term, they don’t do us any favors. Distortions of the truth are never the truth.

Florida Highway Patrol at a traffic crash - Photo by Tampa Gator, Wiki Commons 

Reality shows have become to television what professional wrestling is to martial arts: entertaining, absurd, filled with predictable characters and laden with inevitable storylines. We all know it’s fake – or at least half-true – but it’s like when you see that copy of some trashy grocery store tabloid: you know Queen Elisabeth did not tell Prince Charles to dance naked holding a cup of tea in the lobby of Buckingham Palace. Yet it’s just gross and gratuitous enough to attract us in a comic-book fake way that we just can’t resist.


The cop version of those reality shows are the silliest. True, they show real people and the tragedies in their lives, but they show us only the worst moments. (To be fair, the higher quality shows state exactly that).

Unfortunately what they don’t state is that we see little of what led up to the events on screen and nothing whatsoever of what will happen afterward.

Toronto Police set up for a public event
They show no dull driving on routine patrol. No waiting for calls. And certainly no paperwork – the common-place drudgery that occupies the real cop’s life and takes up far more time than the TV snippets on screen. In other words, reality shows present far less than the real story of real police work. They show a snapshot.

We don’t even get the before/after story about the officers whom the cameras follow. We know nothing of their life, the emotional impact of those calls on their families, or even what they do after their shift (where many of the real stories unfold). While the stories of the victims and suspects in the show might be an uninvited open book, the behind-the-scenes police stories are too personal and verboten to the producers. It is not that they should be included! It is more that because they are not, the real “reality” is hidden.


But these shows have a much more insidious impact on the crime prevention story.

Reality TV producers say nothing about the long-term crime and safety in the neighborhoods in their programs, because they don’t really care about that. Has life worsened for people in those places? The officers respond, arrest, and patrol and, while the impact of such strategies is clear to criminologists (they don’t work), that evidence isn’t part of their TV reality.

If the evidence was somehow included about the truth of crime in modern-day America (and many other developed countries), it would appear as it actually is - in a steep decline.

U.S, Violent Crime Rates, 1990-2017 - Source FBI

Cops reality shows reveal moments of tragedy and crisis because, frankly, that’s what brings viewers to advertisers.

That’s not reality. It’s commerce.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Gender-neutral washrooms and safety

Gendered public washrooms are not the only option
by Tarah Hodgkinson

Gender-neutral washrooms are popping up all over metropolitan areas, including universities, government buildings, community centers, and trendy cafes. Many of these washrooms existed long before they were labeled “gender-neutral.” They were simply single-use washroom facilities in places that didn’t have room for more than one washroom.

There has been a lot of concern over the last few years regarding gender-neutral washrooms. Are they more dangerous? Are they putting women and children at risk of potential predators? What does the research say and how we can move forward in making safe spaces for everyone?

Single-use washrooms have been around for a long time

We’ve written in this blog before about how bathrooms are a basic human right. However, for many non-binary and trans people, proposed anti-trans laws in the United States make a simple, human action a political and personal minefield.


The research doesn’t support the concerns around safety issues. Gender-neutral washrooms (or even washrooms that allow you to choose based on your self-identified gender) do not make bathrooms unsafe for women or children. Incidents are rare in the first place and have been found to be completely unrelated to legal decisions.

Second, gender-neutral washrooms improve safety for those who identify as trans or non-binary. These individuals suffer much higher rates of intimidation and harassment than the general population and, therefore, creating safe washrooms can improve safety for the trans population while not increasing risks for others.

Third, gender-neutral washrooms benefit more than the non-binary and trans community. These washrooms improve accessibility issues and reduce wait times for women since women spend slightly more time in the bathroom than men.

Everyone needs to pee in safety

Women who attend large events, like a concert or the theatre, are acutely aware of the long lines for women’s washrooms. In fact, some sporting facilities have increased the number of washrooms for men, creating further disparities in access to washrooms for women.

