Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tijuana: Narco-central

Tropical sunset

A world class cultural center with renowned paintings and sculpture. Diverse shopping, entertainment and exceptional dining along palm lined avenues. A growing, avante garde artistic community. Warm winter weather and Pacific Ocean winds cooling sprawling beaches in summer.

I'm not talking about San Diego, California but rather its slandered sister city just south of the border.

I spent a week recently in Tijuana, Mexico, population around 2 million. It's the so-called nesting ground for narco-traffickers and their associated flotsam.

As a criminologist I was curious whether media and rival tourist promoters have been molding facts to sell papers or lure business away. As an urban planner I go to the "worst" areas, often discovering they aren't as they are seem.

News accounts on Tijuana portray a city of shoot-outs, kidnappings, and murder mayhem. No doubt there is truth to that. Sadly, our data-light and anecdote-heavy media tells us nothing about what's really going on. Has our info-tainment "news" bamboozled us and missed the full story?

One example: LA Times article

What I discovered is that Tijuana, like other parts of Mexico, has indeed suffered greatly over the past two years. After the 2004 million-person march in Mexico City protesting inaction, the government launched a military led crack-down on the drug cartels. In Tijuana a prominent arrest of a drug kingpin and his clan has left a criminal vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum. Consequently, just like Vancouver, Canada, Tijuana is ground zero for a war between gangs.

That much we hear. What do we not hear?

Visiting Santa at the cultural center

Apparently crime doesn't prevent Christmas shopping at the mall

We don't hear murder and robbery rates were in decline in Tijuana from 2000 to 2005 and that most shooting and murder is between rival drug cartels or against the security forces who attack them. We rarely hear about the lively and safe downtown, financial areas, or other low crime neighborhoods.

Public art and sculpture

We rarely hear from everyday citizens in Tijuana. Those I spoke to did not frequent the violent parts of town, such as the unregulated suburbs. Like savvy urban dwellers all around the world - and tourists who pay attention - they knew where not to go. It's no different for savvy urban dwellers in Detroit or Washington, DC outside the circle. In spite of a spike in recent violence this year, the average citizen lives free of debilitating fear and violence.

That is because in Tijuana, as everywhere, crime is unevenly distributed. And in Tijuana there are areas as safe as any American city.

Check out blogger Patrick Osio's take on the issue:
Patrick's blog

My favorite line from his blog:

"I began interviewing, not Mexican nationals but rather American, Canadian and other expatriates. Of the 22 interviews on camera we did, not one single person said they feared for their life. They all stressed that living there they knew the importance of not going to certain neighborhoods and they were not involved in drugs... They had not changed their schedules; they shopped, dined out, attended plays and movie houses, visited friends, all routines in what they consider their own paradise."

No doubt Tijuana has much poverty, immigrant squalor, drug crime and corrupt officials. So does New Orleans! But do tourists avoid the fabulous New Orleans French Quarter because of it? Not likely.

It is easy to be fooled into fear. Tijuana is a work-in-progress to be sure. But it is also experiencing a Renaissance unlike any other I've seen. It'll be fascinating to revisit it in years to come.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Benches and bikes - changing the simple things

Benches for people, not vandals

The Design Out Crime (DOC) agenda for prevention can be simple and effective. Back in June I briefly mentioned the DOC work in the UK (click here).

DOC hasn't made many appearances of late. It's time it did.

The SafeGrowth philosophy is enmeshed in social development, competent neighborhood governance, and informed civic empowerment. In the troubled places we explore in this blog, such lofty themes easily get lost in the grind of fear, poverty and crime. It's easy to slip back into a narcissistic "nothing works". When that happens it's critical to remember this: because something is difficult does not mean it is impossible.

Consider the stories of success in my July entries on graffiti, intersection repair, tackling homelessness, urban gardens and the beginning of Bogota's remarkable renaissance.

There are simpler approaches. While not specifically about neighborhood redevelopment, they too can get things started in a positive way. Some that merit a peek appear in the latest International CPTED Association newsletter this week.

My colleage Lorraine Gamman runs the Design Against Crime Research Center (DACRC) in London, UK and they lead the world in thinking about designing crime opportunities out of simple everyday things.

Check out the latest issue of the CPTED Perspective newsletter and see DACRC's new theft-resistent bike rack and vandal proof (yet user-friendly) street bench.

Securing the whole bike

SafeGrowth may be the eventual evolution of the troubled community...

..but DOC and CPTED may be one way we get started.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Asteroid belts of architectural garbage

If you haven't read the polemical and funny writing of James H. Kunstler about suburbs, you are missing out. If you are interested in vital, safe places, Kunstler is a must. This is the fellow who wrote The Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere.

He absolutely gets why the architectural forms characterizing low density, sprawl do not work. He makes the point that a place must be aesthetic, interesting, and humane in order for it to be truly "civic". This is civic richness.

In a TED.com presentation he describes the failure of suburbs as the "asteroid belt of architectural garbage." Check him out below.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Vancouver - the madness continues

At the beginning of this year I wrote about a slum in Vancouver.

Pain and Wasting in Vancouver

Today's Globe and Mail newspaper makes it clear: The madness continues!

The madness is called Vancouver's Downtown East Side - DES - Canada's fetid slum persisting for decades. It will greet the world throughout February's Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. It's message will not be the glowing success of multi-cultural diversity in which Canada so prides itself. As the world looks to the young and shining athletes striving for medals in one of the world's best cities, it will also see the faces of the drug addicted, welfare-dependent, and depressingly poor who inhabit the streets of DES.

There have been many attempts to fix problems there, including over $1 Billion over a decade. Some successes persist, an exciting new community court, a safe injection site that succeeds in spite of federal government hostility, and others. But they are not enough.

Says Vancouver housing expert Aprodicio Laquian, the residents of other parts of the city don't seem to mind concentrating mind-numbing poverty like this as long as it doesn't infiltrate their neighborhood - NIMBYism at its worst. He also thinks the very social activists who claim to be helping are actually hindering. They oppose what they see as "gentrification" as it will de-place the poor classes for the richer classes and displace povery elsewhere.

For those who know about urban crime, it is clear both ideas are absurd. Concentrated poverty and crime never ends up concentrated. NIMBYers will always be running away.

