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?