Some might laugh off the problem of women’s washroom lines, but if you are dealing with an invisible disability or you are pregnant, the lack of easily accessible washrooms can lead to some major issues.

The fact is, from all the available research, concerns about safety and gender-neutral washrooms are not based on the empirical evidence. Instead, they appear based on the politics of exclusion! And even with all the available evidence, decisions about safety should not only be based only on research; they should also protect those who are the most marginalized and at-risk in our communities.

Sometimes that means just changing the sign on the door.

Monday, July 22, 2019

"I'm just lonely"

Homeless person sleeping on metal access control bollards on a rainy night
- the public realm can be cold
by Mateja Mihinjac

A couple of weeks ago a North American native man sat next to me while I was enjoying my lunch and observing the busy downtown street that had been pedestrianized during a special event in Saskatoon, Canada. I greeted him and asked how he was doing. This initial interaction led to a conversation I did not expect.

As we started chatting I soon learned he was homeless and unable to get back to his home on a First Nation’s Reserve, so he’s been sleeping in downtown streets. I offered him the rest of my lunch and a soda drink, which he accepted with gratitude.

Then he shared the words that touched my heart: “I’m just lonely.”

He explained that he often walks up and down the street to kill time, trying to get some money and just trying to survive. This day was no exception. He said he’s never seen this many people in this street, usually occupied with motor vehicles. Despite the business of the street, however, he felt lonely because he had no one to talk to. I felt honoured to have had a chance to make a connection with him and offer him what we often fail to show to street people: attention and respect.

It brought to mind two essential steps we have learned in SafeGrowth that underlie meaningful relationships and the ability to establish trust with those most vulnerable.


Years ago, psychologist Abraham Maslow described the importance of human connection and sense of belonging in the famous Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs.

As social beings we have an innate need to connect with fellow humans and, in its absence, we crave social contact. Even more, loneliness has been identified as a growing health and social concern that reduces longevity and quality of life.

Loneliness, distrust of strangers, vilifying others
- the social sickness of urban places
Yet, especially in public places, we often ignore opportunities for social bridges or are afraid to establish the connection because we feel too vulnerable, are distrustful of “strangers”, or we fear or stigmatize them. Some people vilify groups or individuals whose lives and choices they poorly understand without offering an opportunity to get to know them.

Establishing a connection with a smile and hello can be a simple initial step to building meaningful relationships. Some think this can be misinterpreted, but in truth, it isn’t difficult to be straightforward and honest.


Meaningful relationships and human connectedness helped us survive in tribal communities and those same values can now help us survive and thrive in neighbourhood communities as well.

Our work in SafeGrowth hinges upon residents and local communities establishing trustful relationships and working together in common purpose - prerequisites for building the social glue for neighborhood problem-solving and change-making.

Summer activities in public spaces - year-round, active social spaces
provide chances for positive connection


Having had a chance to live in different countries and meet people of various backgrounds I have learned to appreciate the importance of establishing connections with strangers. I make the effort to acknowledge, establish eye contact, smile or say hello to anyone I meet, regardless of their background or appearance.

Because of this I have been able to establish meaningful relationships in my personal and professional life, and am very fortunate to do so. I hope I will never have to say those three scary words: “I am lonely”. No one should.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

We the north - Twenty years later

The pedestrian entranceway built at San Romanoway

by Gregory Saville

Some high crime neighborhoods seem to remain that way forever, like a horror film that won’t end. Grandparents in those places share flashbacks with their grandchildren about ‘the old days’ of gangs and guns, while their grandkids still face those same neighborhood profanities decades later!

There is a theory in criminology called ‘deviant places’ that goes something like this: High crime neighborhoods persist for decades regardless who, or what generation, lives there.

Yet the San Romanoway apartments in north Toronto, a place we revisited a few months ago, is living proof the deviant places theory needs rewriting. It should be called the ‘reclaimed places’ theory because, if you know the incredible success at the San Romanoway neighborhood, you’d know that those chanting ‘it will never change’ are wrong.