Secondly, worrying that gentrification will displace a viable neighbourhood elsewhere assumes there is a viable neighbourhood in DES...there is not!

More than anyone, those who make a life in DES deserve better than drug dependent prostitutes, homelessness, street assaults, out of control Hep C and HIV rates, and gang murders. The prostitutes, crime victims, homeless and infected themselves deserve better.

NIMBYism, squabbling welfare agencies, incompetent policies, failed program after program. When will it end?

How can we learn from cities like Bogota, or Portland who have done so much better at tackling festering urban cancers like this?

Long time DES advocate Jim Green (a former New Yorker who remembers the poverty of the Lower East Side) describes how public policies made a bad situation worse - moving the mentally ill out of institutions onto the street, taking out single family homes, are two of the nastiest.

Says Green, "women and children are what gives strength and security to any community. A community that is overwhelmingly single males is going to be really difficult to build, to go forward. By building housing that has mothers and children reintegrating back into society, by democratizing the processes in the community - that's how we are going to move forward. Just doing that makes it a better community, makes it safer."

Vancouver's city council claims, unlike the last world exposition there a few decades ago, it will not cover up the poor nor hide them in a displaced neighborhood far away.

That is as it should be. The world should see the beast with the beauty. It should see Vancouver's shame.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Keeping on point - organizing in Jackson

Drug dealers in Jackson throw running shoes over power lines to advertise they are located nearby

This week I gave a talk in Jackson, Mississippi where I met some terrific, forward-looking folks. They reminded me of Sarah from last blog. Their energy recharged my batteries, especially the lead organizer, John Dinkins a fellow with the right stuff.

Did crime get solved? Not yet. As the Jackson photos in this blog show, fear and crimes exist there and (as elsewhere) have for many years. They won't vanish overnight - especially with our tired methods so ineffective in the past.

What happened at the meetings? We sat around tables talking crime prevention. I told stories of safety and SafeGrowth in other places. We shared ideas. I heard of previous successes and failures.

One Jackson resident uses humor, but expresses fear

We talked about organizing neighborhoods, how SafeGrowth might work there, and virtual e-networking. We talked about more extensively diagnosing neighborhood crimes and mapping fears. We talked about how to bring in more community and expanding this dialogue.

Is this the answer? Not completely. But shared dialogue is how these things get started.

Read the biography Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary, about Jacobs' early days at community meetings. Those meetings decades ago started an urban revolution that transformed for the better our thinking about urban life.

To me the Jackson meetings felt like that - confusing, exciting, necessary. I saw - yet again - a thirst not easily quenched by retribution, fixing broken windows, nor by extinguishing self-interest crime.

It is quenched by building an authentic sense of community in people's lives along with a healthy neighborhood to support it. That, ultimately, is the point.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

An Ode to the Sarahs

...so I ate a python the other week...
- From Sarah's blog

Looking out onto the sunset of an African savannah is a long way from tackling crime in Cincinnati neighborhoods. But behind this photo there is an amazing person that I want to tell you about.

I've often wondered if there was a typical kind of person drawn to the difficult work of community development and crime prevention?

People like this have always impressed me. Unlike professionals who do crime prevention and community development work for a living - police officers, social workers, consultants like me - many of these folks are volunteers. If they are paid at all, they are underpaid and overworked.

Much of what they do goes unnoticed by media. Journalists pick up the "sexy" stories - cops who raid a drug house or child welfare officers rescuing abused youth. Community workers create activities for families, programs for youth, and paint out graffiti and clean-up blighted areas. They are ignored. Yet it is their work that often prevents the nasty things from happening in the first place.

I affectionately call them SafeGrowthers, but they rarely call themselves anything. They are all ages, genders, colors and political stripes. Over the decades that I've had the privilege of working with them I've noticed they often don't see themselves for what they are - extraordinary and exceptional.

One of the best, of whom I'm particularly proud, is Sarah Buffie

Sarah was a student in a Cincinnati CPTED/SafeGrowth course I ran with a colleague five years ago. She worked at a community police partnering center. Sarah had this penetrating mind and can-do attitude. After the course we spoke about community work in other places, maybe even abroad. Sarah took her own advice, joined the Peace Corps, and went to help communities in Namibia, Africa.

For two years Sarah has been sending stories of her amazing journey, and the remarkable work she has been doing in a culture far, far away.

Next January Sarah returns to the U.S. I have a sneaking suspicion leaving Africa will be more difficult than leaving here two years ago. I suspect also the people there will miss her dearly. No doubt they are better from her work and, I'm sure, vise versa.

Sarah is the very best example of what community development workers look like.

I pinched the photo above from her blog. For me it is perfect - it represents the ties that bind us all together.

Thanks Sarah for reminding me of that. And welcome home.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Winnipeg auto theft solutions

Shattered glass marks the spot where a parked ...Image via Wikipedia

I've covered Winnipeg's innovative efforts to tackle crime in earlier blogs.

Here is the latest.

Far too rarely we celebrate crime prevention success stories. I remember reading an article a decade ago in a Canadian criminology journal claiming good news prevention stories make it into papers less than 1% of the time. Given the info-tainment that passes as news, that's no surprise.

For a decade Winnipeg Canada has been the auto theft capital of North America. The headlines said it all: Too many stolen cars; Police chases of stolen cars; Too many victims.

No more.

An award finalist at this year's International Problem Oriented Policing conference was the Winnipeg Auto Theft Suppression Strategy. It's not really SafeGrowth. It's more targeted policing and design out crime. Yet those are great tools in the SafeGrowth toolbox and this project shows the excellent work they have done to tackle crime that can be adopted by a full SafeGrowth community. And it looks like that's exactly where they are headed. Read their latest report on crime prevention planning.

When you've done that, check out their auto theft program.

Even the CBC is getting in on the action and telling some good news on crime.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Enrique Penalosa: Urban Visionary

The December issue of Utne Reader magazine features 50 Visionaries Who Changed the World.

Among the obvious - the Dalai Lama, global AIDS pioneer Wafaa El-Sadr - is Enrique Penalosa. His vision encapsulates some recent blogs: Stolkholm's piano stairways, Indianapolis' community-garden cemeteries and Portland's Dignity Village for the homeless.

