Thursday, February 25, 2010

What can police do about foreclosures?

How many home foreclosures can a neighborhood withstand?

There is no doubt mortgage foreclosures have destroyed neighborhoods across America. So do the police have a role in helping improve things? Is that really their role?

Says one police leader:

"Mortgage foreclosures continue to take their toll on neighborhoods across America. A recent USA Today article indicates that mortgage foreclosure filings jumped by 46% in March 2009 over 2008 as temporary moratoriums lapsed. It is clear that police will continue to face the impact of foreclosures on neighborhoods for some time to come."

By anyone's definition of what makes a good Police Chief, Darryl Stephens is that person. Chief of agencies in St. Petersberg, Florida and Charlotte, North Carolina, he has led innovative ideas in law enforcement for a generation.

The Community Safety Initiative folks at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation just recently published Chief Stephens thoughts regarding the foreclosure crisis and what police can do about it. It reinforces points made by Brent Teasdale and Lynn Clark in an earlier blog (soon to appear in the March issue of CPTED Perspective).

The question is what to do about a problem that police have traditionally had nothing to do with. Some ideas in his article include

* Homebuyer education,
* Foreclosure counseling,
* Neighborhood Stabilization funds,
* Reduce high crime in troubled neighborhoods to create safe conditions for contractors to rehab homes for resale,
* Getting contractors to do maintenance on homes that would otherwise be boarded up and abandoned (and thereby vulnerable for use by drug dealers).

Check it out.

Stephens Foreclosures LISC Article

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Build it right...they will come

Eyes on the street at the Winter Olympics

In the film Field of Dreams Kevin Costner responds to a ghostly incantation: If you build it, he will come. In CPTED we do something similar with territorial reinforcement - also known as turf control (TC).

TC is urban design so that people feel safe through a sense of ownership of that space while offenders feel at risk of being apprehended. TC designers use landscaping, signage, and architectural features to break public spaces into semi-public. When people feel safe they are more likely to use a place in greater numbers and, as Costner discovers, they will come (and stay to enjoy).

At least that's how it works in theory. But sometimes on the street, not so much. Usually it is more complicated.

Design does not guarantee anything. People equally need to feel that they are absolutely comfortable, that they can experience joy and fun, and that a place is playful. Comfort, joy, fun and play - these too must find expression in public places for TC to blossom.

How do we use colorful, interactive design features or even bizarre and fun territorial markers to create TC?

I discovered some answers this week.

TV viewers watching the Winter Olympics see sporting events. There is a whole other Olympic story on the transformed walkways and byways of Vancouver's streets where events are free and people are encouraged to touch public art and sculptures. Kids are told to jump on everything...except for the flaming Olympic cauldron which, for the first time ever, is mounted at ground level. Who knew people actually want to touch fire?

The following photos show some great examples of playable, touchable, and TC-friendly stuff. Will they get vandalized post-Olympics? Probably. But if they continue to work as well as they do now, does it really matter (especially if maintenance funds are set aside for upkeep)? Probably not. Better still, maybe the "adopt-a-highway" program could work to get local groups to clean their favorite public art thereby further enhancing TC.

Apparently building with people in mind produces some outstanding results.

See for yourself.

A sidewalk canopy of recycled material

Eco-statues to touch

Kids need to touch and play street art

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Magnificent Vancouver

 Vancouver, Canada. Photo David G. Gordon, Creative Commons

It's time to balance the ledger.

This blog talks about problem cities and successful cities. Vancouver's Downtown Eastside has made a few appearances here as it represents the former, mainly due to persistent poverty and crime. So why does Vancouver consistently vie for top spot of the world's most beautiful and livable cities?

Partly because every city in the world has poverty and crime. More important is whether productive and innovative solutions are employed to tackle them. I've never doubted Vancouver has tried numerous times to make things better in Downtown East Side (perhaps, though, not as seriously as it should).

Another reason Vancouver tops the best cities charts is - from a city-livable point of view - a commitment to Jacobsian-style walkable neighborhoods over the car-city disease found too often in too many modern cities. True, Vancouver's bus system leaves much to the imagination (and to quality). Yet it does boast success in both elevated rail and commuter rail and has made inroads for bikes.

Mostly I think Vancouver shows a commitment from citizens, planners, and successive governments to the abundant natural environs that bless this remarkable city. It's one reason the 2010 Olympics are there this month.

No wonder! Large portions of waterfront are open to the public via parks and boardwalks (not fortressed from the public by private condos). Stanley Park is the largest urban park anywhere (larger, and arguably more beautiful, than New York's Central Park). Successful neighborhoods cluster around Skytrain Stations, such as Vancouver's "showcase of community planning", Collingwood Village (to which, I disingenuously admit, my former consulting partner Paul Wong and I provided extensive CPTED advice 15 years ago).

Most of all, Vancouver's beauty just takes your breath away. The winter Olympics are underway. It's Vancouver's time.

Check it out here.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Safe homes for prospective residents

In creating safer places we often talk programs, policies and projects. We fund this initiative or that in the belief it makes a difference and reduces crime. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn't. Ever the search for the right combination.

Some of the time safe places emerge from the preventive actions of everyday people. Maybe most of the time. That means everyday people need to feel compelled to work together and to help others do that. And that means they need to know what to do.