Locally-led, non-profit, SRRA - two decades of community-building


Read the history of SafeGrowth and you will learn that in 1999, not long after we created 2nd Generation CPTED, Gerard Cleveland and myself were asked to work with an urban design and crime prevention team to review conditions at a high crime apartment complex in the infamous Toronto Jane/Finch corridor. This was the San Romanoway apartments, a story that I published a decade ago, and now consider an embryonic version of SafeGrowth.

Food programs in the community dining hall
Since those early years, plenty has happened at San Romanoway where 4,000 residents live in 3 huge apartment towers. Most significantly, the crime and violence that plagued that troubled community has subsided considerably. It hasn’t vanished – last year they had a homicide. But, as SRRA program manager Cathy McCulloch told us, that was a rare event. In fact, on whole, crime is down and livability is up. It's a far better place than what we found 15 years ago during interviews and surveys. San Romanoway is no longer a horror movie; it’s a coming-of-age film about turning night into day!

Childrens play areas and sports programs are still thriving
Credit goes to the residents and the local organizers who have done all the hard work to transform the neighborhood, especially the non-profit, San Romanoway Revitalization Association (SRRA) – a group that still chases funding dollars but, somehow, keeps many of the programs running. Sadly, it hasn’t kept them all running and it hasn’t been easy! They have faced financial cuts, labor disputes, and defunded programs. As one of Canada's most successful crime prevention and community-building projects ever accomplished, they still don't get nearly the funding they deserve!

SRRA program manager Cathy McCulloch shows off
art by local photographers - a celebration of life at San Romanoway

In spite of it all, somehow, the SRRA persists and residents, along with leaders from the property owners, community leaders, and police, keep disproving the ‘deviant-places-never-change’ theory. As the photos from our site visit illustrate, places can change.

Toronto basketball fans just celebrated the 2019 national championship Toronto Raptors with a “We The North” chant. I’m reserving my chant for the supporters, leaders, and members of the SSRA. You are truly "We The North"! You rock!

San Romanoway community gardens at the start of planting season

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Building new cities – Development for whom?

The Living City - Condos for the future

by Tarah Hodgkinson

Oakridge Centre is an area rezoned for a new development in Vancouver, Canada, the largest in the city’s history. It promises advances in urban design and affordability, with numerous public amenities.

It will be a transit-oriented development with futuristic apartments complete with advanced home technology and custom furniture. It will contain shared spaces in each tower that assure a combination of “private life and common life to be a true community.”

The Centre has been receiving kudos for advancements in design, its focus on transit, mobility and accessibility. Oakridge Centre boasts it will have a mix of market and affordable housing, with 25% of its new housing developments allotted for social and non-market housing.

For a city that has been suffering a housing crisis for several years, this should be a huge improvement.


Sounds great, doesn’t it? In a country where a quarter of all households spend more than 30% of their gross income on shelter and in a city where the average one-bedroom apartment requires a $84,000 yearly income, or about $2,100 a month - the current Vancouver median household income is $65,000 - obviously, there is a desperate need for affordable housing.

A planning development notice - Ever wonder what's behind them?

But what about affordability at Oakridge? How is it defined? The documents on Oakridge Centre do not offer a metric for “affordability.” They rarely offer any measure of cost or percentage of household income. However, to qualify for BC’s Housing Income Limits rates, household income can not exceed $41,500 for a bachelor suite, $48,000 for a one-bedroom, or $58,000 for a two bedroom.

As such, the competition for these units would be extraordinarily high and do little to address the current housing crisis in the city. For those who earn beyond the Housing Limit qualifiers, the market rates are untenable. Condo pricing starts at $800,000 and peaks at $5.5 million.


Assuming a 10% down-payment, the average person would need an income of $105,000 per year for the cheapest condo, over $30,000 more that the median household income in Vancouver in 2015. Considering figures like these, a review of the available material suggests that social housing is not integrated into the development at all.