Enrique Penalosa is an urban planner and from 1998-2001, Mayor of Bogota, Columbia - a city of 6-10 million (depending who you ask). In 1975 his father was Secretary General of the inaugural UN Habitat conference in Vancouver, a successful UN program that continues today. Bogota is a city many associate with drug cartels and crime. Today it is a different place. It is a place from which we can learn important lessons on urban safety and vitality.

"The essence of the conflict today is really cars and people. That is the essence of the whole discussion. We can have a city that is very friendly to cars, or a city that is very friendly to people. We cannot have both."

During his tenure Penalosa made radical improvements in Bogota: housing the poor, reclaiming public spaces, planting more than 100,000 trees and transforming a dismal downtown roadway into a dynamic public space for pedestrians.

He cut rush hour traffic 40% by enhancing public transit, restricting private cars in the central city, pollution abatement, creating the world's largest pedestrian street, building hundreds of kilometers of bike paths and greenways and rehabbing 1,200 parks. Bicycling quadrupled to 400,000 people per day. He encouraged bollards to restrict sidewalk parking and introduced the idea of a global Car Free Day. The Project for Public Spaces says Penalosa helped "transform the city's attitude from one of negative hopelessness to one of pride and hope."

Of special note to SafeGrowthers, he managed to get citizens in marginal neighborhoods involved in rebuilding their streets and neighborhoods.

Bogota today

Peñalosa is now a visiting professor at New York University. He is researching and writing a book on urban development. Of special interest to CPTED/DOCA folks is his contention:

"There is no absolute distinction between public and private spaces, or a smooth scale from one state to the other. Rather there are inversions and paradoxes. Almost all spaces of a city are in fact impure... [they are] hybrids of public and private.

I am convinced of the power of good urban design and architecture. People will use it if it has quality. Every detail in the city should show respect for human dignity and reflect that everything human is sacred. And I do believe that if people have to walk in the street, avoiding parked cars, or next to some horrible surface parking lot, or they are mistreated by poor quality transportation systems, it's very difficult to ask them to be good citizens, to keep the streets clean, or even pay taxes."

If you want to know more about this remarkable pioneer, watch this interview with Enrique Penalosa.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sensation - the gateway to experience

Every now and then it is worth looking at something old from a completely new playbook; something that gives life to the concept of the creative city.

A friend sent the below YouTube about a stairway in Sweden...a movement predictor with a message. Or, more accurately, a song! It brought to mind that adage taught in urban design schools (at least the good ones) - sensation is the gateway to experience.

As the creative city folk would no doubt remind us, public places need humor.

Here's one way to do it.

Click for the Swedish Stairway

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Crime prevention jibberish - The Holy Triumvirate

A renovated Chula Vista motel

When it comes to neighborhood crime risks, how do we take action? Usually we worship the Holy Triumvirate of Safety - police programs, prevention projects, and government policy.

The Holy 3 come in many forms: design out crime, secure-by-design, Intelligence-led policing, restorative justice, 3-strikes laws, broken windows, neighborhood watch, crime-free multi-housing, hotspot policing and, of course, CPTED.

Not that these are wrong. When surgically applied and well-crafted, they make a difference. But they are not surgically applied nor crafted that well (or at all). Usually they are applied to crime problems in the same way a drunk uses a lamp-post - for support, not illumination.

Consider the all-too-common policy to implement CPTED, Design Out Crime, or Secure By Design (or whatever similar nuanced names apply). Far too often policy comprises written checklists or CPTED surveys that practitioners apply when a new development proposal lands in their in-basket. The real goal of such policy is expediency; to sign off each checklist category and get that proposal into the out-basket. Seldom is the goal to engage a multi-disciplinary team, including those from the neighborhood, to review the proposal. Nor is the goal to use a careful diagnosis to determine what might work and what might not.

A CPTED checklist is idiotic. It is the band-aid on the heart attack.

I created SafeGrowth to combat that idiocy. Thankfully, there are other approaches that do the same. Example: this week I watched presentations by police problem-solvers from around the world at the International Problem-Oriented Policing (POP) conference in California.

Unlike SafeGrowth, POP is led by the police. It tends to focus less on long-term sustainability or community growth and more on responding to immediate problems. But, like SafeGrowth, POP illustrates how creative police officers, working in partnership with neighborhood groups, can solve intractable crime problems.

The conference top six finalists in the Herman Goldstein problem-solving awards were fascinating. One project from Chula Vista, California resolved crime riddled motels infested with drug dealers, prostitutes, and a flood of violence. Tellingly, only after a careful analysis did they craft a response with CPTED, property improvements, targeted enforcement, incentives, and improved management strategies. They even created a guidebook from which others can learn.

They started with the worst offenders, gave suggestions for how owners could gradually enhance their properties and let them choose strategies they could afford. They tracked improvements over a few years. Where compliance faltered, they moved in. The better motels became models for the worst.

Notice how these practitioners didn't assume the checklist position in their research stance! They avoided blind adoption of policy or programs. What made the difference here (and all the POP finalists) is the means by which they took action during their research.

The Chula Vista motels submission won top prize this year. Congrats to them. We should pay attention. Check out their guidebook.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Don't Stop Believing

Slums In Manila, Phillipines

Thanks to Steve Woolerich's Target Crime blog, I discovered the following inspiring story.

We've talked slums and homelessness. Always the discussion is in North America. This is myopic. We should not forget other parts of the world are worse.

The slums of the Phillipines are as bad as it gets. A few years ago one of those homeless Manila humans was Arnel Pineda. His mother died when he was 13 and after that his family slipped into hopeless debt and poverty.

Fortunately for Arnel, his mother had the good parenting skills to get her son to sing along with the radio and build his singing skills. Eventually she entered him in talent shows. After she died Arnel was able to sing with bands to make money. In 2007 he made YouTube and things changed.

Whenever you see a homeless person, it's worth remembering Arnel's story. Like the lyrics form Journey’s song, “don’t stop believing”. There’s always a way out. Here's what happened when rocker Neal Schon from the sensational 80s rock group Journey saw him: Watch Arnel's Story

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lower the drawbridge

Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, BC

The last blog got me thinking about cemeteries. With a little imagination, they can be a fascinating community asset.

