Wednesday, June 30, 2010

One way out

Boundary route in Winnipeg. Deserted and car friendly.

What, I wonder, do public spaces have to do with livability and crime?

A week ago I spent a few days walking downtown Winnipeg. Some streets seemed very walkable. Others, not so much. Some streets, occupied by the indigent and homeless, reflected a nasty social distress. Other arterial streets functioned as links between areas - boundary routes - little curb appeal, no adjacent shops, poor walkability. They are public spaces where territorial control and eyes on the street don't exist. Boundary routes are for cars, not walkers.

When I was there people were everywhere on downtown Winnipeg streets (in daytime at least)! All this in spite of Winnipeg's ranking in the top crime rate cities in Canada. Then I thought about walking downtown Houston a year ago where people were far more scarce. City comparisons are always risky, especially crime comparisons. But they are interesting.

Houston is a vast, sprawling city of many millions. It has crime problems, placing in the top 10% of high crime cities in the US.

Winnipeg also sprawls, but it has less than a million. It too has crime problems, ranking in the top 5 highest crime cities in Canada.

Houston is valiantly attempting to bring more people downtown and increase walkability, especially in the Theatre District and with the new light rail. Winnipeg has plenty of downtown walkers in summer (my visit coincided with a public celebration), and extensive elevated walkways for winter. Then I noticed traffic flow.

Houston's downtown is more or less a 20 street by 11 street span between I-45 and the Easter Freeway. In spite of extensive expressways about 80% of downtown streets are one-ways.

Winnipeg's downtown is more or less a 15 by 20 street span from the CPR rail yard to the Trans-Canada Hwy and between the river and Route 62. With no expressways to speak of, over 30% of those downtown streets are one-ways.

Is that why walkability seems more palatable in Winnipeg?

Great signage, but few people to read

Walkability is more than parking the car to walk or jog. Walkability is useful destinations within reasonable walking distance - corner stores, schools, food stores, library's and other community activities. Walkability won't stop crime on it's own. However, it's an excellent place to start.

The Houston story is by no means written, as I wrote in a SafeGrowth blog entry last year. Houston has outstanding preventive efforts by many groups, such as Houston's LISC, to build local capacity with programs like their SafeGrowth strategy.

In Winnipeg too there are exceptional preventive efforts, such as community groups tackling crime and award winning problem-solvers cutting auto theft

All those are marvelous and necessary.

Still, I wonder. If downtowns were dominated by people and walkable public spaces versus one-way streets and boundary routes, how many more wins would our preventive efforts celebrate?

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Great Leap Sideways

Preventing urban crime means thinking about topics far and wide. For example, it's difficult to talk about reconstituting the urban landscape and not talk about geography, environment, and energy.

The distance of this theoretical turf to the community developer might be long, but the link is direct and important. All those things go hand in hand.

Chris Turner wrote The Geography of Hope precisely to make such linkages.

In a recent talk Turner wows us by tying together car-free cities, high speed rail, peak oil, renewable energy, solar thermals and ocean acidification. He does this in 15 minutes.

Appropriately, a reviewer quotes author Danusha Veronica Goska:

“When we study the biographies of our heroes, we learn that they spent years in preparation, doing tiny, decent things before one historic moment propelled them to center stage and used them to tilt empires.”

When I listen to Turner, I think: Yes! That's it exactly.

Click here to watch Chris Turner's talk (let it stream first).

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What's Poetry Got To Do With School Safety?


Tod Schneider has been a fierce advocate for advanced CPTED on safe schools for many years. He has published articles and books on safe schools and violence. He is a safe school design inspector, speaker and consultant. Tod is editor of the Safe Cascadia newsletter ( and has graciously submitted this blog entry. He can be reached at

I look at schools for a living, frequently as a security consultant, but I try to go beyond basic 1st Generation CPTED. My broader perspective is usually well received, but not always. Lately I rubbed a Principal the wrong way.

