Monday, January 31, 2011

Solving the city with math?

Photo: Vincent Laforest, NY TImes 
Solving city problems: math or hard work?

Click your heels - solve the city! If only math solved our problems so simply. The TV program Numbers will have us believe it is possible.

I just read a fascinating story in the New York Times magazine (December 17, 2010) about Geoffrey West, a retired physicist - "A Physicist Solves the City."

Every now and then a thinker from one field jumps into another. Sometimes the field-jumper creates new genius, such as Gavin Menzies the ex-submarine commander who posed a new history of how the European Renaissance was ignited by a Chinese fleet in his best-seller 1421: The Year China Discovered the World (2002).

Other times the field-jumper creates Frankenstein. Such is case with ex-lawyer and amateur anthropologist Madison Grant who wrote The Passing of the Great White Race (1916) to explain white racial superiority. Hitler based Mein Kampf on that pseudo-scientific nonsense.

It's too early to tell which version emerges in Solving the City. Ex-physicists West and Luis Bettencourt apply a mathematics known as “superlinear scaling,” to explain patterns in large cities. Superlinear scaling is not dissimilar to threshold theory in criminology that we proposed in 1994 to predict tipping points in crime areas.

“What we found are the constants that describe every city,” says West. “I can take these laws and make precise predictions about the number of violent crimes… I don’t know anything about this city or even where it is or its history, but I can tell you all about it."

West sees cities as a sprawling, uncontrollable organism (though apparently, a predictable one. A fascinating paradox unanswered in the Times story).

The City - An urban ecosystem

West joins a long line of urban thinkers who express the belief that cities are a kind of urban ecosystem, thinkers such as Jane Jacobs and Amos Hawley.

Human ecology is, incidentally, the same theoretical proposition on which SafeGrowth is based.

Solving the puzzle of how cities "work" with the mathematics of superlinear scaling sounds simplistic and naive. Then again, my favorite West quote makes me think he may be on to something:

“Think about how powerless a mayor is,” West says. “They can’t tell people where to live or what to do or who to talk to. Cities can’t be managed, and that’s what keeps them so vibrant. They’re just these insane masses of people, bumping into each other and maybe sharing an idea or two. It’s the freedom of the city that keeps it alive.”

That's the same thing Richard Florida suggests through his "creative class".

Read the article on West HERE.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Soft Cage - Surveillance in America

A community-led CCTV control room from Joseph Morales presentation at ICA

I just finished reading the 2004 book, Christian Parenti's The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slavery to the War on Terror. It shows how public surveillance started with a trickle and turned into a torrent. While generally well-written, he lapses into some obtuse theory and heavy-handed politics. Still, the message is worth the torment.

Parenti starts by echoing a common sentiment: "what harm is caused by the proliferation of everyday surveillance?" He ends by concluding: "There are risks in social anonymity, but the risks of an omniscient and omnipotent state and corporate power are far worse."

The story travels the fascinating, historical journey of surveillance: metal slave tags during the antebellum years, the birth of the mug shot, biometrics and face-recognition technology, DNA fingerprinting, invasive Internet cookies and so forth.

I was especially fascinated by the sections on CCTV. TV's NCIS will have us believe Big Brother can see all. Parenti's research suggests there is a reality gap the size of the Grand Canyon when it comes to the effectiveness of existing CCTV technology. Still, it proliferates. Over 30% of American high schools have CCTV. Like a growing number of other cities, Washington DC Police use cameras for surveillance of public streets.

Then there is the UK! I've reported in previous blogs about millions of CCTV in British cities, London's Ring of Steel, and the role of CCTV in the crime triangle.

Parenti claims those millions of cameras scanning for decades haven't caught a single terrorist and are still a threat to civil liberties. Findings like this make Soft Cage a worthy read.

Conceptually, Parenti draws on the unintelligible, circular theories of French historian Michael Foucault.

