Monday, December 31, 2012

Target hardening, ballistic glass and the God Particle

Today ends an AaaHaa year for scientific discovery. The pinnacle was the Higgs-Boson subatomic particle discovery - the so-called God Particle - at the LHC particle accelerator in Switzerland.

What does it mean? I have no idea. But my science friends tell me the discovery is a very big deal; it confirms the standard model of physics. That will keep future theory on track so our descendants end up with better supercomputers, new kinds of energy, interstellar space flight…whatever. In any event, it does sound cool.

Why does this matter in CPTED - crime prevention through environmental design? It matters because it shows how testing and staying true to a theory keeps practice pointed in the right direction.


The past few weeks I've been studying ballistic glazing and glass-clad polycarbonates for high-rise towers - to the non-engineers that's window target hardening for bombs and guns, the comfort food of security. Target hardening is important for my client. It keeps vulnerable assets safe and that's a good thing.

After Oklahoma City, glass curtain walls are often target hardened
Despite that we should never confuse target hardening with CPTED. To do so distorts the intention of the theory and we don't have social particle accelerators to get us back on track.

The early CPTED literature has no reference to target hardening. Read Elisabeth Wood, Schlomo Angel, Jane Jacobs, Oscar Newman, and C. Ray Jeffery. It's not there. True, there were some government funders back then who insisted target hardening be included in grant proposals for some early evaluations. That's probably where the theory distortion began.

Today that myth persists. I hear it described as a CPTED strategy for controlling access through mechanical means. I see it in calls for ballistic glass and guns to protect our schools or chain-link fences to protect front lawns. I see it in all kinds of bunker-building designs ascribed to CPTED.

Target hardening is fine for security work and cutting crime opportunities. Also, there are some great websites with excellent advice. However it comes at a social and financial cost. CPTED guru Tom MacKay calls it the target hardening trap.

An early model of CPTED incorporating target hardening. The "myth" begins! 
If CPTED theory has morphed to include target hardening then obviously there has been too much wallowing in shallow thought pools. We need to get past these bunker-building distortions.


Howbeit we make the following New Year's Resolution: We reaffirm the original community-building intention of CPTED theory by those who created it. We go to the source:

C. Ray Jeffery: "Loneliness and alienation need not characterize our urban life. Cities can also be designed so as to increase human contact of an intimate nature." (CPTED, 1971)

Oscar Newman: "This book is an effort to formulate a new concept for geographic communities which reflect…the bringing together of separate communities to refashion urban environments [and] stabilize threatened neighborhoods." (Communities of Interest, 1980)

Elisabeth Wood: "In the long run there is no substitute for the contributions that the tenants make to the welfare and economical management of a project…design can facilitate the social fabric out of which a tenant organization grows and by means of it can be effective." (Housing Design, 1961)

Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Beating the Apocalypse - A collective mind?

12:01 am, December 22, 2012.

Made it. Whew!

Yesterday we were told horrible things would happen to the world because the Mayan calendar corresponded with a 26,000 year alignment of the center of our galaxy. We were told it corresponds to a 26,000 year alignment with the central star of the Pleiades constellation. All of this, NASA says, is an astronomical impossibility and, in any event, utterly irrelevant. Sure enough, here we are.

Aside from the apocalyptic hucksters making a buck from the gullible, why do people believe in end-of-world myths?

Is there really is a subtle, yet real, shared consciousness - or perhaps collective experience - that connects us? The doom-and-gloom crowd tap into it whenever a Mayan type event shows up.

After years working in neighborhoods, especially with groups who share a vision for a safer future, I believe such a thing exists. I don't know if it is psychological, spiritual, or political. But it can work in our favor as much as it can convince people of the Apocalypse.

The video above is an example. May we use it for positive things in 2013. Happy holidays.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Connecticut horror, personal shame

Gilligan's brilliant book offers the best understanding of violence to date 

Yesterday 20 young children under 10 years old and 7 adults were murdered in a Newtown, Connecticut grade school.

Nationwide the statistics are cold and bleak: Since the Littleton CO school slaughter there have been 13 mass murder tragedies claiming over 150 victims; all but 3 killers committed suicide; most were mentally ill or motivated by political/religious fanaticism. In every case victims were killed by effortlessly obtained handguns and assault rifles.