Social integration is a large contributor to social capital and it helps the poor move out of poverty, but this example seems to pay little more than lip-service to affordable housing and diverse community-building. It caters to luxury clients while offering self-congratulations for exceeding city targets of 20%.

Condo housing and affordability

We have been writing about the housing and homelessness on this blog for several years. Cities and residents cannot continue to accept development that prides itself on offering a percentage of “affordable housing” while the other 75% is considered luxury and completely unaffordable to the average citizen. Affordability is more than just cheap rentals and social housing. It is a human right.

When the median household income is almost less than half of what is necessary to afford the cheapest unit in a new development, no amount of transit-oriented development, public amenities, or brilliant design will prevent financial desperation or homelessness. If Vancouver, and cities like it, want to build futuristic cities, they need to build cities for everyone.

Monday, June 17, 2019

To bench or not to bench?

Benches in public city parks offer refuge for city goers

by Mateja Mihinjac
The public bench has become an indispensable part of city life. It represents a primary seating option for taking a rest, conversing with a friend, having a coffee or a meeting, or simply observing the theatre of the street.

However, occasionally a bench is blamed for drug dealing, panhandling, loitering, vagrancy, or homelessness. This has led to calls for eradicating them or revamping them to reduce their attractiveness for prolonged occupation.


This knee-jerk reaction is not uncommon. We’ve written before about target-hardening approacheshostile architecture and even vilifying the trees for crime problems and safety issues.

Criminalizing loitering, especially when perceived as acts of lower social class, is a common example that diminishes use of public space.

Benches in unpeopled downtowns might attract undesirable uses

These simplistic decisions are often underthought, short-lived, and are notorious for
dehumanizing particular groups of people.

The question of removing benches extends beyond the presence street furniture. It is also about civility, ethics and inclusion. This sentiment comes from our New Zealand SafeGrowth Advocate, Sue Ramsay, who argues that the public debate around city planning should not only evolve around walkability but also sitability. Consider, for example, the needs of the elderly and less able groups in public space.

A public bench can provide opportunities for contemplation -
9/11 Tiles for America Memorial in New York City

In a bid to address undesirable uses cities should encourage positive uses of their downtowns if they don’t wish to surrender them to vilified groups. Installation of benches, in particular, is often part of downtown revitalization programs because they attract diverse users and communicate to them they are welcome to use public space.

Importantly, we should be aware that disorder and undesirable behaviors are a symptom of a social problem greater than design.

Revitalizing the street with temporary seating installation in Ottawa

Before vilifying the bench, how about clearly understanding what underlies the problem and targeting collaborative programs that help? How about work programs and skills programs for those with nowhere to go but benches? How about revitalizing downtowns through festivals, activities, local shops and cafes that focus on desirable activities?

A public bench is the epitome of public life. It allows one to both socialize and be alone, yet remain connected to the social world around them. It is the symbol of access to communal outdoor spaces.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Closing a window on a giant

Professor George Kelling - photo Rutgers University 

by Gregory Saville

George Kelling, police scholar and renowned criminologist, died last week. At a time when we thirst for new ideas, Kelling was a giant!

A decade ago, I sat in a sunny Florida conference room packed with 40 police executives gathered to discuss the future of police leadership. At one point I was seated beside Kelling, quite enjoying his easy manner and penetrating ideas. By that point, Kelling’s contribution to policing and crime prevention was legendary, especially an idea he co-authored called the Broken Windows Theory (BWT), also known as quality-of-life policing.


I recall Kelling good-heartedly chastise some police executives in that room when they intimated BWT was zero-tolerance enforcement and aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics. Actually, in contrast to positive crime prevention and BWT research, studies showed that zero tolerance enforcement did not work. 

