Thursday, March 31, 2011

Magic carpets?

Sometimes things come along that are…well, just plain cool.

I've written before about the design against crime movement in the UK. They have shown us how to use inventive ergonomic design to curb bad behavior, reduce loitering on public benches and cut crime at bike racks.

My friend and colleague, UK professor Lorraine Gamman, recently sent photos of her talented colleagues work at the Design Against Crime Research Centre in London. They have come up with a method to cut ID theft (shoulder surfing) and ATM crime through a privacy mat.

It's simple enough. Stick a 3M mat to demarcate territory around ATM machines. Says one article, the mats can "be laid directly onto pavements or the floors of shopping centers. They take just 20 minutes to lay and no planning permission if they unbranded." People are "controlled" through subtle messaging to keep far enough away to protect your PIN and far enough to make it difficult to snatch and run with your cash.

It won't stop everyone, but I'm told it seems to work. Why?

The first thing you learn in CPTED is something called proxemics - how people use their own sense of personal space to ensure their privacy. That subtle messaging is precisely what privacy mats accomplish, albeit in a subtle and inexpensive fashion.
I've said before territoriality doesn't happen without social capital.

When it comes to small scale design, it seems I'm wrong.

According to one European ATM security survey, over 85% of respondents indicate privacy spaces help reduce crime at ATMs. Loraine tells me more rigorous evaluation research is underway.

Like I said - simple, cheap and effective.


Thursday, March 24, 2011

From desolate to dynamic - northeast Philadelphia

Scene from Desolate to Dynamic

"If it wasn't for the recreation programs, where would the kids be other than hanging out on the corner, selling drugs?" [Daniel Clark, neighborhood recreational organizer, Philadelphia]

Exactly right, Daniel!

Eastern north Philadelphia is a "community service desert" with few recreation centers or playgrounds. With a quarter million residents, it is less a neighborhood and more a mini-city of rich and poor. For much of it, years of divestment have left few services for kids and families. Handball courts are rare and parks, obsolete. One community worker claims there are 40,000 vacant and blighted properties.

The asset map below shows only 5 community asset hotspots (in black). They are surrounded by large swaths (in grey and white) where few community services exist anywhere within walking distance.

Asset map showing lack of services

In such a place it can be easy to lose hope. Unsurprisingly crime flourishes in such places.

Last year, as part of a larger neighborhood redevelopment project underway, I worked with LISC and ran a SafeGrowth training. I met remarkable community development workers in the training. They chose field projects to improve the quality and safety of depleted services in northeast Philadelphia, particularly a local handball court.

The LISC Community Safety Initiative website describes what happened next. Click HERE.

Local playgrounds, shown above, were in need of care and repair. This month they released a video describing how their work is turning the desolate to dynamic.

In the video you'll note that the transformation unfolds during a time of stark budgets. According to program officers the city has "a capital-spending program that is barely large enough to maintain existing facilities, much less build new ones."

Still, they find paths forward. If you want to see them, check out their video from Desolate to Dynamic HERE.

The best part of the video was Kiki, listening to this charming young lady and watching her amazing basketball skills.

I've said it before about youth in the city - it's kids like Kiki who will show us the way forward.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Safe Alex - Eyes on the prize in Alexandria LA

I've always been frustrated by top-down, bureaucratic logjams and academic abstractions in crime prevention practice. SafeGrowth counters that by targeting neighborhood assets, partnering community groups with police, and using prevention science.

I presented SafeGrowth last December at a public summit in the city of Alexandria, Louisiana. Alexandria has now set the stage to do exactly that. They call it Safe Alex.

Alexandria has been aiming to cut it's high crime rate for a few years. Two weeks ago Mayor Jacques Roy launched the Safe Alex program at a public forum I helped facilitate. It was an exciting event with terrific response. A new team of local residents and experts will lead the charge. Still, the way ahead will not be without hurdles,

One hurdle arose in a newspaper editorial. "Safe Alex attempts to seed a new sense of responsibility in a crime-ridden neighborhood," it says, "and then, over time, grow different behavior to achieve new, positive results."


It concludes: "The idea is laudable, but it will not take root under current conditions. When a house is on fire, you call firefighters and pump water until it's out. The police should lead the crime prevention effort, not the community."

