Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Jigsaw puzzles and walkable streets

Louisville has much to offer: lower crime rates, the Kentucky Derby, more Victorian homes in one area than elsewhere in the country, parks designed by Frederick Olmstead, ballet, opera, theatre, and large convention centers. None of those things, per se, typically produces a walkable neighborhood street culture. But they are nice.

Lately I’m thinking more about city streets and jigsaw puzzles. Consider downtown Louisville where I walked this week. There are wide expanses of cement and asphalt. One-way downtown streets, empty during evenings, and long distances between stores make downtown walking in some parts tedious and pointless. No different than what I saw in Houston and San Antonio and most other(but not all) large North American cities. The indigent ask me for coin. A homeless woman pushes over street furniture – perhaps a statement of her boredom with poverty, her frustration with it, or just being drunk! Jane Jacobs would hate this piece of the Louisville puzzle.

I wonder: Shouldn't we expect more from downtown street life?

Later I am shown an entirely different piece. The fabulous Bardstown Road in the Highlands area is filled with art galleries, street cafes, restaurants of all ilk, and a variety of folks safely intermingling from all walks, incomes, and peculiarities. It’s a little Bohemia both fascinating and tasty. This is street life with diversity and energy. Jane Jacobs would love this.

A few days later I find my own underground jewel snaking off a boring and empty street into a back courtyard cafĂ©. The Derby City Exresso bar is the kind of place where edge politics thrives. The bar reeks of alternative culture and proves cultural depth isn’t obsolete. If it were the 50s, Kerouac and the beats might have submerged here with their jazz poetry. Today’s version offers wall labels that advertise Propaganda Nite, Postmodern Magic, and warn us, This Machines Kills Fascists. Another asks, What now?

Three Louisville pieces emblematic of disjointed neighborhoods in cities everywhere. The latter two pieces seem a naturally evolving antidote to the former. This is the puzzle of our contemporary downtown street life or, in too many cases, lack thereof.

What now indeed?

I discovered there are some exciting things happening here! The Louisville police department has been gradually implementing the most advanced police training method in the country - Problem Based Learning. As I mentioned last blog, PBL supports the COPS strategy. COPS is one precursor to more expansive SafeGrowth strategies and safer neighborhood design.

Also, there is visionary new leadership at the University of Louisville's NCPI – the National Crime Prevention Institute. Because 1st Generation Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design pervades cities throughout the world, we forget that in the early 1970s (shortly after the publication of Newman’s Defensible Space and Jeffery’s CPTED) NCPI was the original birthplace of CPTED training. Reinvigorated learning opportunities at NCPI hold some interesting possibilities for safer neighborhoods.

Perhaps that’s one way we can learn to do neighborhoods right? Updated learning may yet provide the most important piece linking the safer streets puzzle.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Great American Crime Decline?

Toronto or...
New York...Who's got crime?

Whenever the political prophets talk crime and peddle propaganda to solve it on their nightly TV holler-fests, I feel parched for truth on a media so devoid of it. As a criminologist I know what passes for truth about crime on TV is but a mirage.

Then I heard some truth about the mystifying urban crime declines of the 1990s. The words came from Professor Franklin E. Zimring whom I briefly met at an Alberta crime prevention conference last year.

If you have never read the work of Zimring, do so! Read his book The Great American Crime Decline. Zimring is meticulous showing how the crime declines throughout the 1990s were not only sustained and real; they were unprecedented in the 20th Century. click for Zimring's book

Previously on this blog I have described academic research called ROTO: Research-On-The-Obvious. read the ROTO entry

Zimring’s research is not ROTO. It is methodical, cautious and does not overstate.

His last chapter talks about lessons learned from the decline years. With the recession upon us and rates inching upwards, perhaps it is time to revisit his conclusions? Crime Decline conclusions

As with many truths, solutions are not simple. Zimring says no single cause can be attributed to the crime declines, not even the criminal justice system fixes - more cops, more 3 strikes laws, and more prisons. He concludes American crime studies missed the boat. They failed to look outside the borders. Hence they missed the fact that US declines almost perfectly echo those in Canada where there were no US-style fixes – no more cops, no more prisons, and no 3 strikes laws! Yet the declines happened anyway.

While there is no single cause of the good news, there are probably multiple causes of it. According to Zimring the glad tidings for crime control start with an improving economy and reductions in the number of young males in the so-called “crime-prone years” (15-29). Coinciding with these trends (though Zimring glosses over this) I would add police practices in both countries shifted toward the COPS philosophy: community-based, problem-oriented policing.