One painful sample: the fetishism of home security, while clearly being about actual security and target-hardening, is also a cargo cult of individual defense against social disintegration of the sort described by Katz [where] imaginary, or magical, forms of agency are acted out in the face of massive and nebulous threats.

Apparently Parenti has never been victim of a home invasion or burglary.

He also makes some fundamental errors such as misidentifying Oscar Newman as a promoter of target hardening and completely missing the entire crime prevention through environmental design movement. It would seem fiscal cost cutting at Soft Cage publisher Basic Books ran too deep in their editing and fact-checking departments.

The book could also use updating. I'm thinking of Joseph Morales and his presentation Not Quite Amish at last year's ICA CPTED conference. Joseph described how his community organization democratized public CCTV and became an effective crime prevention tool.

Overall, Soft Cage is worth the read. Surveillance has its place. We just have to make sure we choose the right place. Books like this help us choose.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Oz Graff and Banksy

Stencil graffiti can be annoying and funny at the same time

This week I'm at the University of Sydney, Australia for a Crime and SafeGrowth workshop.

It gives me a chance to wander the streets of this beautiful city and compare it to my experience last year and a decade ago. In 1998 Sydney was a city of graffiti. Last year, not so much. Much has happened in Sydney, and in the world of graffiti, in the past year.

Some of the trends appeared in blogs I've written on train graffiti, murals, and the ICA Graffiti Guidebook.

Graffiti is called graff by practitioners of this underground ├╝ber-chic, street artists, wanna-be street artists, and just plain sweaty vandals. Graff is pandemic in both virtual and real space all over the world.

Take for example the stencil graffiti trend started by Britain's anarchist Robin Hood, Banksy. Stencil graffiti now makes appearances in art galleries and in art books. Graff-folk gather on websites to advertise their wares or simply look for cities to "practice". Says a graff-writer in one post:

I'm from Los Anzgeles and will be out in Sydney next week. Although I'm not traveling for graff I would DEFINITELY like to paint while I'm there (as well as stickers)... If anyone can give any info on ANY cool spots to paint as well as GET paint I would greatly appreciate this...

Police and prevention specialists tinker at the edge of graff, sending in the enforcers, writing new laws and installing CCTV. Police map it along with other crimes. But it seems they simply don't get what is going on.

Graffiti mapping in Sydney, Australia

In Sydney, like elsewhere, traditional enforcement tactics hold back the tide: anti-graffiti teams, resistant sprays, CPTED lighting, and so forth (probably why graffiti has somewhat declined in Sydney).

The truth is, like most large cities, in Sydney resistant pockets flourish - some interesting and inventive, most just blight. Example: Around Sydney's central train station where CCTV watched everywhere, I counted 31 public murals, every one graffitied.

Most public murals are not graffitied. Then again, these were not "community-based" murals painted by local artists. They looked corporate, perhaps designed by city or train station officials.

Banksy's documentary film, Exit Through The Gift Shop premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year. It is well done, glorifies the good, bad and ugly, but more importantly it provides insight; insight we need to better understand the future of the public realm.

It also suggests to some degree, like it or not, the once-maligned is now going mainstream.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Roseto Effect

Gladwell's contribution to the community discussion

Recently my urban planning colleague Megan Carr sent a story of a remarkable town a hundred miles west of New York. The close-knit, Italian-American inhabitants named the town after their ancestral home in Italy. It is a small town with a strong sense of community. It also has a special kind of story; for a very long time it had a virtual absence of heart disease. As it adopted modern habits, it fell from grace somewhat. But even today, it remains remarkable.

The town is called Roseto. It is well known in medical circles as the Roseto Effect.

The public most recently came to know Roseto because of a story in Malcolm Gladwell's fascinating book "Outliers: the story of success".

In a November speech Gladwell describes Roseto in which one researcher:

"realized he’d stumbled on a place where the sense of community was so strong, and so powerful, and so supportive, that it enabled people who lived there to effectively deal with the stress of modern life and live a kind of magical life. They had created community bonds that were so extraordinary that they were able to overcome the pattern of illness and mortality in American life."

