Sunday, January 31, 2010

Nimbin the beautiful - The War on Drugs

Surrounded by forests and the Nimbin Rocks

I watched drug dogs sniff luggage while departing the Sydney, Australia airport. I watched the same thing again on arrival at Los Angeles. They scour each bag, thrilled in the hope of a score that will produce some tasty treat from their handler. It's the War on Drugs!

In his best-selling book Breaking Rank, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper calls it this way: By any standard, the United States has lost its war on drugs...[it] has been a colossal mistake.

All which is an interesting counterpoint for my recent visit to the Australian town of Nimbin nestled in an ancient volcanic caldera in the north hinterland of New South Wales. Social planning expert Wendy Sarkissian hosted my visit to Nimbin and gave me a tour of this fascinating village of 400 surrounded by lush forests. Nimbin has for years been a haven for alternative lifestyle seekers such as dope-smoking, aging hippies, eco-conscious activists, and anarchists living amongst traditional village residents, retired professionals, and shop owners.

Nimbin is the site a famous Mardi Gras music festival and numerous Cannabis Reform rallies. Some call it pot-head haven. Regardless, Nimbin is proud of its international reputation as an icon for alternative culture. Today it's among the most popular tourist sites in Australia attracting over 140,000 visitors.

Downtown Nimbin

I did see lots of dope smoking. What crime does that produce? The police told me some druggies hassle some tourists by trying to sell them pot. True, there were some assaults, but I was told that was mostly drunks outside drinking holes during closing time. It was not druggies shooting druggies (no one could remember a single shooting in Nimbin - ever). I got the impression that, compared to other similar villages, crime in Nimbin seemed no different than other small villages with a late night bar on the main drag.

What else comes out of Nimbin?

1. A cornucopia of cooperative communities within a 20 minute drive of the main drag. By some counts a hundred such places host over 10,000 residents. I visited a few and discovered they range from planned permaculture housing and affordable housing, to rural intentional communities with art, culture and healing.

2. Nimbin residents are remarkably active politically and environmentally. In 1979, in one of the first ever protests against over-logging rainforests, Nimbin environmental activists saved the Big Scrub rainforests of Terania Creek. That action resulted in the world's first legislation to protect rainforests.

3: Nimbin residents have their own hospital, a community center and free pool, community gardens, eco-education centers, houses with all forms of alternative power, dozens of thriving tourist shops, restaurants, a museum filled with hippy culture, and (naturally) the annual naked bike ride (I missed it).

Permaculture training center

Not bad for pot-head haven.

For me, Nimbin was a fascinating time-trip to the 60s. It's like, I suppose, Graceland for Elvis lovers, except much more amusing. Nimbinites (I have no idea if they call themselves that) also have a great sense of humor. ("The problem with the rat race is, even if you win, you're still a rat")

Are there some nasty drugs of choice that justify a War on Drugs? Are there a few truly dysfunctional places that can only be saved by such a war?


But from what I saw, Nimbin isn't one of them.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Engagement - Getting people to the table

Photo from a wonderful Guidebook website at

How do we get people from disadvantaged places to the table in the first place? How do we initiate community engagement when communities are so disengaged?

There is little point in creating a safe physical place if people are disengaged from community life.

Take schools for example. It is no surprise that crime and vandalism rates increase shortly after high school kids leave school and on weekends. In one Brazil research study, youth homicide rates skyrocket during weekends

Across the US, almost half of all juvenile crime occurs shortly after school lets out and into early evening according to some studies.

Even worse is when a neighborhood suffers from poor student attendance and youth disengagement from the educational system. Disengagement is a cancer for neighborhood vitality. Educational detachment ripples through a young person’s life for years. Eventually it reaches the shores of community safety. School detachment is the mark of a neighborhood in trouble. Kids in school matter.

Most prevention programs are after-school programs aimed at the kids. Rarely do programs target the parents, teachers, and communities themselves.

Not so for a capacity building program with Western Australia’s aboriginal people over the past 9 years. Check out the Voices of Our People.