Back in the 1990s I was asked to join a team of talented design colleagues to do a preliminary concept plan for the historic Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria, British Columbia. Thinking about my gardens-in-a-cemetery story last blog, Ross Bay brought all sorts of interesting innovations to mind – innovations that yield cause for optimism in spite of warnings from the fearful who auger catastrophe.

Ross Bay is one of Canada's most famous historic, and beautiful, cemeteries. Overlooking the glistening waves of the Georgia Straight and the snow capped Coastal Mountains of British Columbia, Ross Bay had persistent problems with gravestone vandalism.

The damage to Ross Bay Cemetery suggested to some we should control access to the property. We easily could have. 1st Generation CPTED tacticians often push people away with target hardening, fencing, and access controls.

Yet a cemetery is not a warehouse; it is a place for remembrance and reflection. So we developed a concept plan for the cemetery perimeter incorporating new memorial spaces into the design solution. We programmed a bike path and walking trail through vulnerable areas of the cemetery along with seating areas. We capitalized on the magnificence of large sprawling trees and proposed an elaborate pedestrian stairway linking walkers to the nearby beachfront.

Our view was not to shut people out. It was to attract people in – people to walk, bike, tour, and visit the cemetery to celebrate the lives of its inhabitants and the history it represents. Unfortunately the project wasn't built for various economic reasons. I'm told it is now underway. No matter. What matters is that this project, and the Indianapolis garden-cemetery, reinforces how innovation can make places interesting and safe.

With assets like cemeteries we should not raise the drawbridge. We should lower it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The garden and the cemetery

Urban Community Gardens

What kind of imagination do we need to activate communities and support positive street activities? I heard a great example last week while working in Indianapolis.

Community gardens are a thing of the future growing out of our past. Gardens have always been that sort of hobby urban retirees do to pass time. At least that was the image. Even if it were true, it is not so today. Urban gardens are the kind of community asset we can no longer do without. They are sprouting up in cities across North America.

Indianapolis is no exception. One report suggests that Indianapolis needs 300 active community gardens to help feed itself - an interesting project. Locally grown food will not only help reduce our carbon impact, but it will get more neighbors outside their homes interacting with each other in a positive way.

One of the more interesting locations for a community garden is the Pot of Gold Comunity Garden located in the Indianapolis Washington Park North Cemetery.

Community gardens in a cemetery?

Imagination, it seems, is limited by our ability to think outside the box. And thinking outside the box is impossible if you give the box power it doesn't deserve.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Oshawa and Whitby Part 2 - the Jekyll and Hyde story

Downtown Oshawa at Night

Oshawa and Whitby are by no means the only twin cities with Jekyll and Hyde personalities. Examples abound. The question is why?

Though the same police agency patrols both cities, they seem to have very different downtown crime profiles. Policing, though important, does not determine safety or crime. Same thing with population size - both cities have similar populations (though not demographics). Perhaps economics or jobs tells the story? After all, Whitby is just east of a burgeoning Metro Toronto and surely draws more commuters. Oshawa hosts a large GM plant and a blue collar workforce. Yet a countervailing example is found on Toronto's western boundary where a city of similar size, Oakville, also hosts a large automotive plant, yet looks nothing like Oshawa.

The deck of causation cards

Criminologists play with such theories like they are shuffling a deck of causation cards. Police tactics here, economics there. Urbanization here, population density there.

As Jane Jacobs told us, you don't really get a clear picture until you get out of theory-land and get onto the street for a closer look. That's where you begin to see how planning and development decisions make a big difference.

Look at social assistance facilities, or more importantly the density of those facilities in the downtown of both places. You'll see a difference right away. Ask a few land use questions and you'll see the picture come more into focus: What is the population diversity in each downtown? Can people of different incomes live comfortably downtown? What services are available for residents, for example can you buy milk? Where is the bakery? Is there a Laundromat? Are there coffee-shops, bookstores?

Here is what I saw: Little population diversity, no middle income residences, pawn shops and check cashing stores, vacant storefronts, no convenience stores or shops for locals, and a number of social assistance facilities. Guess which downtown I am describing?

Don't misunderstand - social assistance facilities like drug and alcohol rehab, welfare assistance, and halfway houses serve a vital role. Some locate downtown due to access to public transit. Others cluster downtown due to NIBMYism from ostrich suburbs.

Bad decisions = bad results

Whatever the case, bad decisions trigger bad results, like decisions in land use, planning and development. These decisions (and these decision-makers) bear the greatest culpability for the Hyde’s or praise for the Jekyll’s. Next time you see a Jekyll and Hyde story in your city, ask who makes these decisions:

* Decisions to help (or not) floundering downtown business.
* Decisions to build mixed use zoning with residential above storefront commercial.
* Decisions to give tax breaks and renovation stimulus funds to places that build community not tear it down.
* Decisions to help turn vacant buildings into artist’s lofts and historic properties into landmarks.
* Decisions to hold absentee landlords and slumlords accountable for their properties.

No doubt government programs, quality policing (or lack thereof) and big-E economics play a role. But don't look for Big Gov or Big Corps to turn communities around. We've done that far too long and look where it got us. The spark for positive change rests elsewhere.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Oshawa & Whitby Part 1: The Jekyll & Hyde story

Good news! While crime rates in some large urban places have turned upwards, it is not so for smaller cities. Case in point: The region of Durham near Toronto, Canada where crime rates have declined for the past few years.

Bad news! Crime and disorder is not distributed evenly. Two similar sized cities in Durham - Whitby and Oshawa - border each other along Lake Ontario. I've spent the past few weeks working here and driving them. You would barely know they are in the same country, much less region. They look completely different!

Downtown Whitby is charming, has a wide range of shoppers, stores, and landscaped streets. It looks appealing, well used and historic at the same time.

Downtown Whitby

Oshawa storefronts look unsightly, some are vacant. Strip malls blight blocks. Other blocks host drug addicts and the indigent. One recent newspaper account describes it as "little more than a hollowed-out downtown surrounded by sprawl."

Downtown Oshawa

It is not pretty.

Last summer, at the start of the Recession, Oshawa downtown was in a state of transition - a new courthouse, a restored historic theatre, and a new university satellite. It seemed things were finally on the mend. Today, not so much. With hard times falling on employers, it's difficult to know if that recovery is dead. Local youth told me they don't go downtown for fear of druggies and crime.

