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.

2 Replies so far - Add your comment

gerard said...

cities do not have to be dysfunctional - they decide dysfunction as a way of being. Remember NYC after the attack on the towers? The city changed overnight. People were polite, cars were letting others in, folks stopped yelling at each other from car windows, bike couriers were letting the "suits" and "dresses" go first on the sidewalks. All this happened because they didn't want to give in to the terror.
Now we have to decide not to give in to the terror of urban crime/ proverty and poorly designed neighbourhoods. It is a matter of choice, not fate.

GSaville said...

Absolutely. The previous post about Zimring's "Decline" book shows us how multiple factors - such as demographics, neighborhood-based strategies, and proven prevention tactics - can all add up to safer places on the street.

But it's within the minds of people where much of our work needs to be done!

Thanks for the insight.