Capacity Building in action

Their capacity building program was a response to absenteeism and disengagement by aboriginal youth in school.

Gerry Cleveland, education and youth violence expert, created and delivered the program in conjunction with others such as Carol Garlett, the Aboriginal district director of Education in Western Australia’s remote Kimberley district. (Gerry’s SafeGrowth blog last year describes his philosophy on justice and safety).

Gerry’s training aims to enhance community participation and reduce absenteeism. After 9 years aboriginal staff are more inclined to take leadership roles and manage school and community projects – projects they develop themselves. In one early evaluation a half dozen schools had 10% improvement in attendance. In one school it was over 30%.

Gerry’s capacity building answers the question of where to begin by going to the source. They start with people directly in the community - Aboriginal support staff, parents of students, and Aboriginal students themselves aged 6 to 12.

Leadership and emotional intelligence training is also key, not for service providers from outside, rather for aboriginal teachers and parents inside the community.

Sunset in the Kimberely. For more details go to

In international development circles this is called technology transfer – but in community development it is more about co-developing solutions with residents and applying them locally. Capacity building training helps residents do it themselves. In SafeGrowth too, this is really the whole point of sustainable community.

For more on this project check out the section on engaging youth in Western Australia in the Chapter titled Second Generation CPTED: The Rise and Fall of Opportunity Theory in Randy Atlas’s book 21st Century Security and CPTED.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Surfing Sydney's graffiti

Is there a more magnificent city than Sydney, Australia?

Perhaps. But not many.

I've been re-visiting the land down under for a few weeks having spent time here prior to the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Back then graffiti was the name of the game. It was everywhere! One newspaper quoted me saying that, except for Homebush Bay (where the Olympics were staged), Sydney was showing a pretty ugly face to the world. No one I spoke to seemed to even take notice how pervasive graffiti had spread. It's just part of the culture, or so I was told.

Apparently not.

A decade later it looks to me like a complete turnaround. Acres of walls once covered in spray paint are now clean. Like cities everywhere, there are still parts of the city with too much graffiti. Graffiti walls and murals exist too. Driving downtown though, Sydney seems like a changed place.

In an earlier blog about Victoria, British Columbia I pondered whether the graffiti game can be held in check. To this visitor at least, it seems Sydney has begun to do just that.


For one, by shining the light of public debate straight onto the issue. The Australian Institute of Criminology publishes studies on graffiti. Equally important, there are publications to help explain successful strategies to the public.

Town councils use programs to remove graffiti within 48 hours and encourage protective sprays on walls. The government has an Anti-Graffiti Action team with grants for removal kits and CPTED programs.

Graffiti tolerance or artistic outlet?

Finally, and controversially, they have criminalized possession of graffiti implements and controlled sales of graffiti spray paint.

Some say Sydney's aggressive stance is off-putting to young people looking for an artistic outlet. Read here

To be sure, graffiti is only one of many such outlets. Tonight I watched a newscast of thrill-seekers "surfing" the rooftops of speeding commuter trains - some of whom, tragically, fall to their deaths. Obviously, they need better options.

Some researchers say we don't know enough to properly tackle graffiti. Their answer, unsurprisingly, is a call for more research. Perhaps they should read the forthcoming International CPTED Association Graffiti Guidebook.

Research or not, Sydney graffiti is not at all the same as a decade ago. Cities like Victoria can learn something from the Sydney experience.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Tucson's urban fabric

Declining neighborhoods can be transformed

The urban fabric of a place is what we see in our daily lives. The details of the physical environment matter. Details make the difference.

I recently visited Tucson, a city in the desert of Arizona with a half million residents. It was a place of residential fences. I've never seen so many. Everyone, it seems, gates their property.

The old pithy saying proclaims; Good fences make good neighbors. I've always thought good neighbors make good neighbors. Too many fences actually make streets ugly. Here, too many streets were corridors of fences.

Yet even in this fence infested city there are ways to beautify. Tucson has some great examples of community branding and neighborhood art, what SafeGrowth calls community culture. Planners know this as placemaking.