Jane Jacobs once told us we ignore streets at our peril. Someone has been ignoring downtown Oshawa for a long time.

Rehabilitating such areas is a monumental job. But seeing these two very different downtowns...I wonder? How is it that Oshawa and Whitby share the same regional government, the same regional police agency and a similar geography, yet live such a Jekyll and Hyde life?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The weird wisdom of urban chaos

A half century ago an urban activist and writer from Greenwich Village in New York changed our world. Attacked as plain talking and a "housewife", her detractors of that day strangely assumed vigorous urban life could thrive without both. She spoke of mixed land uses and social diversity when others didn't. She reminded us safe, walkable streets are the life force of the city and thick networks of relationships are the oxygen to that life.

She taught us to pay attention to the importance of the simple things: the laundromat, the corner store, the street mailbox, the coffee shop, the park bench. She cautioned us not to dismiss the fun gifted us by murals, street artists, musicians, buskers. Some call this "urban disorder". They do not truly see the city as she did.

She triggered the demise of dismal highrise apartments to house the poor. In New York and later in her new city of Toronto, she led (and won) protests against neighborhood-eating freeways. She applauded heritage buildings when others tore them down. She launched a thousand barbs against soul destroying "urban renewal" - now long gone. She is responsible directly for the creation of crime prevention through environmental design - CPTED - and by extension, the Design Out Crime movement.

We take for granted these ideas today. We should not.

This activist, "housewife", and urban visionary is Jane Jacobs. Her best selling book Death and Life of Great American Cities set the world of city planning and urban development afire. I just read a fascinating biography, Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary by Alice Alexiou.

Her message is still relevant today for those who love vital, safe, and enriching cities.

In my blogs of late I am struck by Jacob's legacy. Consider bus stops in New Orleans, graffiti artists in Montreal, moss walls in London, and painted intersections in Portland. It is all very Jacobsian (she'd probably hate that term)

Jacobs warred against those from above dictating to those below. Her weapons? Demonstrations, petitions, letters...but mostly sharp words and clear-headed thinking from direct observation.

The last word to Jane:

The least we can do is to respect - in the deepest sense - strips of chaos that have a weird wisdom of their own not yet encompassed in our concept of urban order.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Bus shelter madness in New Orleans

I am continually struck dumb by the palpable idiocy of politics and government when dealing with neighborhood crime.

CPTED teaches us territorial control of public spaces by residents is how we begin to reduce crime. Local pride in urban features, like bus shelters, is how residents take their own streets back from drug dealers. Pride comes from local involvement. It doesn’t take CPTED-trained architects and urban designers to figure this out. It is fairly obvious.

But obvious knowledge is not enough to prevent crime and build communities.

Case in point: events this past week in the New Orleans neighborhood of Hollygrove.

A few weeks ago I spent time teaching SafeGrowth in New Orleans, a city still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. I saw so many folks dedicated to making things better. They are a dynamic and impressive bunch. Dynamic for the creativity they bring to revitalize blighted streets. Impressive for their dogged persistence fighting the malaise that so often blocks forward movement.

Hollygrove is an area plagued by persistent crime. It is a poor place with deteriorating roads and abandoned houses, many slated for demolition. Yet there is hope and potential. In one place I saw an innovative non-profit garden center with locally grown, organic produce and training programs to teach residents how to grow their own food. In another place residents described how they are attempting to work together to turn a blighted space into a place called home.

Perhaps the most exciting story is a locally-conceived and locally-constructed bus shelter, built in partnership with a national non-profit that brings architecture students together with communities. Over 50 residents participated in the bus shelter project. In fact the shelter was paid through fund-raising by local residents themselves. Imagine – in a place where poverty permeates – residents found non-government funds to build a creative bus shelter on their own. What an excellent example of local territorial control of their own public space and pride in ownership!

What happened?

Initially the regional transit authority approved the Hollygrove bus shelter. Then, at the last moment without public dialogue, they made a decisive policy decision. They reversed their position! Someone apparently believes it is better to install a universally static design for bus shelters throughout the city.


This sounds to me like another example of the no disruption crowd, those uncomfortable with change and who prefer things simpler, cheaper and easier.

Is a universal static design simpler? Since when was simplicity an answer to complex problems such as transportation and crime in a place so vexed? Anyway, the city already has an artification project in other parts of the city where local artists paint bus stops.

Now Hollygrove has done one better! They've created their very own unique (and immensely more interesting) design. Somehow, that message got garbled in the halls of politics.

Is a universal static design easier? Since when was laziness an excuse for not preventing neighborhood crime and not building livable communities? Besides, the design, construction and funding of the Hollygrove bus shelter was finished by the residents themselves.

Cheaper? Is neighborhood safety really all that cheap?

Decisive policy-making? Perhaps so...with all the resolve of which only the deluded are capable.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Homelessness and safety: The story of Dignity Village

Can we have safe and vital cities without tackling homelessness? For some, perhaps. Others, no.

Homelessness plagues Houston, Louisville, Seattle, Los Angeles, Vancouver and so many other recession-prone places. The re-emergence of large tent cities is a foreboding sign. Homeless folk dwell underneath the cement highway bridges we cross everyday to work, hundreds and thousands of people living out their lives.

Then along comes a story that brings hope for a new way forward.

Enter: Dignity Village in Portland, part of the City Repair movement. The New York Times says "Dignity Village is no sqatter's camp". The UK Guardian newspaper claims "America's homeless become new small-town pioneers".

A few years ago some Portland activists convinced homeless tent dwellers to move to a better spot, taught them how to use recycled material to construct shelters, and helped them do exactly that. They planned a village with a garden, "community center", and art. They gradually began to work together to build a self-governing community with rules, basic sanitation, and a measure of safety. In spite of a turbulent sea of local controversy somehow they found an island of, well, dignity.

Sometimes it is the simple solutions that work best.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Eco-friendly CPTED: Anti-graffiti moss

Front "moss" wall of Tokyo's Interior Design College of the Arts

I just finished reading Paul Hawken's Blessed Unrest: How the largest social movement in history is restoring grace, justice, and beauty to the world. It's a great eco-story. Read carefully and you'll see ties to safer cities.