He had been doing a great job revitalizing a troubled school, and by all accounts was succeeding. The school was clean, and behavior and academics were on the upswing. There were security weaknesses, which I identified. But what struck me the most drew on 2nd Generation CPTED notions of community culture and cohesion, or in my terms, SHAPED (safe, healthy and positive environmental design.)

This was not a bad school; it simply left room for improvement. Student-made posters celebrated an upcoming popularity contest, and sports trophies were prominently displayed. High on a wall hung a professionally printed banner with the school “fight” song, and I kept coming back to it, trying to figure out why it was bugging me. The sentence structure had been mangled to serve the rhyme scheme, and the punctuation needed work. To my mind, for an educational facility this should have been embarrassing.

When I mentioned this to the Principal, he barked, “what does poetry have to do with school security?” He explained that the song had been around for a long while, and was meaningful to the alumni. I reassured him that my report would emphasize school security. But had he been more receptive, here’s what I would have pointed out:

* If I came to this school hoping to compete in sports or a popularity contest, this place looked great.

* If I came here hoping to learn essential writing skills, the literary arts, music, math, science or international relations, I might feel uneasy. Those topics did not seem to rate very high in the main public areas of the school.

* If the banner so prominently displayed was there to please the alumni, I would wonder who the school was focused on – the students attending today, or the students who attended fifty years ago when the song was written?

* If I was a socially awkward, non-athletic kid, likely to be pushed to the margins of school culture, I might anticipate being unappreciated or bullied – or invisible. And in the rarest of cases, if I also had serious behavioral or mental problems, I might even be pushed into exactly the kind of antisocial behavior that school nightmares are made of. That’s what poetry has to do with school security.

One example of attention to detail is school displays cases, like the one pictured above. They are often stuffed with athletic tropes, while other accomplishments are rarely recognized. Notice the sign, half-hidden, behind the Coke machine? It's for the National Honor Society.


The banner didn’t need to be hidden – it just didn’t need to be the most prominent display in the entry hall. Students could be invited to write a new song, or at least post examples of other writing that inspires them. Keep the old song around for nostalgia’s sake, but don’t saddle the students with it for the sake of those who are long gone. When schools post signs with misspellings, it suggests that spelling isn’t really all that important. And when the best poetry the administration can come up with is mediocre, what message does that send?

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the school team, and building school spirit. But it’s the kids on the margins that I’m worried about, with different interests, quirks or cultures. The ones who will never win the popularity contest, or lead the team to victory. For these kids, I’d like to see a more balanced display celebrating a full range of interests.

Sports plaques were widely displayed here, especially at all major entry points; other topics were harder to find mention of, although I did go searching. Some bulletin boards outside classrooms did reflect other subjects, I was pleased to see. But the only plaque outside the choral room was for athletes. Down a distant hallway, adjacent to a storage closet, I finally did find a modest display about music.

At least, I thought, it was something.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Soweto, soccer and slums

Soweto's Soccer City and FIFA's World Cup

Football, what North Americans call "soccer", can be unifying, fascinating, incoherent, and thankfully distracting - especially tournaments with global appeal. A good example is today's launch of the FIFA world cup championships in Soccer City, the gigantic stadium in Soweto, South Africa. Considering
Soweto's history, it's an odd twist of social circumstance.

Sited on the fringe of Johannesburg, Soweto was a pretty depressing place 25 years ago when I first visited it. Infected by the twin cancers of oppressive poverty and abundant crime, I have never seen more dismal, sickening slums. We toured the city with a Sowetan human rights organization looking to publicize its plight to the world.

The old apartheid government hid its culpability by calling Soweto a "township". Truth is it was a city with 2 million residents, one small fire station, and no running water. Soweto was a notorious symbol of the former government's racist policy and a former home of imprisoned Nelson Mandela. It needed far more than prevention programs - it needed wholesale political and social revolution. And as we know, that is now underway in one way or another.

Today it is still a pretty poor place and bears the legacy of too much crime. Electricity is still a problem and many roads are still dirt. In an issue of CPTED Perspective last year, my very competent South African CPTED colleague Tinus Kruger reported the difficulties of town life that is set among the magnificent South African landscape.