Even more deplorable some states have multiple cases of mass murder. In 2010 there was another Connecticut mass murder. And today none of this matters to parents of 20 murdered children or the family members of 7 others.


As I reflect on yesterday's horror I am ashamed to say I'm thinking of myself. A decade ago I ran a crime prevention research center at the University of New Haven. Our team developed an innovative violence prevention program called School-Safe. This was a few years before SafeGrowth but it deployed many of the same tactics. It was designed for schools. Some of our ideas were similar to those promoted in James Gilligen's Preventing Violence.

We were quite proud of ourselves and excited for the potential of our program. Such hubris! We sent notices to school principals. We ran a workshop to promote it. World-renown forensic scientist Dr. Henry Lee generously provided our introductory keynote address and encouraged school leaders to try it out.

Of the few school leaders who showed up, none showed interest in trying it. It's now long gone.

Today I know I should be thinking of young victims in Connecticut, not of myself. But that shame doesn't tamp down the fire of some burning questions: Should I have done more to convince school leaders? What could I have done different to explain the program? Might School-Safe have saved young lives in Newtown, Connecticut? I'll never know.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The end of the world as we know it

The magazine Popular Mechanics calls end of the world predictions "a fools errand"

With apologies, I lifted that title from the rock group REM and their great song "It's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)".

Tonight I walked a trail in San Mateo, California and saw an intensely lit warehouse wall covered in graffiti. Over the years I've been told lighting stops crime. I've been told if you cut robbery here, it just moves there. I've been told more cops means less crime.

These are myths disproven by scientific evidence. They lack diagnosis and proof. Proof doesn't matter to myth-makers and myth-believers. It's not truth they seek, but fantasy.

Myths have power because, like all matters of blind faith, they rely on looking the other way when evidence intervenes. They rely on blindness.

My favorite? End-of-the-world myths. I have no doubt the world will end, probably in a billion or so years when the sun runs out. But the Mayan calendar, so we're told, prophesizes our doom this year on December 21. We have until December 21 to tie up loose ends and say goodbye. How will this happen? By a comet (that doesn't exist), by a rogue planet (that hasn't been found)...whatever.

In response to the witchy-woo-woo crackpots the real Mayan descendants are outraged by the hype. "We are speaking out against deceit, lies and twisting of the truth, and turning us into folklore-for-profit" says one.

NASA has systematically debunked Mayan apocalypse myths. "For any claims of disaster or dramatic changes in 2012, where is the science? There is none."

The best debunker is the Australian Prime Minister who spoofed apocalypse stories with her news announcement to say goodbye. I love a politician with a sense of humor.

See you on the 22nd.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Culture jamming from Montreal to Mexico City

Montreal or Mexico City? Who can tell?
From the streets of Mexico City to the streets of Montreal. A modern megalopolis sprawling on the plain of an ancient volcano that, a millennia ago, held a population larger than Imperial Rome. A beautiful island city larger than Manhattan and nestled in the St. Lawrence River, re-settled by Samuel de Champlain in 1611 from the original native inhabitants.

There's nothing quite so jarring as culture-jamming from one country to another, the biggest shock being the weather; cool, mild evenings in one, winter's first snow in the other.

One day I watched 1,000 demonstrators protesting working conditions in Mexico City. A few days later I watched 20,000 students protesting tuition hikes in Montreal. They are a world apart in sensibility and logic.

Then there's crime. Both cities have pernicious corruption epidemics, though lately Montreal's mob penetration of the construction industry probably tops Mexico City. Murder rates are similar, slightly higher in Mexico City with over 2 per 100,000 compared to just under 2 in Montreal. Taxis are riskier and poverty much more prevalent in Mexico City. Drivers, in both, are crazy.

In spite of the differences these cities prove that vast differences in demographics and urban form cannot determine, or prevent, success. Both have lively, exciting and safe downtowns, streets teeming with young and attractive fashionistas, cell phones growing from their ears as they bleat Spanish or French versions of "what...ever".

City culture, it seems, can pacify and amuse even the most skeptical observer - me being the perfect example.

Water, not ice. Dead give-away for Mexico City's traffic circles

Friday, November 23, 2012

Give a little bit of my life for you...

Friendy gangs, stealing kisses and music addicts. Now that's my kind of crime.

Thanks to Coca Cola, the band Supertramp and my ever-astute friend Paul Cleveland (who sent this video), here is another way to view security cameras.