His conclusion:

We live in a community, not alone, and any sense of separateness that we harbor is an illusion. Sustainability is about stabilizing the current disruptive relationship between earth's most complex systems - human culture and the living world.

How might we do our part with SafeGrowth and CPTED/Design Out Crime?

I recently chatted with Lorraine Gamman, an innovative and leading proponent of design-out-crime based at London's Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Lorraine sent me a fascinating idea for streetscape greening that might reduce graffiti targets: covering graffiti-prone blank walls and non-descript facades with moss. (Lorraine has a forthcoming article on this in the fall 2009 issue of the CPTED Perspective newsletter).

Moss! The stuff we used to spray from sidewalks. Turns out moss absorbs carbon dioxide, requires little maintenance, grows easily, insulates buildings, and removes vulnerable graffiti surfaces. Best of all, if designed well it makes an environment attractive. Even "vandalized" moss grows back quick with very little help.

It turns out we may have been too hasty removing wall moss. As the photo above shows, Japanese tech savvy leads the way for getting this right. Check out this video of Eco-moss.

A beautiful streetscape, graffiti-free, ecologically-friendly! Hawken would be proud.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Revenge vs back to basics

I’m remembering an old friend this week, C. Ray Jeffery, a famous criminologist, former President of the American Society of Criminology and professor at Florida State University. C. Ray passed away last year and I was just wondering what he’d make of the current debate about crime.

It’s interesting to reflect on what folks think causes crime and how to stop it. Some want rehab for violent offenders. Others want to string them up. Victims, understandably, often want retribution. Years ago professor Jeffery - a founder of the CPTED movement - would tell me never to forget it is far more fair, effective, and efficient to prevent those crimes in the first place.

He didn’t tell me that because it was obvious. He told me that because it is so often ignored. It still is today. Part of the reason for this blindness, I think, is the cloud of confusion obstructing clear-headed thinking when it comes to the emotional topic of crime.

Take the idea that living in places of Poverty and Social Deprivation (PSD) creates conditions for crime: desperation from lack of meaningful vocation; scarce personal resources; disconnection from meaningful relationships or sense of community.

If you believe PSD, then our course is clear. We must target crime neighborhoods, tackle the deprivation and opportunities that trigger crime hotspots, and get to work preventing crime-causing conditions.

Not that crime won’t happen in wealthy areas. More that the exception should not prove the rule.

Even though we can do some useful things (like CPTED) to reduce crime in the short term, not tackling the PSD root causes seems unethical (even though they are much harder to do).

Yet alternate theories persist, for example gang activity increases violence or a large young population in the "crime prone years" increases drug use. These ideas are like a half-finished story screaming out for a conclusion. Accepting them uncritically means ignoring that PSD probably stimulates the former and enhances distribution of the latter.

Professor Jeffery said it best in his paper at the 1999 International CPTED Association conference:

Most of the principles of crime prevention are based on the punitive-revenge-deterrence approach found in the criminal law. Punishment does not work, even a rat can learn to avoid a shock and to gain food.

As planners for crime prevention we must reinforce desirable behavior rather than punishing undesirable behavior. We must create environments that are healthy for the development of the infant, that stimulate brain growth, that provide a healthy diet and not toxic poisoning or stress, and that provide opportunities for education, family support, and adequate medical care in places of high infant mortality and child abuse.

Those are the words of the person who originally coined the term “crime prevention through environmental design”.

Perhaps it’s now time to re-examine how CPTED and Design Out Crime are taught and conducted today.

Perhaps it's time to get back to basics?

Monday, August 31, 2009

Color Your World

Steven Woolrich is an Alberta CPTED consultant and member of the International CPTED Association. He has worked in a wide-range of roles during the past 25 years including policing, corrections and security as well as practicum work with NYPD. He currently authors the Target Crime blog linked on LIKEMINDED.

An old 1972 classic song titled “Concrete Sea” by Terry Jacks got me thinking about how important color really is in our communities. Jack’s sings “No one is meant to be living here in a concrete sea”. If you look around many cities you will understand where his thoughts came from. This is especially true in many urban downtown areas of our cities, but this is starting to change and that’s encouraging.

City Hall Park in Red Deer, Alberta is a prime example and a popular gathering place throughout the summer months. Think about how you feel and act when you see color and you will appreciate how important it can be in various settings.

As crime prevention practitioners, urban designers, architects and anyone dealing with the built environment, learn to utilize more color. Colorful landscaping arrangements in our green spaces, textured pathways that incorporate color, and murals are only a few great examples of how we can use color to brighten up our lives.

Color psychology as it is often referred to is another valuable tool we can use to help reduce crime and improve quality of life. Color evokes many memories and mental associations that can drastically alter how we feel. The various hues can produce the power to recall sounds, smells, textures and other sensations that can comfort, calm, or intimidate. It’s difficult to predict with any certainty how someone may react to a specific color but there are some basic guidelines that can help us as professionals.

Choosing proper colors can help us create moods that are more “positive” and therefore support safer environments to live, work and play. Red for example, is considered one of the boldest colors because it demands our visual attention. However, where this color is used could be very important as it is associated with rage, confrontation, blood, aggression and ferocity. Obviously red is not a good color choice for prisons or hospitals. Orange, my favorite color tends to make people feel rushed, or in a hurry. People tend to feel that blue is clean, crisp and airy like a cloudless sky. Blue is a color for relaxation, it lowers the heart, pulse and breathing rates and has a cooling effect.

According to Carol Ritberger I’m considered a “green” personality. She points out that “Greens live in a world of hopes, dreams, and emotions where the intangibles of life are the most important. Their rich imaginations thrive when using their creative abilities – their minds work quickly, bouncing from one thought to another. Greens think in metaphors and analogies, painting vivid pictures in their minds; greens see life from a holistic perspective that allows them to see the complete picture. They love creating ideas and exploring possibilities”. As a Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) consultant I found this interesting.

Ritberger, points our that Greens “focus on what things could be rather than what they are or intended to be. Greens also rely on their hunches and insight to get a real feel for what is happening”. Most encouraging was that Greens along with many CPTED practitioners are “driven by idealism and the belief that their purpose in life is to make the world a different and better place. They feel they must influence the quality of life for others”, according to Ritberger. This takes the whole idea of going green to a new level.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Streetlights: The recession's latest victim

A number of these blogs have covered safety and street lighting. Recently a friend sent me this newsclip: USA Today

It turns out municipalities are trying to save money by turning out streetlights! Will it cause crime to spike at nite? Will more folks be victimized walking home at night under a dark and gloomy sky?