This week journalist Karen Aho of MSN Real Estate helps those folks. Her story, written for people looking to purchase homes, is called: How To Find A Safe Neighborhood. Karen starts: "It’s one of the first things buyers ask and something real-estate agents can’t answer: Is the neighborhood safe? OK – so how, exactly, do you do that?"

Karen interviewed me for this story and I was impressed with the quality of her questions and her research skills.

Check it out.

click here for MSN Real Estate article

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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Foreclosures and ghost suburbs

Foreclosures lead to crime?

Lately I have been corresponding with Brent Teasdale, from Georgia State University and his research partner Lynn Clark from the University of Akron. They are scholars looking at the financial crash and its impact on neighborhood crime, especially the home foreclosures.

They are among the first to study this in detail. From what I can see they are among the most thoughtful. In a forthcoming article Brent and Lynn ask:

How do we create sustainable neighborhoods in the midst of the urban (and, by 2009, suburban) foreclosure crisis, where old neighborhoods that were viable are now decimated with boarded up homes, where residents are faced with declining property values, vacant lots, fewer long term residents, and an increasing presence of absentee investors or landlords?

Great question! Here's another: What if the recovery stalls, or worsens? That’s what Severin Sorensen suggests in his new book Economic Misery and Crime Waves.

What happens then? Is there evidence one way or another? Thanks to Brent and Lynn, there is!

They talk about "ghost subdivisions", places where the new economy creates unsold and unoccupied tracts of new housing.

Ghost subdivisions are new housing developments that have not been sold or occupied by residents. In such places CPTED is crucial.

For example, in Atlanta legal changes were required for the issuance of occupancy permits to new homes. Certificate of occupancy permits were not issued prior to appliances being placed in new residences. When appliances were installed prior to actual occupancy, the permit signified to potential criminals the presence of the appliances in homes that did not have guardianship. This led to residential burglaries in new developments and the theft of these appliances.

Brent and Lynn also examine what happens when neighborhood foreclosures crosses what in SafeGrowth we call the neighborhood threshold, also known as the tipping point?

When a home goes into foreclosure, especially if it is vacant, home values can decline. This can lead to poor upkeep and decreased informal social control, in CPTED terms diminished territorial reinforcement. Because of a high potential for the buyer to be an absentee property investor or landlord, there is increased risk of criminal activity as the area suffers visible signs of physical decay.

They tell us why mom and pop corner stores, so important in neighborhood life, cannot survive the new economy:

Triggering the demise of mom and pop stores

Economic competition from big box stores (where residents drive to shop) means that smaller stores must have lower prices. But lower prices in a smaller consumer base (usually within walking distance of those smaller stores) results in a reduced profit margin.

This is especially a problem when residents find their housing values declining due to foreclosures, general aging of the housing stock, increased tax burden for schools and services, or a slowing of the urban/suburban economy. In these circumstances the success of a sustainable and safe neighborhood is put at risk.

Brent and Lynn’s full article will appear in the March issue of CPTED Perspective, the International CPTED Association newsletter.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Escaping L.A.'s violence - a haven within

An L.A. Times article tells a story we should heed, a gem at the end of a neighborhood safety rainbow. The gem is Vermont Knolls, a neighborhood in Los Angeles. The L.A. Times calls VK a "place where people know each other, have an emotional and financial investment and don't take kindly to anything that might disturb the peace."

In any traditional suburb we might label that NIBMYism. Here - for very different reasons – something else is going on.

In the past 3 years the L.A. Times reports there were 2,603 murders in Los Angeles. In the vortex of the gangs, drugs and shooting storm lies Vermont Knolls where the Times says there hasn't been a single murder in the core area. In fact, the first murder in 3 years happened only 5 days ago.

Even in neighborhoods immediately adjacent to Vermont Knolls there are of lots of murders. Those nearby places suffered 28 homicides in the same period. No doubt crime still happens in VK, but why so few murders?

The L.A. Times story suggests a few answers.

* Though 15 gangs vie for control of turf around VK, police successfully targeted a gang who resided there.
* Surrounding areas are dominated by high turnover, section 8 subsidy housing, boarded up homes, foreclosures, liquor stores, and urban blight.
* In VK investors are working at commercial rehabilitation. It also has well-maintained lawns and not many front yard fences.
*Courts have passed gang injunctions.
*Unlike nearby areas, VK has formed an influential advocacy group, the Community Coalition, to organize themselves.
* VK uses extensive outreach programs including church sponsored activities.
* VK has older and more long-term residents, more owner-occupied single homes, and folks with roots.

Notice police and courts play only a limited role, such as selected gang enforcement and a community police station.

Notice also the broader agenda carried on by investors, a community-group, a church, and neighbors themselves.

Ben Adler says it best in his Next American City article "Crime's Bottom Line".

...while crime has continued dropping in New York, it has begun to level off in many cities, including D.C., that have employed the same police tactics [Broken Windows]. In D.C. murders rose slightly in 2007 and 2008, and crime in general remains persistent...while infinitely better than when the city had 482 murders (compared to 186 in 2008), is still surprisingly high for a city that has experienced a recent boom in residential demand and commercial activity.

D.C.’s experience demonstrates the limits of police-based approaches to crime prevention…Police tactics may get the crime rate down from epidemic proportions, but they won’t fix the root problems.

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