Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sin-city and crime generators

What I learned in Vegas...

A funny thing happened to me in Las Vegas last week. No, it's not what you're thinking! It's not really about clear-headed thinking at all. It's about some fuzzy thinking that replaces coherent understanding about preventing crime.

I've said before the CPTED and Design Out Crime folks don't talk much about the theories behind their work. A few of those thorny theory issues showed up in my blogs last year, such as ROTO (Research-On-The-Obvious).

There is another side to that coin. I'm referring to the fuzzy thinking of some academicians who study crime-and-place and their kin (crime mappers, police crime analysts).

Let's remember the main purpose of theory, at least in the empirical sciences, is to provide a plausible and testable explanation of why something happens, in this case crime. Events surrounding that explanation - where and when crime occurs - are merely descriptive symbols of the main event, not the actual theory that explains "why" the event happens in the first place.

From this point of view, CPTED and Design Out Crime have very few actual theories - only descriptive symbols.


Descriptive symbols are useful. Describing where malaria starts killing people may help us isolate the outbreak and target treatment. Symbols may point us in the right direction toward explanation. But they do not explain the biology of malaria - and that is what kills us! Mosquito nets may help us and we need them. Ultimately, we need to be working toward a cure. We mustn't rest with nets. Same with crime.

What about gambling, casinos, and sin-city?

As I walked around Las Vegas last week I began thinking about all the casino's, the craziness, and all the activity. In Advanced CPTED there is something called "crime generators". These are locales in the city that tend to generate crime opportunities. Large casinos fit the crime generator tag. If mappers scoured the crime patterns, no doubt they'd find lots of hotspots with pick-pocketing, assaults, drug dealing, and fraud in and around the casinos. Or perhaps casino security displaces it to venues just outside the Strip? Either way, no doubt someone would come up with a "theory of casino crime locations", which isn't really a theory at all.

This is exactly what happened with the Broken Windows "theory". Crime went down in New York. Unfortunately for Broken Window Theory, as Professor Zimring showed in his book, The Great American Crime Decline, crime went down in places with no Broken Window programs. That's because descriptive symbols won't really stop crime in the long run. Only prevention based on sound theories can do that.

Yes, theories matter.

Does that make casino's crime generators? Casinos no doubt "generate" direct and indirect crime. But if we could calculate per capita crime rates around casinos, would they be any more crime-prone than other high activity places?

Do activity generators = crime generators?

Probably not in the case of large political rallies (except if you find yourself in Thailand this week). How about in the case of large football games with thousands of drunken fans? Those probably do generate similar (or more) assaults, except if we limit alcohol sales and the home team wins.

That's the problem with descriptive symbols versus real theory. They tell us something about where, and little about why.


It might be simple to conclude sin-city Vegas is also crime city. But FBI crime stats don't show that. We can argue all we want about unreported crime, gambling impact on family life, and so forth (those things are true and serious). Yet according to the 2008 FBI crime rates, Las Vegas wasn't even in the top 20 cities for total violent crime nor in the top 50 for total property crime cities.

So much for crime generators.

Personally, I'm no fan of the Strip in Las Vegas. There are no doubt many tragic realities that arise in that famous (infamous?) epicenter of self-absorption.

Whatever those realities, we must not confuse descriptive symbols that plot when and where with actual theories explaining why crime happens. Descriptive symbols may help us target crime and temporarily reduce it with 1st Generation CPTED and Design Out Crime. But they won't help us prevent it in the long run. Nor will they replace proper and robust theories that help us build safer places - including entertainment meccas like Vegas - in the years to come.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Radiant cities?

Scene from Radiant City - Burns Films Ltd

If you don't watch the regular offerings of's time you do! They are excellent, inspiring and worthwhile stories that will recharge even the most pessimistic (and, by definition, futile) batteries. features some of the greatest thinkers today sharing their new ideas in 18 minutes or less, usually in YouTube format. My colleague and planning guru friend, Jon Munn, recently sent me there to watch one choice morsel.

That's where I came across "Radiant Cities".

Radiant Cities is a poignant, and very funny documentary. I won't tell you the plot other than to say you'll never again wonder why we have crime in the suburbs. I especially enjoyed the burb kids featured in the film. They master a satirical humor rivaling Monty Python...except their story is real!

Watch a trailer "here".

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The unbearable loneliness of entitlement

Bucolic suburbs, natural beauty, neighborly strife?

Lately, I’ve been obsessed with NIMBYism. It’s horrid (NIMBYism that is, not being obsessed by it). Not that it’s a recent phenomenon. It’s just that lately I’ve smelled some particularly nasty odors of it in my own community.

New Urbanism guru Andreas Duany has said: "People are intelligent in the abstract. They just get stupid when they talk about their own back yards."

NIMBYism rears its ugliness in both urban and rural places. Consider my blog a few weeks ago about civic entitlement in Toronto. Or Wendy Sarkissian’s about her rural community in Australia.

Somehow, though, NIMBYism has particular stench in suburban places. It fouls the air of civility among neighbors who should know better.

There is a great story about this by Seth Bauer of the Huffington Post you must read called American Suburbia vs the Planet.

Says Bauer:

We build homes with giant foyers because we have no public squares. We need media rooms because it's not easy or pleasant to drive to a multiplex theater, cross a parking lot through an ocean of cars, and pay a fortune for popcorn. We build bars in our basements because there are no neighborhood pubs. We have giant refrigerators and ever-growing storage needs because shopping is both far away and unpleasant (hello, Costco). The result? We heat and air-condition unused rooms in oversized unpleasant houses. And because our home bars and foyers are empty and our media experiences private, we're lonely, to boot.

Yes, that's it exactly.

Check out Bauer’s article in Huffington Post.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Chile's Earthquake and CPTED

Last month's earthquake devastation in Chile

Macarena Rau is a board member with the International CPTED Association from Santiago, Chile and president of their chapter in Latin America. Here is a short excerpt from her article in the upcoming CPTED Perspective newsletter.
At 03:34 in the morning of February 27th, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake hit a vast area of Chile. Its epicenter was located 100 miles northwest of the city of ConcepciĆ³n. Later, a deadly tsunami impacted the Chilean coast, devastating a number of coastal towns.  According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs the quake and tsunami caused 495 deaths and a considerable number of displaced and homeless. News photos of the earthquake are online here.

Under these circumstances recall what CPTED (crime prevention through environmental design) and architecture tells us about one particular public space – the Town Square. Public squares are a form of outdoor urban room.

Jane Jacobs, in her visionary work “Death and Life of Great American Cities” already posed the importance of human contact to fight against urban insecurity. Jacobs, as the forerunner of CPTED, affirmed the need for building cities to foster human integration. She upheld that the sidewalks and public spaces like Town Squares need to stop being abstract areas and instead become meeting grounds for positive human contact. 

In Chile people...have had to organize themselves to face the risk of becoming victims of crimes and natural disasters. Public spaces like squares provide the ideal social gathering place for this too.

Macarena's full article will appear in the January-April issue of CPTED Perspective.