Signage branding in the university district

One lower income neighborhood marked their entranceway with a decorative entranceway, lined nearby freeway walls with murals, and organized to get funding to build a beautiful park.

Murals to beautify

In the university area a lively bohemian street was branded with signs and street art. Even at night-time the eye was treated to a warm orange pallate on parking lot walls with what would normally be insufficient low pressure sodium lighting.

Low lighting can work if done properly

The devil is clearly in the details of our urban fabric. Now if only we could get placemaking details into commercial suburban strips!

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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Crime in 2010: Up or down?

The Great Depression - some very bad years

On New Year's night, a car crashed into my neighbors yard across the street. When I arrived to check it out (thankfully, no one was hurt) the driver had already fled from his booze-smelling wreck.

What will that look like in official records? A drunk driver? A car crash? A criminal charge for failing to remain? Damage to property? Truth is it might be one, all, or some combination of any of those.

Official stats depend on how busy the police are, the skill and experience of the investigating officer, whether the drunk driver can be found while he's still drunk, and whether the police are even summoned in the first place (in this case, I dialed 9-1-1). Crime incidents turn into stats (or not) based on a whole bunch of things.

None of that helps answer my most important 2010 crime question - Will crime go up or down? Will the Recession linger and jack up misery? Will the 1990's declines resume as potential offenders age out of their crime-prone years?

To some criminologists, visible social conditions and stories from residents tell the tale. Graffiti, homelessness on the street, and other such perceptions are stories that portend the future.

To others crime "data" alone tell the truth. The evidence-based folks slice and dice numbers and serve them up as proof of this or that. As the car crash shows, stats reveal (or not) different things depending on where they are diced and who is slicing.

So 2010. Better or worse? The Washington Post seems to think it will be better.

Last year Baltimore had a 9% increase in murders. Similar disturbing trends exist in a few other cities. Yet crime rates in many US cities continued the Great American Crime Decline that began in the 1990s.

The FBI Rankings of the 2009 six highest crime cities, in order, are: Camden NJ, St. Louis, Oakland, Detroit, Flint, and New Orleans. The lowest crime ranking cities included Madison, Bellingham, WA and Boulder, CO. Should I choose Boulder over St. Louis?

We teach in SafeGrowth that overall city rankings like this predict nothing about life on the street. We learn how to do a Risk Assessment because it is crime patterns within the neighborhood that matter in everyday life - patterns that can make you safe in a high crime city, (New Haven) or unsafe in a relatively low crime city (Vancouver).

How about the country in which we live? Putting stats ahead of patriotism for a moment, the US and Canadian city homicide rates are interesting:

City crime rates rarely tell the story

City homicide rates 2002
per 100,000

Washington, DC: 45.8
Detroit: 42
Baltimore: 38.3
Memphis: 24.7
Chicago: 22.2
Los Angeles: 17.5
Dallas: 15.8
New York: 7.3
Regina: 4.7
Seattle: 4.5
Saskatoon: 4.4
Sudbury: 4
Portland: 3.9
San Diego: 3.8
Edmonton: 3.5
Vancouver: 3.4
Montreal: 3.4
San Jose: 3.1
Winnipeg: 3
Calgary: 2.6
Toronto: 1.8

Am I unsafe living in US cities? The evidence-based folks might say yes (except if I chose San Jose versus Saskatoon or Portland versus Regina). But Vancouver's Downdown East Side or Toronto's Jane/Finch corridor are no doubt far more dangerous than New York's Greenwich Village or Washington's Georgetown.

Which brings us back to the car crash and whether crime will go up or down. I think it depends on where we live, how engaged local residents are in their neighborhood, and what happens in this economy. In some places it'll no doubt go down. In others, it won't.

I think, when it comes to neighborhood safety, the most valuable New Year's resolution we can adopt is neighborhood responsibility and vigilance: Keeping an eye locally and learning how to prevent crime where we live and work.

Civic engagement will tell the story. Our civic engagement.

Have a happy and safe New Year.