Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Give me a $1,184 inch...and I'll take me a mile

I recently attended a SafeGrowth training with some engaged folks in Houston, Texas. Groups from the community, police, and community development organizations spent time learning basic SafeGrowth tactics and choosing a local area to see how they work in real life.

(SIDE NOTE: Houston participants: Your June 30 assignment is on the link Risk Assessment Descriptions at the right side of this page...don't forget ;-)

Prior to the workshop I spent time visiting the various areas in the city. I was impressed by the newly gentrified mid-town area with walkable streets and restaurants. I was also impressed by the world-famous NASA Houston Space Center. But I was also struck by the profusion of interstate highways, cement overpasses and one-way streets downtown. Above all else, this is a car city.

I looked into the Houston car world. In the report Houston Freeways: A 5 Year Retrospective I learned some interesting facts.read Freeway Report

* The Texas department of transportation for the Houston area spends hundreds of millions to build and maintain the freeway system (to be fair, I doubt it is any different than other cities like Los Angeles).

* The Katy Freeway project alone, launched in 2006 after much delay, had a projected cost of $2.67 Billion (yes, that is billion with a "B").

* The downtown connector project linking the Hardy Toll road into downtown Houston is estimated at $75 million per mile. That's $14,204 per foot or $1,184 per inch.

I don't mean to pick on the transportation planners (ok, maybe just a bit). After all, there is a light rail line with some fabulously designed stations in the downtown. Some of the streetscaping, waterfeatures, and modern trains were among the most attractive anywhere.

But with all the freeways and overpasses I wondered about something that plagues every city - the homeless!

Studies I found suggested there were between 14,000 and 30,000 homeless people in Houston (depending on what study you read). There were homeless people on practically every street I walked downtown. True, they are certainly not as prolific in the Houston financial or theatre district as they are in other cities. But I'm told that is because they have moved under the same freeway overpasses on which so much money is invested.

I'm certain there are social services in Houston for those homeless as there are in every city. And we all know the causes of homelessness are complex and abundant - lack of affordable housing, deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, substance abuse, domestic and sexual violence, family problems are a few. They are not easy to solve in Houston or anywhere.

But is it unreasonable to at least ask a basic question:

If every highway inch gets $1,184, what does it cost to house, feed, and provide social, emotional, and job related training to a homeless person?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Waking up in the 21st Century: The San Romanoway Story

One version of crime prevention is to hunt around for the latest program and try it out. Like a teen shopping for clothes, popular fashion dictates choice. Cost comes second. Many of the prevention programs we see today result from the most recent academic or policy fashion. They are impervious to cost and, to stretch the metaphor, they are silent on effectiveness.

Too many crime prevention programs are adopted as though one size fits all. They are effective or ineffective depending on where, on what, and how they are applied. Few have actually been tested for effectiveness with any scientific rigor.

It is like medicine that waits for symptoms and then looks for specific treatments. The more sophisticated doctor is more holistic, working in partnership with the patient to build overall health and wellness, rather than waiting for symptoms to arise.

SafeGrowth is such an approach in crime prevention. It is a 21st Century holistic form of collaborative community development. SafeGrowth works directly with residents, transferring skills and knowledge to the place they are most needed, within troubled neighbourhoods. It also applies to existing safe neighbourhoods looking to innoculate their community from disorder and delinquency.

Example: A large cluster of high rise apartment buildings - the San Romanoway project - becomes the subject of a multi-year program to address crime and disorder. Housing 4,000 residents, many of whom are new immigrants and single parents, the project has a history of problems with crime. They are surrounded by gangs, drugs and poverty of the notorious Jane/Finch suburbs in north Toronto. For decades conditions for the 60,000 residents in Jane/Finch worsen and grow into one of Canada's highest crime communities.

From 2000 to 2001 a research team led by Ross McLeod from Intelligarde and myself from AlterNation conducted research and crafted a SafeGrowth neighbourhood redevelopment plan. From 2001 to 2009 the Greenwin Property Management group led by Kevin Green, along with local residents formed the San Romanoway Revitalization Association, led by director Stephnie Payne. They immediately began implementing tailored strategies they selected for themselves. Community gardens, parenting classes, area cleanups, better lighting, improved management practices, social and recreational programs for kids, and others began the process. Fundraising was done locally and government, private corporations, and philanthropic groups all contributed.

Most recently San Romanoway has added new tennis courts and tennis camps from Tennis Canada, and a new cineplex movie theatre donated by the Cineplex Corporation within the apartment project - the first of its kind in Canada. They also have opened a new recording studio in which local kids create their own rap songs for public sale.

Crime at San Romanoway has plummeted, more residents are engaged in community life, and fear has decreased. While conditions in the wider Jane-Finch area are unchanged, San Romanoway shows us how the SafeGrowth model for neighbourhood building represents the future of 21st Century crime prevention.

The full SafeGrowth story will be reported this fall in a special issue of the Built Environment journal: Security versus Safety: A New Look.

the Built Environment journal website

Monday, June 15, 2009

The devil is in the details - Designing Out Crime

Dayton, Ohio - photo Wiki Creative Commons

Ever get irritated at the person who butts ahead of you in line? How about that cell-phone addict who forgets to signal and turns in front of you? Even worse - the Blackberry zombie who can't stop texting! Is rude and obnoxious behavior on the rise? 

Rebecca Gaytko is my new urban planner friend from Dayton, Ohio. She participated in the recent SafeGrowth training in that city and, along with Chief Biehl, is among a small group of positive voices for SafeGrowth. Rebecca recently sent me this fascinating article on bad behavior and design. read bad behavior blog 

 If SafeGrowth means safety inside a neighborhood (which it does), it must also mean the careful design of very small items in our lives. If safety emerges from urban designs that create positive experiences and opportunities for healthy, fun choices (which it does), it must also mean little things make a big difference. 


There is an approach to crime prevention called Designing Out Crime (DOC). The DOC folks fix and tamper with the products of our lives - our cars, phones, purses - to reduce the risk of theft or their use in crime. 

In the olden days, we thought this the stuff of security companies. Nowadays it's a whole field of study read DOC research Today DOCers have reinvigorated the design of products in new and interesting ways. Nowhere are they more advanced than in the UK. read about the UK Design Out Crime program 

Rebecca reminds me we mustn't forget the importance of small items in our lives. True, they do not excuse bad behavior. But there is no doubt when it comes to our behavior, the devil is in the details.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Who's Your City?

I just finished reading urbanist Richard Florida's most recent book Who's Your City:? How the Creative Economy is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision in Your Life (Vintage, 2008). Florida takes his creative city idea one step farther. In a time when we worry about the impact of the recession on home ownership, blight, and crime Florida challenges us to think differently about how - and more importantly where - we live. He says our ability to work, play and innovate in a globalized and outsourced world has not made the world flatter. It has made it "spikier".

"Who's Your City? proves that choosing the place we live is the single most important decision we can make. It has profound impact on our lives:" our career paths, social networks, family and lifestyle choices, the wealth we accumulate, and our overall happiness."

I'd go one more. Quality-of-life is bound to safety. When it comes to finding safe places, building community cohesion, and quality municipal services, where we live has always mattered. Moreso today. Particularly intriguing are his notions of the rise of the mega-region, the difference between the mobile and the rooted, and Maslow's City. Check out his conclusions from the most recent Place and Happiness Survey. Florida's ideas point the way for those willing to look!

Who's Your City?