Yet the reality of our conference discussions was that back at work, far from our vista overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, crime prevention programs were often little more than media-distorted, bureaucratic manipulations. BWT was not zero-tolerance enforcement, but many police departments still applied it that way. 

Kelling repeatedly published articles to correct the combat cop version of BWT: 
“The assertiveness of Broken Windows misdemeanor enforcement, however, does not equate with “zero tolerance” policies and high-arrest strategies, as is sometimes alleged; done correctly, order-maintenance policing does not rely on such practices.”

Our recent Ottawa SafeGrowth training. All through his career, Kelling
insisted on police/community partnerships

Kelling said NYPD worked with private and nonprofit partners and partnered with businesses to improve lighting and streets. However, personally, I saw very few broken windows actually repaired by BWT. 


Kelling’s work represents much more than BWT. He learned the business of policing by walking alongside beat cops in Newark and Kansas City. 

He began his career as a social worker, but in the early 1970s he co-authored a pioneering study into police patrol and discovered routine police patrol had no statistical impact on crime or fear of crime. 

Although police still deploy police vehicles to patrol willy-nilly, Kelling’s experiment suggested resources are far better spent on crime prevention and other problem-solving strategies - an important lesson I learned from Kelling’s writing!

Beat officers joining our community anti-violence training.
Cops learning about community needs; the key to Kelling's work 

My impression is that Kelling cared much about victims from all walks of life, especially the disenfranchised. One of his former grad students shared with me this thought: “He believed in the power of ideas over the power of papers. He planted these idea seedlings and then nurtured and protected them. He was a true believer in the capacity of the police to do good.”

Perhaps if police leaders had ensured officers were properly trained and supervised in problem-solving methods, the broken windows story might have turned out very different! 

The Washington Post says Kelling’s Broken Windows Theory became “a cornerstone of community policing”. I’m unsure if that is true. But George Kelling’s other ideas and his ethics certainly did. 

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Something for everybody - Teaching children how to play

Brisbane's Botanic Gardens - Photo Creative Commons Lilywatanabe

by Tarah Hodgkinson

While discussing safer cities in her pioneering book, Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs said that “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody” and this includes creating them for everybody. That includes children.

I usually do my best to avoid the children’s area of parks. I’m not a big fan of the running, screaming, whining, crying or even laughing. Kids are great; they are just not for me. But usually once a week I walk through Brisbane’s Botanic Gardens and right past a children’s play area. On a normal day I would breeze on by, yet I recently took notice of a very interesting sign.

Created by the City of Brisbane, this sign asks, “How would you like to play?” It is followed up by 20 images of children signing different options for play, from climbing to sliding to digging. Each image provides a description of the type of activity and how to sign it.

Not only was there signage about how to communicate how to play (emphasizing good communication skills), but it was all-abilities friendly. Children who may be hearing impaired, or delayed in speaking, could communicate with other children what they wanted and be understood.

All-abilities signage

In prior blogs, we have written about the need for all-abilities planning and inclusive neighborhood design.

However, these designs can often emphasize the “disability” side of design with images of wheelchairs or walkers. In this case, all-abilities design is made fun. It is similar to what UK planner Charles Laundry says about making public spaces fun in his landmark book The Creative City and also what we discussed in our previous blogs on design creativity.

What is also impressive here is there is no mention of abilities on the sign. Rather, it is normalized and made part of the overall play experience. Perhaps this is the best way to move forward in all-abilities, inclusive neighborhood design.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Reimagining anti-graffiti

Decades of graffiti in a village underpass

by Mateja Mihinjac

This blog was inspired by a recent trip to my home village of 6,000 residents. Ever since I can remember, every few months the graffiti in the railway underpass near my house is painted over and the broken lights fixed. Shortly after fixing, the signs of vandalism reappear and a few months later the graffiti reappears. This has been occurring for the last 30 years. 