COPS emphasizes problem-solving crime hotspots in partnership with residents. Studies report success with COPS projects, the most notable being the Goldstein Problem-Solving Awards and the annual Problem-Oriented Policing Conference. visit POP Center website

Do we get a simple bottom line? Not by Zimring standards. But there are some truths to remember. Here are three:
1) Professional observers of crime completely missed prophesizing the 1990s declines. They simply didn’t know it was coming.
2) Crime theorists still try to convince us their explanations work, when Zimring shows us they don’t.
3) Political and media pundits continue to pontificate, convincing me to turn off night-time TV.

It suggests, at least to me, that we cannot rely on politicians and experts to solve our crime problems for us – they simply don’t know what to do.

It suggests that crime is not an inevitable factor in any neighborhood or at any time. Crime does not require massive changes to our social structure to reduce it. It suggests we don’t yet know enough about social policy to know what government policy works best to reduce crime.

Mostly it suggests we need to go with what we know works: small scale, neighborhood efforts where we see actual improvements; COPS style policing in collaborations with residents; working within neighborhoods and with enlightened residents who collaborate with knowledgeable service providers.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The media and the tip of the iceberg

Not long ago Winnipeg, Canada was listed by a national magazine as one of the highest crime cities in the country, especially car theft. read MacLean's Magazine article

I've been many times to Winnipeg and I'm always amazed how a place can feel so very different than the what the media and the stats tell us.

As we've seen so many times in this blog, stats tell only a very small part of the picture. Proof: One of my talented SafeGrowth colleagues in Winnipeg, Brody Grusko, is launching some exciting new work in that city. He posted a SafeGrowth entry in their city website with some feedback. Looks like there are excellent opportunities to expand neighbourhood governance and city repair projects.

Brody's blog entry

I especially thought his chart was one of the more interesting diagrams I have seen for describing the SafeGrowth methodology.

Brody is coordinator of the Winnipeg Committee for Safety. It's a pretty dynamic group. They are worth keeping an eye on. If you haven't seen their website, check it out.
Winnipeg Committee for Safety site

Friday, July 10, 2009

Safety with a Potluck - Transforming Space into Place

Portland's Intersection Repair program

Imagine: When the fog of traffic congestion clogs our streets (and our minds), imagine a safe place near your home with quiet beauty and solace. Imagine neighbors putting out daily coffee and tea for passers-by in mini-street cafes. Imagine bulletin-boards, cobblestones and artistic murals, flowers and gardens on your street. Imagine it can all start with a potluck.

I recently spent time exploring Portland, Oregon. Some equate Portland with rain and overcast winters. But other records matter more - Portland's outdoor street life for example. Portland is one of the world's greenest cities, the fittest and most eco-friendly city in the US, the best US city for biking to work, renown for land use planning and light rail, and a top ten city for architecture and design.

Portland's not perfect. While it has about the same ethnic and income mix as cities of similar size, it does have the country's second highest unemployment rate. It has problems with car thefts and burglary. Yet of the 75 largest cities, Portland's murder rate is consistently in the bottom 10 and robbery in the bottom 20. It has one of the lowest violent crime rates of any city in the country.

One wonders about the obvious; Do the things that make it vibrant account for the things that make it safe? Residents describe it as one of the safest places in the country with the highest high quality of life.


Portland's neighborhoods are alive. Interest in civic affairs is alive. In the neighborhoods (away from the clogged Interstate) cars seem secondary, people and bikes first.
Nowhere is this exemplified better than with Portland's City Repair movement, now in dozens of cities across the country.

Pioneered a decade ago, innovator and architect Mark Lakeman is a leading proponent. He told me local residents decide for themselves what they want their streets to look like and how their intersections should function. Some want community interaction or seasonal celebrations. Others want slower traffic or beautiful public art.

City Repair creates artistic and ecologically-oriented placemaking through neighborhood projects. They began by tackling the urban grid. They convert residential street intersections into public squares. They use paint, plants, and permaculture. They construct non-toxic solutions from the local environment. They combine public art with benches, lampposts, play areas for kids, and gardens alongside public streets. It is remarkable to see this in person.

If you can, go there and see for yourself. Nowhere have I seen intersections transformed so creatively by local action.

This is citizen government and a positive example of direct action.When we talk of placemaking in SafeGrowth, City Repair is exemplary. It yields great promise and optimism.

People are drawn to see beautiful art or sculptures in formerly boring grid intersections throughout the city. I watched cars slow to safer speeds where there were no stop signs. Well designed street art is a natural traffic calmer.
Resident-designed intersections in Portland - eventually the city came on board
I heard of doomsday pundits who said it was impossible (until it was done by others). I heard of traffic engineers predicting chicken-little (then shown how to build creative and functional intersections).

Mark says, we are engaging people where they live and they are building new relationships. They are creating physical artifacts that encourage them to gather after the fact. They see these artifacts and they interrelate with them and the stories broaden and deepen.

That is placemaking at it's best.

Check it out.