The lighting research I've read is sketchy at best. It doesn't shed much light on the issue. Some research suggests lighting does impact downtown city crime. Lighting does correlate with higher fears of walking outside at night.

We should keep an eye on cities cutting lighting. Let's hope they are also cutting crime in the process.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The playful landscape

Book cover "The Creative City"

Too often we get caught up in the control of urban space to control crime. We target harden our stuff. We build our defensible space. We fort-up with gated communities.

At times it seems we have gone mad!

Awhile back I met Charles Laudry, author of The Creative City, during a project to rehab a downtown city park from druggies. During field walk-a-bouts I heard the same old solutions – defend, harden, and fort-up. I was reminded of Wendy Sarkissian’s line that we so often exclude "the other".

Truth is, lots of visitors to this park were not druggies. They were homeless and down-and-out, many of whom wanted druggies no more than anyone else. They were also students, shoppers, office workers, and tourists. My fear I believe Charles shared was that forting-up might exclude the very mix of people that makes places worthwhile.

Charles’ approach is different. He is all about making places creative and fun. His creative city shows how we need to tap into the urban creativity and imagination of residents themselves when building places. Consider, for example, the work of Richard Florida.

How does an urban place become creative? The City Repair program is one example. Another is signage. Here are photos emailed to me recently of some public toilet signs. It seems Charles is right. Whenever possible, funning-up is far more interesting than forting-up.

Which way to the restroom?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Preventing crime with self interest?

Rational Choice and CPTED

Practitioners of CPTED rarely talk about the theories beneath their prevention method. Yet theories matter, especially Rational Choice Theory which some describe as the foundation for CPTED. I recently read a New York Times article about how self-interest isn't everything. It reminded me of Rational Choice Theory.

I like the idea that self-interest and personal choice matter when it comes to crime. Yet I do not believe rational choice is the primary way to sustain safer communities. It might help us prevent opportunity crimes like joyriding and burglary with CPTED and situational prevention. After all, better lighting can deter burglars. Locked garages can deter car thieves.

But it takes Herculean effort to stretch rational choice to explain wife battering, racially motivated assaults, or heat-of-the-moment violence. For those crimes we must look elsewhere for answers. Rational choice, and 1st Generation CPTED, has limits.

Why should we care? Why can't we prevent crime with rational choice and self-interest and leave it at that?

In the NY Times Robert Frank says "traditional economic models assume that people are self-interested in the narrow sense." We reap rewards in order to motivate actions. The choices we make are rational in the sense that there is something to gain and we weigh the benefits. Everyone has the right to choose their own future, so the idea goes.

But, Frank points out, there are a few snags.

First, the "right" to a free choice is quite a different matter than self-interest. Rights are legal creations. Self-interest is slave to a much deeper, psychological master. We may all have the right to choose but whether we do so is a matter of everyday real life.

Then there is the sticky problem of actual versus expected consequences. All actions end up in some consequence and people will find self-interest in the most innocuous ways. Consider the panhandler. Choice 1: Give the panhandler coin to stop pestering. But that has a short lifespan and it will not solve root problems like substance abuse and mental illness. Choice 2: Withhold coin believing the panhandler will seek alternatives for more reputable income. But that might involve getting robbed by one of those alternatives – that’s clearly not in your self-interest.

Self-interest believers claim weighing the benefits between #1 and #2 is how we make rational choices. Unfortunately, as with panhandling, we can never know all the facts to make an informed choice. We must select within limits. When that happens, self-interest can get “bounded” by so many limits it becomes irrelevant. (Indeed bounded rationality is in vogue with game theorists),

The fact is, people do things for motives beyond self-interest. Some volunteer in community affairs for little reward. Are altruistic feelings their reward? To make sense of rational choice in crime you must look outside criminology.

Shifting self interest

A good place to look is the work of Gary Becker, who won the 1992 Nobel Prize for upgrading rational choice theory and Albert Hirschman's 1982 book Shifting Involvements. Both claim self-interest is important, but it waxes and wanes. As people get what they want - such as higher standards of consumption - they discover they must work harder to maintain those standards. This creates a cycle of more stuff with higher standards. The cycle continues, increasing stress and decreasing satisfaction. At some point, says Hirschman, there is a tipping point when people become disenchanted with their self-interest motives.

These tipping points create periods of altruistic behavior, volunteerism and social involvement. Some people shift away from self-interest behavior, even if for a short time. Self-interest, it turns out, is perishable with the right conditions.

When do social tipping points occur? Remember the political chaos of the Cold War and President Kennedy's maxim "think not what your country can do for you"? It happened then! Today we face economic chaos - a world-wide recession, millions of layoffs, declining stocks, and failed businesses!

What we need today in troubled neighborhoods isn’t an understanding of how we reduce self-interest, as helpful that might be in the short haul. What we need is an understanding of how to renew interest in civic affairs to get troubled neighborhoods activated over the long haul.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Community Activators in Montreal

Hiring graffiti artists?

Timely news from Montreal. Just as I blog about graffiti problems and solutions in recent months, a success story emerges in MacLean's, Canada's national magazine.

Prevention NDG is a community organization in Montreal working to prevent crime, especially graffiti. While tackling tagging, they have struck a balance between paint-outs, murals, and education. Among other strategies, they also hire graffiti artists to paint murals to deter graffiti tags. Taggers will seldom, if ever, tag a mural. The Montreal Gazette article (and photo above) says it all.

Says one of the community workers at NDG: We also believe that it takes a multi-pronged approach to deal with this issue: removal, sensitization and prevention. We try to sensitize citizens on the importance of cleaning it quickly themselves (if they are able), however many home and apartment owners feel that it is the City's responsibility.

And therein lies the crux of the problem. Getting local folks to take responsibility. Getting them to shake off their dependency habits. Depending on someone else to solve their own problem.

That is why the work of community organizers like Wendy Sarkissian (scroll down), Jim Rough, and Mark Lakeman is so important. They are the activators. Activators of neighbor action. Activators of local ownership.