It's proof of something cops and prevention folks forget; For every ugly act caught live by CCTV, there are many more beautiful acts that rarely make the news.

They should.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Engaging Monterrey - stone by stone

Painted stones marking trail in Monterrey, Mexico 

What is impressive about a gravel trail with painted stones?

I've been reading reports from SafeGrowth teams in Connecticut. One struggle I hear is how to engage community members.

Last week, I was in Monterrey, Mexico, site of the 2011 narcoterrorist attack on a downtown casino where over 50 people were murdered. Engagement should be more difficult here than anywhere. I was taken to a poor community on the outskirts of the city near the construction site of a master-planned community.

It was unlikely residents in this poor community could afford to live in the new development. My guides, a dynamic Monterrey CPTED team, showed me the poor community and a rocky ravine beneath a highway overpass with an elementary school on the other side. School kids had to walk across this unsafe stretch to go to school. A gravel trail had been built connecting the community with the school.
Sometimes the simplest ideas can trigger community engagement - a gravel trail
Residents, school kids, the developer, and volunteer construction crews had come together to build the trail. The Monterrey CPTED team ran a painting day when school kids painted stones. They then used the stones to mark the trail edges.

The visible part of this project was simple - a gravel trail, painted stones, and construction volunteers. It was the invisible part that caught my attention – engagement!

The kids and their parents enthusiastically showed me their trail and the stones, from one end to the other. This was clearly a source of pride. Discussion focused on expanding the trail and adding play areas.

In other words, residents with few resources had built their own solution to a neighborhood problem in a region of Mexico not far from one of the most violent narco-gang wars in history. By partnering with others they were making their community a better place, stone by stone. Those actions are community-engagement seeds starting to grow.

Not just a gravel trail and painted stones. Much more.

Scenic mountains surround Monterrey's 4 million residents

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The enigma that is Mexico City

Mexico City, 3rd largest in the world - photo mlbreports

It's humbling to walk in a city with the population of Australia and a million more than New York City's metro. In North America it is The Giant!

At over 21 million people Mexico City, where I am this week, is by some counts the world's 3rd largest and the most densely populated. It is impossible to define. For lovers of cities, it is irresistible.

Consider this: Insane traffic chaos, easy winner of the Graffiti-City-of-the-Year award, a profusion of public statues of every artistic bent, evocative architecture and buses with women-only safe seats. There are thousands of street vendors clustering around subway entrances and they create lively, unplanned street markets that are both pickpocketing bonanzas and part of Mexico City's financial boom.

Speaking of crime...

Mexico City's architecture is eclectic, stunning, and world-class
Mexico city is considerably safer than cities like Houston, Washington DC and New Orleans. True, there are thugs mugging folks, especially in poorly regulated taxis and in nasty neighborhoods (Note to self: Crime Prevention 101 - Don't get drunk and wander aimlessly at night in nasty neighborhoods!)

However, as elsewhere, staying safe boils down to simple street smarts.


What about the epidemic narco-violence we hear about? Crime maps show it is clustered elsewhere, like in the north of the country. Maybe Mexico City is a neutral zone? Maybe the pervasive police, security and military help? Or maybe the government is cooking the stat books, just like the NYPD during the Compstat Caper? Difficult to say.

Ironically even the intellectually vapid press lauds Mexico City's success. USA Today and CNN suggest perceptions about crime are worse than the truth.

I don't know the truth. What I do know is this: walking the streets of a few neighborhoods has been safe and fascinating. People are incredibly warm and easy-going.

Youth entertaining CPTED conference delegates

I also know there are impressive ground-up, practical crime solutions underway, like CPTED. Last week I attended a conference of the Latin American chapter of the International CPTED Association at Mexico City's IberoAmerican University.

There were 500 delegates from around the world, over 60 different sessions on dozens of new approaches. I saw some remarkable Mexican (and Latin American) creativity for building safer communities.

Then there was the children representing youth programs throughout the country, many whom participated in the conference. My favorite was young musicians who entertained conference delegates. Pretty inspiring stuff.

As for Mexico, I'll be back.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Blue light, safety at night

Glasgow night scene with blue streetlights - photo Ivana Dankova

GUEST BLOG - A previous blog on LED lighting introduced the concept of blue street lights and emerging research about crime. Ivana Dankova is a designer from Slovakia currently studying for her MSc in Medialogy in Denmark. In 2011 she completed graduate design research in Scotland on Glasgow’s blue light project. Here Ivana offers this blog on her research. A longer version will appear in the upcoming issue of CPTED Perspective, the ICA newsletter.