Graffiti at entrance to underpass - 2018

In 2019 after clean-up, graffiti reappears on the opposite side


At the start of my criminology career, I learned that rapid graffiti removal programs were the most efficient way to address the problem because they deny graffiti offenders or “artists” the reward of having their work seen by others. In the 1980s, the famous Broken Windows Theory began with one such program in the New York City subway system’s Clean Car Program – graffiti was removed and vandalism repaired.

Through subsequent research and practical work I learned this approach might not be very effective and cost-beneficial as it is costly, may lead to displacement, fails to account for various motivations in the offenders, and generally fails to permanently eliminate the problem.

Street art in Manhattan, New York

Since then other approaches appeared for addressing graffiti. One approach focuses on anti-graffiti materials and surfaces, increased penalties for “offenders”, and community clean-ups. Another approach designates graffiti walls and education or mural programs for offenders, such as the successful program for talented graffiti artists described in on this blog site by our team member Anna Brassard.

While some cities successfully integrate both approaches, other cities are more polarized in their graffiti management approaches. For example in Ottawa, city leaders maintain a strict no-graffiti policy apart from designated legal graffiti walls and murals under the City’s mural program.

Street art is a regular feature of urban life throughout the world
Conversely, the mayor of the Colombian capital of Bogota has decriminalized graffiti after a tragic event in 2011 when a young artist was fatally shot. Apart from designated off-limit surfaces, graffiti artists in Bogota are free to express their creativity across the city. Graffiti is now integrated into city life and, interestingly, has become a major attraction for visitors.

I don’t argue for one approach over another since different contexts require different solutions. However, if an approach remains unsuccessful over a number of decades, such as in the railway underpass in my home village, it is time to consider alternative strategies. One missing link, however, is the limited voice of local community members.


In her reflection on developing a graffiti strategy for the city of Melbourne, criminologist Alison Young recommended against the city’s zero-tolerance approach with increased criminalization of graffiti artists, the approach which local government had adopted at the time.

She argued for self-regulation where property owners and local public would have a say in the image and identity of their local part of public space by either retaining it or by requesting the local government to remove the newly emerged graffiti. The thinking was that if local communities were given an opportunity for such self-governance, they might develop a greater sense of ownership and care for the local environment.

Melbourne's tourist approach to graffiti
Photo Creative Commons, Bernard Spragg 

The Melbourne strategy has worked - today the city has a successful street graffiti program receiving world-wide acclaim. That success has turned into a major tourist attraction and economic success story for Melbourne including the popular Melbourne Street Art Tours by local tour companies and the annual Melbourne Stencil Festival.

Since 2010 the city has applied a hybrid approach where they now include the voice of business owners in deciding whether graffiti should be retained.

Melbourne provides an innovative answer to the question of whether we should eliminate graffiti, accept it, or channel freedom of expression in a positive direction for the artists and local communities. Despite a plethora of graffiti management practices, one thing is certain: graffiti is here to stay.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Seattle is Dying? Clearing smoke, breaking mirrors

Homeless camp in Philadelphia
by Gregory Saville

Johann Schropfer was an 18th Century charlatan and swindler famous for his projections of "ghosts" in smoke-filled rooms during seances. That trick was the origin of the smoke and mirrors scam, an illusion perpetrated by someone with something up their sleeve - in Schropfer's case, fraud.

A friend recently texted me the TV documentary Seattle is Dying about homelessness in Seattle. The website of the Seattle KOMO TV station that made the film says: "It's about parents who won't take their children into the public parks they pay for. It's about filth and degradation all around us. And theft and crime."

Homeless shelter in Canberra, Australia
- photo Creative Commons, John Scotas

There's nothing new about blight and fear in urban America. We've blogged on homelessness for years and have been working on the International CPTED Association homelessness committee to develop strategies for CPTED practitioners.

Nor is there anything new about Seattle's homelessness problem. Social workers, police, and others who work with the homeless have justifiably complained about insufficient support and ineffective actions. Politicians struggle to find answers. No doubt this is serious.