The activators, their skill-set, and their toolbox! That's where we must begin.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Beyond "stranger danger"

Wendy Sarkissian. World-renowned social planner and innovator. Wendy's consulting career spans over 30 years and ranges from developers’ boardrooms to low-income housing projects. Her work includes collaborative approaches in community engagement, housing design, public open space, designing for children, older people and people with disability, earning her over forty professional awards. She is Adjunct Professor at Bond University, Adjunct Associate Professor at Curtin University in Australia and a Life Fellow of the Planning Institute of Australia. Wendy's most recent books include: Speak Out: Step by Step Guide to SpeakOuts and Community Workshops (2010), Creative Community Planning (2010) and Kitchen Table Sustainability: Practical Recipes for Community Engagement with Sustainability (2009). 

I’ve been working in a neighbouring community for the past few weeks and have marvelled at how privileged I am to live in a vibrant place with a great sense of community. Because when there is no sense of community or one that is shot through with stigma, prejudice and sexism, it’s very dispiriting. It’s dispiriting even to hear people talking about their community.

A few days ago I was speaking to some local women in that community. We had never met though they were all friends and colleagues. Within half an hour of talking about life in their community, three of the eight women were in tears. They told stories that chilled my blood; that made me shake with anger: of men in the local pub (even the publican) showing photos of local teenage girls having sex. Sharing images on their Blackberries in the pub. Men with daughters just their age.

They told stories of a good police woman and others unable to assist in domestic violence situations. No safe houses or refuges. Women sleeping under the bridge. Deep-seated racism and sexism, as well as a deep local antipathy to newcomers. Stories of government indifference to the needs of women, isolated rural folk and older people. It was truly appalling.

In my community engagement work, I often speak about social capital and the need for community capacity building. I can learn a lot without leaving home. In my own community of Nimbin (population 330), we have social capital by the truckload. And what’s important is that it’s not just relationships with family and familiars that count. Its wide-ranging networks of activism, green politics, Left and anarchist politics, feminists, ecologists, Permaculturists, hippies, communitarians, cannabis law reformers, peace activities, activists of all descriptions... We are many communities, not simply our tiny geographical one.

Preparing to go to dinner to celebrate the birth of a new book, I put on my track pants and ugg boots [women's sheepskin boots]. I find an old, almost threadbare but still warm shawl. No need to dress for dinner in the winter in Nimbin. (One day last winter, deep into my writing, I headed to the local café in the morning for a good coffee. An hour into the newspapers and a second cup, I looked own to discover that I was wearing my bedroom slippers! Nobody noticed or cared.)

Acceptance of difference is essential to community capacity and community safety. I believe that when we shun strangers and emphasise “stranger danger” policies, we make people “other”. The women I spoke with felt that they were "other" in their own community. There was another, dominant, culture operating in their community and they were not part of it.

But, I reminded them, “We hold up half the sky.”

Not that sky, apparently.

There are many ways of being different. For community safety to flourish, we need to embrace all of those ways. Sometimes a small backwoods community – like mine – can offer some suggestions.

But then there are the security cameras in Nimbin, which the merchants love. They begged for them

And that’s another story...

Wendy's forthcoming book SpeakOut describes techniques directly relevant to the SafeGrowth model.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Radical Common Sense

Seeing things a new way

This week I chatted with my very dedicated Houston SafeGrowth folk working on their projects. They were looking for crime stats and maps. Nowadays such things are online in most cities. In Houston the police stats and local media crime trackers are both freely available.

Information gathering is frequently overlooked while developing solutions to crime. I cringe when I see unsupported assumptions guiding actions. So with their risk assessment underway, the Houston SafeGrowthers are doing an excellent job of getting their stories just right.

Interestingly, over the years I've learned that, by itself, information gathering is insufficient, a possible flaw in the fashionable evidence-based prevention and policing programs.

Part of the problem is what Toffler calls obsoledge – obsolete knowledge. Knowledge is always changing, especially knowledge about safety and our ideas on how to improve it. As we gain a fact, it is already obsolete and incomplete. As any crime analyst will tell you, nowhere is this truer than in crime stats. Over the years I have seen many evidence-based strategies create an echo chamber of misinformation.

Crime data isn't enough

While evidence is important, the problem is our belief in common sense and how we use that evidence to lead others to solutions. Leadership being the operative word.

We use the term “common sense” believing it a practical way to think about getting things done. But beneath common sense are a bunch of assumptions leading to contrived solutions that don’t get things done. Solutions like solving crime with incarceration, more cops, or cameras. I wrote about Zimring’s book Crime Decline and Waller’s book Less Law, More Order to tackle some of that misinformation.

Perhaps a better way to proceed is to use Radical Common Sense.

Futurist Marilyn Ferguson says Radical Common Sense is accepting we cannot solve our deepest problems through traditional ways or wishful thinking. We must learn the lessons of modern biology; a natural world that works more through altruism and cooperation (live and let live) than by competition (every man for himself). It means we accept the criminal justice system for the adversarial, blunt tool that it is and instead see our future in cooperating, sharing best practices, and accepting that our fate is tied to that of others.

Radical Common Sense is leadership based on our ability to teach others, ourselves and our ability to change accordingly. Who does Radical Common Sense in our line of work?

My recent favorites include Jim Rough and his wisdom councils and Mark Lakeman and his city repair movement. Each have questioned basic assumptions and learned to change their view. They identify the consequences of their solutions from many different sides, but they do their reasoning in collaboration with those in the community, not only from a lab, ivy hall, or computer screen.

Radical Common Sense ideas can be simple and beautiful

Here's the thing; What characterizes these Radical Common Sensers is how they minimize their time in regret or complaint. As Ferguson says, every event is a lesson to them and every person a teacher. That, of course, is the classic definition of a grassroots, community leader. It's also how we create successful SafeGrowth practice and safer neighborhoods.

The not-so-hidden agenda is the conviction that leadership must become a grassroots phenomenon if our societies are to thrive. If that strikes you as unlikely, consider first of all that nothing else is likely to work. And secondly, be aware that people already secretly suspect that they are capable of taking charge. [Ferguson, 2005, Aquarius Now: Radical Common Sense].