A new innovation in street lighting has appeared in Glasgow, Scotland. In 1999 blue streetlights were installed in order to improve the overall aesthetics of the area as a part of a city enhancement program. During my design research for a graduate dissertation I investigated whether blue lights have any effect on people and if so, how they affect them.

As with prior research in CPTED, my hypothesis is that the environment in which we live can influence our behavior. It can inspire us to act in certain ways. My Glasgow case study offered the chance to experience the unique atmosphere of a blue-lit street. Some sources mentioned that the crime surprisingly dropped after blue lights were installed. However, since I could not find further statistics on blue lights in Glasgow, I decided to explore it on my own.

Even though crime reduction was not the initial purpose behind the installation, the street appeared to have a much calmer effect than surrounding streets with traditional sodium yellow/orange lighting.

Even at dusk, blue lights add ambience - photo Ivana Dankova
One possible theory explaining this effect is that since short wavelength blue light produces serotonin in the human brain (which is a calming hormone) it is possible this creates a calming impact on pedestrians. My observation is that people react positively to the lighting. The overall atmosphere is unique and feels more peaceful, calm, as if time moved slower.

I also learned following the Glasgow example, similar blue lights were installed in Japanese train stations. The number of suicides at Japanese train stations was high and increasing, but after the blue lights were installed the number dropped noticeably.

This reduction in suicides due to blue lights is spreading to other locations due to its positive results. Blue lights definitely provide a new tactic for designers looking to calm outdoor locations.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Cutting ram raids down under

I just attended the International Problem Oriented Policing conference in Providence, Rhode Island, the showcase for exceptional police work. Over 500 cops from all over the world gathered to share innovations for cutting crime.

This year's winner of the Herman Goldstein problem solving award was the property crime squad from New South Wales, the first-ever win by police in Australia. They tackled an epidemic of ATM "ram raids" in shopping malls. All over Sydney criminals are using vehicles to smash through mall doorways at night. They'd then ram ATM machines and drag them off to a safe location for looting.

This unique brand of theft and burglary is now world-wide. In Sydney it resulted in millions of dollars in theft and damage.

Their analysis showed access control bollards outside the mall doors were ineffective, yet no ram raids occurred where bollards were inside the mall at ATMs. That led to installing internal bollards across the city. They added enhanced reporting, crime prevention education, and other CPTED target hardening to improve their response. Within two years this cut the yearly number of incidents from 68 to zero.

ATM ram raid. Photo The Daily Telegraph
A year later when offenders by-passed bollards and used sophisticated gas explosions to break into ATMs, police employed their analytical approach. In this case the private sector installed gas detection and disabling equipment. Again they cut the attacks to zero from a peak of 54. Except they did it in half the time.

We may not always be able to predict new crime methods. But when they arise, old solutions won't work. Analysis does. That’s why we insist CPTED practitioners spend more time in problem diagnosis and not waste time in guesswork.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The un-planning of crime coolspots

Graffiti and murals at home together - Toronto's Annex

Sometimes a successful neighborhood just grows organically with gentle nudging from planners. It isn't really planned. In fact, Jane Jacobs tells us, the best neighborhoods rarely are.

At this week's International problem-oriented policing conference I mentioned to my audience they should begin understanding prevention not by analyzing high-crime hotspots, but rather by looking at low-crime coolspots. Those are the places where we learn what to do right.

Toronto's Annex neighborhood, where I strolled today, is the proof. Well-known in the city, it is a busy, sometimes gritty, and successful neighborhood. It is neither trendoid and expensive like The Beaches in the south, nor coiffured and rarified like wealthy Forest Hill to the north.

Bikes dominate, cafe patrons keep an eye

There are street people and graffiti. But the graffiti is artistic and interesting and the street people seem less desperate than elsewhere. It's certainly not a crime hotspot.

Shops, restaurants and bookstores line the street for students and tourists. Grocery stores, postal stations and dentist offices mix in for locals. There are street watchers from sidewalk cafes, proliferate bike racks, and lovers glancing down from rooftop perches between smooches. There's just enough disorder to make things interesting and just enough eyes on the street to make it safe.