It is a great story. It is all about the very things most important to community developers, prevention specialists, police, and anyone else interested in safe places.

Gladwell is clearly an ally of what we are trying to achieve. Read Gladwell's speech HERE.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Catch and release - Swimming upstream in Vancouver

Vilfredo Pareto's 80/20 Principle

What does a 19th century Italian economist have to do with neighborhood safety? Consider Vilfredo Pareto's principle that the majority of a phenomena can be explained by a minority of causes. Sometimes called the 80/20 Rule, criminology has long demonstrated a small number of chronic offenders cause a significant portion of crime.

Reflecting on my Comstat and police leadership blogs recently, I came across a fascinating news documentary Pareto would have loved. It's called Lock Em Up.

It's about competent policing and quality leadership in an unlikely place - Vancouver, BC. I say unlikely because, with all my harping on the skid row tragedy in that lovely city, one might assume I blame the cops or their chief. Not so. In Vancouver at least, I don't think that's the case. Jim Chu, Vancouver's Chief and their Chronic Offender Unit - COU - have put research to good tactical use. Similar to the Winnipeg auto theft solutions project I mentioned two years ago, this seems like a winning ticket (though, as you'll see below, in Vancouver there is a number missing from their lottery ticket).


Property crime is rarely seen as a serious matter, yet it comprises 75 percent of all crime. In 2009 Vancouver had over 21,000 thefts and 5,000 break and enters. As Pareto might warn us, chronic offenders with multiple offenses cause a significant number of those crimes.

What is a chronic offender? Vancouver defines a Chronic as someone with over 39 convictions (that's a lot of convictions). There are also Superchronics, a group with over 79 convictions each. That's convictions, not crimes. They committed far more than that. One offender interviewed in the film below says he has broken into well over 1,000 homes.

How many chronic offenders are there and how many property crimes to they cause in Vancouver?

The COU and the Vancouver Police planning section report that over 5 years, 379 chronic offenders were charged with over 12,000 offenses, roughly 10% of all yearly property crimes. It is of course much higher since chronic offenders were not charged for all of their crime, only a small number. The reality is probably more like 25% - an educated guess I'm sure both Pareto and COU detectives would confirm.

Vancouver Police report, 2008

In other words, out of a half million people only 379 cause between 10% to 25% of all property crime in Vancouver! Their research report is available for review by clicking here.

If there was ever a case where chronic offenders should be removed to protect us, this is it. Remove them for drug treatment, incarceration, or both. But, get them off the street.

What do police do in Vancouver? Since a small number of chronic offenders create a significant portion of crime, police strategies target habitual offenders to break that cycle. Vancouver Chief Jim Chu is behind the approach.

Criminological research, where it is done well, is fairly clear. It shows that arresting Chronics and getting them off the street works, at least until the courts release them again. That's the missing link in this chain - the Vancouver court system, one of the most lenient in Canada. Stunningly, their study showed length of incarceration actually got shorter as the Chronics committed more crime. Worse still, over half of the Superchronics received less than a month in jail - and 25% of the Superchronics received less than a day in jail.


In short, cops caught them so judges could release them. Talk about frustrating! The report says:

as these offenders tend to specialize in low‐level property offences, their sentences tend to be relatively short. These short sentences do not serve to incapacitate them and protect the public for any significant period of time, nor, in most cases, are they long enough to allow for admission into appropriate addiction treatment programs.

Makes one wonder, who are the real culprits? Unaware, ill-considered and lenient judges? That's what the CTV documentary suggests. What about criminologists failing to inform decision-makers? Where is the Canadian research? Of 30 habitual offender studies cited in the report, only 4 were from Canada (two of those were graduate student theses).

As I said in a previous blog, when social tragedies happen like the public housing fiasco in St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe and gang infested Jane-Finch corridor in Toronto, someone is asleep at the wheel.

In Vancouver, it's definitely not the cops.