But modern Soweto contains tidy row houses, high end shopping malls, museums, B&B's, and a growing middle class. It also has a new sports stadium that will launch the beginning of the 2010 FIFA world cup. From personal experience, I can vouch for the outstanding hospitality and friendliness visitors will receive from South Africans.

Housing in Soweto

Meanwhile, footballers ponder every nuance. Will favorites Brazil, Spain or Argentina win? Will the US beat England? And to top the frenetic spectacle of the games, today I came upon a wonderful counter-point, a humorous new book, Soccer and Philosophy, written by modern-day philosophers.

The Wall Street Journal's John Heilpern reports on one of the sketches in Soccer and Philosophy:

...there is a soccer game between Germany and Greece in which the players are leading philosophers… Towards the end of the keenly fought game, during which nothing much appears to happen except a lot of thinking, the canny Socrates scores a bitterly disputed match winner. The enraged Hegel argues in vain with the referee, Confucius, that the reality of Socrates' goal is merely an a priori adjunct of non-naturalistic ethics, while Kant holds that, ontologically, the goal existed only in the imagination via the categorical imperative, and Karl Marx protests that Socrates was offside.

May the inventiveness of such prose morph off the page and onto the streets of Soweto as productive community development when FIFA ends.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Tipping Points in Philadelphia

Ghost Busters on South Street

How much is too much?

Planner, developer, and academic types have asked this question for decades. So has Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller The Tipping Point. I asked this question in field research with Paul Wong my business partner years ago. I asked it again in research with my colleague Chuck Genre, a co-faculty member at our university research center.

In the 1960s, Jane Jacobs and William Whyte talked plenty about it too in their writings of diversity on the street. How much diversity is a good thing? How many benches before people use them? How many shops before a street becomes vibrant. How many shops is too many? What kind of shops will tip a neighborhood into or out of crime? How many bars are too many (Paul and I tackled that in the mid 1990s). How many parking lots trigger auto crime (Chuck and I studied that from 2000 - 2002).

I am back this week with my latest SafeGrowth students in Philadelphia. My weekend comprised walks and talks on the eclectic South Street, the Bohemian mecca for street kids, students, shoppers and a fair share of tourists, artists, and hangers-on.

South Street is one of those self-evolving, hipster commercial drives, about 25 blocks and a mile and a half in length. I walked back and forth on it and was surprised by its intense diversity. Unlike many such entertainment venues like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, this one does a much better job catering to local residents. Over a thousand live in pricey digs directly on or near the one way, narrow street. I'm not a fan of one-ways, but the narrowness and eye-catching architectural diversity make this one work pretty well.

One of Philadelphia's famous murals

It has some community gardens, a grocery store, and similar places where locals can patronize. It also has a region-wide reputation for hipness, a place where, as the song says, "the hippies go".

I also learned there was local organizations and non-profits who kept momentum moving forward by watching zoning issues, providing programs, and working on neighborhood livability. As in SafeGrowth strategies, it is the local organizations and non-profits who sustain positive momentum forward. It sure seemed to work on South Street.

True, South Street has the odd controversy; one example was a recent Twitter Flash Mob of juveniles (both the chronological and emotional types) who rampaged storefronts and generally acted out their immaturity. Some crowded evenings the street gets so packed cops must siphon pedestrians in one direction to keep the street moving. I also found crime stats too, a handful of thefts, a store robbery, a street robbery, and a few burglaries over the past 6 months.

For the most part, with such a high population density and diverse population, it all seems to work pretty well.

Humanizing the street with community gardens

I don't know if this is the best combination for the diverse street. I don't know if South Street represents the Golden Rule for what diversity should look like. It feels like a cross between the positive vibe on Vancouver's Commercial Drive and the livability of Dayton's Oregon District. Yet it's much larger than both and Philadelphia faces considerably more crime.