This is where Jane Jacobs lived most her life. I can see why.

Lovers gazing on the sidewalk between smooches

Friday, October 19, 2012

Cutting crime with harmonicas

Andy Mackie played harmonica at a local restaurant/theatre during open-mike Monday nights, just down the street. A painting of him hangs on the wall at the back of the bar.

Andy believed music was a gift so he gave free lessons and harmonicas to school-kids. He paid for those harmonicas with money for his medication. He paid with his life and he wouldn't have it any other way.

Community capacity-building is one of those phrases that spreads over everything like goo. Different practitioners use the term to mean different things. Thus, it means everything and nothing. What is "community capacity?"

The best way to get at capacity is through asset mapping. Asset mapping is based on the work of John McKnight and John Kretzman. Asset maps substitute the idea of deficiencies and needs for community assets - turning a negative into a positive. Assets include physical features and groups.

They also include those things that might seem invisible like the talents, skills and experience of the elderly. Andy Mackie was a talent and an asset. He was definitely not invisible.

If you want to know what positive community-building looks like, watch the video.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Light up the night

Cities like Glasgow use blue LED streetlights for aesthetics
photo Gregor Sands

You probably don't even know. But nowadays it is impossible to ignore his invention. In 1963 Holonyak invented the Light Emitting Diode (LED). A few years ago Randy Atlas blogged here on LEDs in CPTED. 

Today LEDs are flooding our street scenes. Those eerie, brilliant and glaring LEDs are showing up everywhere from Manilla to Sydney to Las Vegas.

Oakland California, for example, is replacing 241 sodium street lights for LEDs in high crime locations (chosen by police). Cutting crime with LEDs? Do LEDs cut crime any better than other types of street lights. Or at all? What do we actually know? 

We know LED color rendition is excellent and it tends to spread light more evenly. LEDs can create glare in rainy or snowy conditions. Because LEDs give off very little heat, I am told they tend to ice over in ice storms, something heat-generating sodium lights seldom do. 

I can also personally report you'll burn your retinas if you look directly at them (not one of my Einstein moments).

LED glare on the left compared to sodium lighting- photo Chris Dushek
The brighter-is-better crowd loves LEDs. Power authorities are thrilled due to 60% energy savings. LED companies are drooling at booming sales.

Yet, there is a conundrum. On one hand we promote an evidence-based, scientific approach to crime prevention. On the other we adopt LEDs without specific evidence about the effect of LEDs on crime or perceptions of safety. 

The best existing research does show positive effects in some situations for lighting in general. That refers only to lighting quantity, not quality. There is also research showing the reverse. 

It's okay to adopt energy-saving lights. It's delusional to think they'll automatically cut crime. They might. Or they might make things worse.

Blue street lights cast evening hue over Glasgow - photo Jason Hawkes, Daily Mail

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Future 2

Artist rendition of future cities by Gary Tonge

I've just gorged myself on a raft of books about the future; The World in 2050, The Great Reset, Crawling from the Wreckage, and The Post-American World. All excellent reads. All a bit unnerving.

The utopians have us flying to floating gardens in Jetson flying cars. The dystopians claim Big Brother will steal our memories. The catastrophe-crowd, soaked with doom, imagine a Mayan apocalypse.

[I must admit, whenever I hear apocalypse stories I'm reminded of Pulitzer winner Chris Hedges observation: "We are in the throws of a giddy intoxication with illusion. That's how you end up with demagogues and tyrants who promise magic."]

Here's the thing - the future isn't here yet! There is no Matrix. And until some giddy, Daisy-singing, Hal 9000 computer takes over, there is no sure way to know the future. There are many futures and any one of them is possible.

Lately, though, I admit I've been swayed by the dystopians.

Consider these worrying trends:
  • A recent survey finding that Americans are "three times more likely to say that the quality of life in their communities has gotten worse (35%) rather than better (12%) in the last three years." 
  • A New York Times story: "In Philadelphia roving gangs of black teenagers have taken to beating up ordinary citizens on the streets" leading to curfews and harsher police measures. 
  • A radical increase in homelessness and bans against panhandling.
Last month I said to my students in Connecticut I believe SafeGrowth is one possible and positive future. Today I found another in Connecticut. This one was by some young people in New Haven. They are, after all, where our future really unfolds.