Not quite.

Unlike a house fire, high crime neighborhoods rarely combust from simple factors, like bad wiring. They combust from years of social and economic decay, family breakdown, gangs, drugs, and so forth. Police can momentarily tamp the flames with enforcement.

Yet enforcement is only the first step. In an Op-Ed response last week I replied, "The faith in targeted interventions and zero tolerance is a case of myth over the reality. Cookie cutter strategies do not work."

You can find my Op-Ed response HERE. (Sorry, they removed it from the site!)

Police may even sprinkle some water on combustible causes with situational prevention or problem-solving tactics. Of course as Gerry Cleveland said in a guest blog two years ago, aside from enforcement, police are not the only one's who can lead that.

So too can functional neighborhood groups partnered with the police. Especially if taught how, those groups are more familiar with local assets to remove the causes of crime combustibility. And they are more likely to take personal, long-term ownership in the solution.

That is the prize on which we must keep our eyes.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Venus Project

Jacque Fresco and Roxanne Meadows at the Venus Project site - photo Jacque Fresco
When I first saw Jacques Fresco's futuristic designs I thought of the 1960s architecture called Doo-Wop found occasionally in real life (think Saarinen's TWA Flight Center at JFK) but more commonly in The Jetsons.

You just know something interesting and provocative is underway when new age and rap groups alike write songs of the same visionary. Primitive Soul wrote Come Tomorrow - The Ballad of Jacques Fresco, a new age musical history for this little known social reformer.

Conversely, Lost Children of Babylon's The Venus Project use Fresco's project name to title their signature rap album.

Then there are films, documentaries, books and tours - virtually all by countries outside the U.S. Except for one documentary newscast we know little about this domestic urban visionary. How is this possible when he has been designing new kinds of cities, transport systems, underwater habitats, and futuristic buildings for decades?


Fresco's signature work, The Venus Project, comprises 10 buildings on his central Florida property where he gives tours and shows his design models. Fresco portrays a similar environmental sustainability imperative found in Paulo Solari's Arcosanti.

Fresco adds a stinging critique of our monetary system and suggests we get rid of it. Considering the suffering caused from this Global Recession, it's a tantalizing thought.

Labelled neo-communist and attacked as anti-liberty (he's neither) it's as though critics can't figure how to prop up their own views in the radical face of his.

Fresco suggests we more rigorously apply the scientific method to social concerns. Sounds reasonable. The website says the most "valuable, untapped resource today is human ingenuity." No argument here.

When he calls for abandoning money and eliminating the professions it sounds like fun (though I suspect a tad challenging in real life).

No matter.

Sometimes what matters most with visionaries is the canvas they paint and the view it offers of the future.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Political revolt - Middle east splendor

World's tallest building. Icon to the future.

This week we watch political revolt sweeping the Middle East and we scarcely think of urban spectacle and splendor. It's a twist of history that some of the grandest construction projects ever built (the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge) were constructed during the worst years of the Great Depression.

It's a twist long forgotten in the west but now being reborn in the Middle East.

At 2,717 feet, and taller than any human-made structure, the Burj Kalifa is the world's biggest skyscraper. Completed in January, 2010 it dwarfs former titans in China (Canton Tower at 1,968 feet) and Toronto (CN Tower at 1,815).

Designed by Americans and built by South Koreans, it is a monument to power and urban spectacle.

Tallest structures in the world

The Burj Khalifa is in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Not far away the region continues to explode this week with social upheaval. The global financial crisis has also been unkind to Dubai. Foreclosures and vacancies knocked the financial stuffing out of the Burj last year. Dubai, for that matter, nearly went broke but for a bailout by neighbor city Abu Dhabi.

Yet the Burj truly is magnificent architecture. Economic crash aside, the government clearly wants to rise as high above oil dependency as the Burj rises from the ground below. It wants to create a luxurious tourist Mecca in the desert.

In a blog last year I wished everyone could visit the world's largest, and most beautiful, musical water fountain at the base of the Burj. Now my wish is for the whole region to rise high above the violence they now suffer to find the peace and safety we all deserve.

The Dubai Fountain and the World's tallest building