But is Seattle's homelessness any different from other places? Local media are supposed to focus on local stories, hopefully, so some good comes out of the coverage. Consider the Los Angeles story about Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless musician befriended by LA Times columnist Steve Lopez, who wrote articles and a book on his story (later featured in the 2009 film The Soloist). That turned into millions of dollars in city support for the LA skid row.

What's different in Seattle? Local media now claim Seattle's problem is the worst in the country. Is it?

Homelessness in Toronto


Then I saw a Fox News broadcast about the KOMO documentary and heard this from a right-wing pundit: "Seattle is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. It is among the most liberal and as a direct result of that Seattle is now a haven for homelessness and drug use." That, says Fox News, is the reason for Seattle's problems. That is also, I suspect, how a smoke and mirrors illusion starts.

Here are lessons to help you smash those mirrors and clear that smoke:
  • Lesson #1: Crime stats around homelessness are notoriously difficult to collect. Those cited in the film are sloppy enough to make a criminologist cringe. 
  • Lesson #2: Homeless stats are even more difficult. Some use nightly street counts, others use shelter counts. Problem is, eastern cities tend to offer mandatory shelter beds for every homeless person (due to more extreme winter weather), whereas many western cities do not. That means homeless counts are inflated in some cities and not in others. Blame the weather, not the politics.
  • Lesson #3: Then there is what criminologists call the base rate problem. To equate a homeless population with a city population base depends on whether you include the inner city, the metro area, or other geographies.  

Sleeping homeless on the street outside a resort in Honduras


Here are some actual stats for 2016 - 2018:

In other words, cities like Miami, Tulsa and Oklahoma City have homeless rates much worse than Seattle. Interestingly, Tulsa and Oklahoma City are among the most conservative cities in the country and Tulsa has a homeless rate double that of Seattle! The KOMO documentary fails to mention that. Why?

Sleeping spot for a Denver homeless person


KOMO News 4 is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, among the most infamous media conglomerates and, according to some political scientists, a close ally of the Trump administration.

Political researchers have studied Sinclair and their outlets and concluded Sinclair has engaged in a litany of biased practices in news reporting and faced intense scrutiny from media critics, as well as some from its own station employees, for the conservative slant of their stations' news reporting.

The Nobel winning Center for Public Integrity has repeatedly raised the alarm about bias at Sinclair stations.

And now the KOMO/Sinclair conglomerate tell us "Seattle is Dying". Is this a case of Fox News pundits using smoke and mirrors for another attack on liberal cities at a time when political polarization is epidemic?

Homelessness truly is a serious problem. It deserves proper research and someone telling the whole story. The suffering of those on the street - and the frustration of well-intentioned professionals like social workers, police, and others - deserve no less. As we have advocated repeatedly, homelessness is a modern scourge we must solve.

To offer up a smoke and mirrors claim that "liberal" cities are the culprit and then use a documentary that ignores crucial homelessness data in other cities makes me wonder; Would Johann Schropfer be impressed?

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Science and art - activating space with knowledge

Activating Brisbane with outdoor science

by Tarah Hodgkinson

We have written a number of blogs about activating public space with public art. From music festivals to large murals, neighbourhoods around the world bring people together to observe and interact around art. However, in Brisbane this year, art was mixed with science.

Last month, the city of Brisbane was celebrating all things science in the public sphere. Brisbane had a massive science festival. This included exhibits at the Queensland science museum, an outdoor festival, and perhaps the most engaging: technology-inspired art exhibits around the city. These exhibits, called Curiocity, married together art and science into an interactive and beautiful combination for local residents and tourists alike. The exhibits were placed along the Brisbane river and free for everyone, making them easily accessible and activating these spaces 24 hours day.

Accessible and free - science for the public in Brisbane

Artists, scientists and technicians combine experience in robotics, music, art and technology to create these interactive experiences. The exhibits included “Sky Brisbane” an air-jet activated grid of colourful fabric plumes that move based on the movement of the observer and “Scatter” solar-powered spinning loud speakers that scatter sound as the listener moves throughout the exhibit. These exhibits could be further engaged with through a phone app that was accessed through a scannable bar code at each installation.