So consider this - In one of the country's largest cities (6 million in the metro area), with a national city ranking in the top ten for too many crime categories, South Street's diversity and cultural energy thrives, it draws shoppers and tourists in droves, and still provides a convenient and interesting place to live.

Jacobs and Whyte, it seems, were right.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The World's First CPTED Town - Tumbler Ridge

Tumbler Ridge Town Hall

Once upon a time, long, long ago, there was a new coal mine in northern British Columbia. How, the planners and developers asked, might one apply Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design to an entire, yet unconstructed, community of 5,000 residents? It had never been done before. At this point the nascent CPTED movement was barely a decade old. To complicate matters, developers decided to apply socially sensitive design ideas from famed planner Christopher Alexander.

The town of Tumbler Ridge is now 30 years old and last month we visited the town for the first time. We spent time with the deputy mayor and town planner, both SafeGrowth graduates, who told me CPTED design seemed to work pretty well. Residents loved living there. Of course, that can be said of countless other towns. So is Tumbler Ridge all that different?

As with all resource towns, the fortune of town life in Tumbler Ridge over the years has ebbed and flowed with the fortune of the economy. Nothing new there. That's pretty much what most towns and cities are going through today! Tumbler Ridge doesn't look all that different from other picturesque mountain towns. At least not on first blush! (Though it does have a nicely designed town center and abundant walkways winding here and there.)

Street layout from the air


Strangely, though Tumbler Ridge can justly claim the mantle 'First CPTED Town in the World', I can find no published crime studies to tell us what happened. The only social scientific study I found is by social geographer Alison Gill who reported "high levels of satisfaction, however the degree to which design features contributed to this were difficult to ascertain. In particular the CPTED concept was not monitored and its appropriateness in the context of Tumbler Ridge seems questionable."

There is nothing new about another social study concluding it's difficult to ascertain cause-and-effect. This may even be a case of the ROTO conundrum. And the not-so-subtle flip side of questioning appropriateness is the inference that applying CPTED was inappropriate - a polemical statement that on one hand is impossible to prove after-the-fact, and on the other hand seems to fly in the face of data showing "high levels of satisfaction".

Nonetheless, the point is important to raise. Gill is correct; the lack of a before-after crime study leaves the question unanswered.

Here's what I know:

Years ago, one of my former CPTED co-instructors participated in the early Tumbler Ridge design charrettes. He told me of the common-sensical CPTED design changes they built; separating noise activity areas from housing where shift workers slept through the day; locating the tavern so drunken patrons could not damage store windows at night; designing walkways to facilitate movement and minimize burglary opportunities, and others.

Years later that same co-instructor assumed command of the Tumbler Ridge RCMP detachment. He told me that over five years he observed first-hand how crime rates in the town were lower than surrounding towns per capita crime rates. He also said he saw first-hand the success of walkways and other designs to reduce crime opportunities.

While in Tumbler Ridge we spoke to deputy mayor Jerrilyn Schembri and planner Ray Proux, both who mentioned high satisfaction with Tumbler Ridge residents. Both Jerilyn and Ray are graduates of SafeGrowth training classes and have been working to apply social and physical prevention strategies.

Murals in Tumbler Ridge


One exciting example Jerrilyn showed us was a soon-to-open museum of paleontology, the first of its kind in the province. Apparently in recent years there have been remarkable finds of dinosaur fossils in never-before explored digs.

If government funders follow through, Tumbler Ridge may well become the latest west coast Jurassic Park (I'm sure my description will mortify our gracious museum host and passionate curator of paleontology, Richard McCrea). This represents a 2nd Generation CPTED strategy in community culture that can put Tumbler Ridge on a whole new kind of map.

For me Tumbler Ridge shows us that urban design matters. We may never know the precise specifics, but socially sensitive design with CPTED in place can positively affect community satisfaction. Tumbler Ridge also shows us that local economics matter a great deal when it comes to disorder and dissatisfaction. Mostly, Tumbler Ridge suggests to us the transformative potential of exciting cultural assets to help propel community interest and pride. And for this, we hardly need more studies.