"The Universe" outdoor science exhibit, Prague, Czech Republic
- photo Creative Commons Packa 
These kinds of exhibits are not new but definitely are growing in popularity and size. For example, in North Vancouver Canada, Capilano suspension bridge puts on a beautiful holiday light show at the end of each year. Last year they included an interactive light display that turned on and changed colour based on the noise made. Passers-by engaged in clapping, stomping and cheering to see what kinds of colour combinations they could make.

Vancouver's Capilano Suspension Bridge
- Photo Creative Commons Markus Saynevirta


While we often talk about how public art can bring people out and activate space, this combination of technology and art could offer not only further public engagement, but also celebrate and expand science in the public forum. Science festivals that include these kinds of exhibits can encourage curiosity and celebrate the advancement of knowledge, while remaining accessible and enjoyable.

In a time when science and evidence is being replaced by personal opinion and fake news, perhaps the celebration of science in the public realm will not only bring folks out and activate public space but will also encourage thoughtful conversation and curiosity about knowledge and inquiry.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

The law of the hammer

The Law of the Hammer - photo from Police PBL
by Gregory Saville

In the 1960s, Abraham Maslow, the brilliant psychologist who uncovered the nature of basic human needs, said  “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. In spelling out this law of innate human behavior, he echoed a concept called The Law of the Hammer by an earlier scholar,
"We tend to formulate our problems in such a way as to make it seem that the solutions to those problems demand precisely what we already happen to have at hand."
This afternoon I searched a popular law enforcement website for police training conferences and workshops in June. I counted 193 courses and workshops across the country and that was only June! There is obviously no lack of training opportunities for American police officers.

Digging a bit deeper I discovered that, of those 193 courses, 75 were focused on SWAT-techniques, weapons training, and defensive tactics and another 50 covered investigation methods (interrogation, homicides). The rest included a mix of digital photography, lock picking, and drone usage.

Policing in a new age - photo from Police PBL 

A few seminars included an obsolete, 50-year old recruit field training program called FTO. Another taught how to deploy chemical aerosol projectiles.

In other words, almost 75% of all courses in June dealt with retroactive investigation long after a crime occurs (investigation, after all, requires a crime to have already happened), or they taught techniques in the use of, and response to, force - the bluntest hammer of them all.


There is no shortage of training opportunities in policing, but the majority use very similar hammers and, I respectfully submit, end up with the same results. We need something different.

Missing from this buffet of training courses:
  • Prevention of crime before deadly situations arise, such as neighborhood strategies like SafeGrowth
  • How to help officers problem-solve with residents to build bridges and community support 
  • How to work with the disenfranchised, the poor, and the mentally ill (the very people who get interrogated, get photographed after they become homicide victims, or get arrested following moments of illness or intoxication).

To a person with a hammer…


This year two upcoming conferences provide a different set of tools into the hands of officers and community members seeking a different way forward. These conferences are rooted in long-proven police methods and educational strategies that create a more comprehensive set of problem-solving skills. None of those 193 training courses cover these themes.

  • The Annual Conference of the Police Society for Problem-Based Learning is called “Training for Resiliency: The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Policing”. It is in Madison, Wisconsin, June 5-7th and features exceptional guest speakers including behavioral scientist, Kevin Gilmartin. 
For 15 years the Police Society for Problem-Based Learning has offered education, certification, and skills-training for instructors, academy educators, and field trainers in modern education methods and mental tools for intelligent problem-solving.
The Problem-Oriented Policing Conference features projects from around the world where officers partner with communities to resolve difficult crime and disorder issues. Fellow officers show how to  tackle, (and more importantly, prevent), gang violence, shootings, neighborhood disorder, sexual assaults, robberies, and many others.