Monday, October 1, 2012

CPTED, Brasilia, and Pruitt-Igoe - A lesson worth learning

Brazil's capital city, Brasilia. An icon to modernist architecture (photo by UNESCO)

There is a great article in the latest issue of The Atlantic, Brasilia - A Vision of Concrete. It reminded me of a story years ago from my planning classes on modernism.

At 3pm, March 16, 1972, CPTED was born in the death of architectural modernism. That's the date of the first explosion to demolish the Pruitt-Igoe public housing projects in St. Louis. Built in the finest traditions of modernist theory, Pruitt-Igoe soon decayed into a crime-ridden ghetto and festered for years with low vacancy. Demolition was the final epitath for a concept ill-suited to social housing.

Those explosions began less than a year after C. Ray Jeffery's book CPTED and the same year of Oscar Newman's book, Defensible Space. It was Newman who described the social damage to livability from Pruitt-Igoe’s bleak modernist buildings, acres of no-man's land and blight. It’s a story of how not-to-do planning.

Except not everyone listened.

Almost decade after Pruitt-Igoe started, another modernist architect planned the city of Brasilia, Brazil. Controversial from the beginning, Brasilia stands today an icon to modernist architecture and rational planning.

While the Atlantic article caresses the architecture of Brasilia, it brutalizes it's planning. "The city is quite correctly regarded as a colossally wrong turn in urban planning." And now, in time for Brazil's World Cup in 2014 and the Rio Olympics in 2016, it's due for a make-over.

It's hard to say whether crime in Brasilia arises from the modernist nightmare that infected Pruitt-Igoe, from Brazil's epidemic gang violence, from 9 million unregistered firearms, or something else. It was probably all the above.

But if we've learned anything from Pruitt-Igoe surely we’ve learned SafeGrowth-style organic neighborhood design and collaborative planning is integral to safer streets!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Cutting crime in Connecticut - SafeGrowth's latest launch

3-D mural, an optical illusion in New Haven alleyway. Look carefully - no photoshop

The folks at the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) just launched our latest SafeGrowth training, this one in Connecticut. New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman gave the introductory remarks and reminded us how today's world is primarily an urban place. Cities are the thing and we better get them right.

It could have been Jane Jacobs talking!

Before the training I spent time revisiting old haunts in New Haven, including a peek at my old neighborhood in Westville (still vibrant, still thriving).

Then the training. This week four teams of class participants have begun fanning out in three different Connecticut cities to start the hard work of creating safer spaces where there is none. In 6 weeks they will put together their preliminary plans which we assess in November. Exciting times.

New Website

While there I learned my talented friends at LISC's Community Safety Initiative have created an exceptional tool for practitioners - a new SafeGrowth/CPTED website.

After leading SafeGrowth initiatives and training in a dozen cities over the past five years, LISC-CSI has again outdone themselves. Have a look.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Children in the city - winning the public realm

Greentopia film on Rochester's El Camino trail

"...the true community is the children..."

More good news from Rochester.

A few months ago I reported on the cool BoulevArt project in Rochester following our SafeGrowth training this spring. I also described the streetscaping and outdoor art along University Avenue.

Community organizer Rachel Pickering just now sent this latest video updating progress on the El Camino trail project, one of the SafeGrowth projects during the training. The news is serendipitous given my recent work on urban bike trails.

El Camino used intensive programming to win the public realm. My favorite take-away: Discovering the critical role children play in success!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The devil is in the details - Bike trails and crime

Rails to Trails Conservatory "Is It Safe" video on bike trail safety

This past week I worked on a bike trail and crime project. Reflecting on my last blog, some old questions resurfaced: What is it about bike trails that trigger fears? Do bike trails suffer crime? Absolutely! Are they a necessary asset for cities? Absolutely!

How can we build bike and walking trails to promote safety?

I've blogged on trails before; Florida's famous Pinellas Trail, Eugene, Oregon's extensive urban bike trails, and BC's Gabriola Island.

The Rails to Trails Conservancy/National Parks Service commissioned a study on bike trail safety in 1998. Unsurprisingly they offer a typical CPTED buffet: trim vegetation, minimizing hiding spaces, lighting, emergency phones, patrols, access for emergency vehicles, and maintenance.

CPTED prescriptions like that are fine. But prescriptions without the diagnosis are like a buffet without vegetables - tasty but not terribly healthy. And none of it guarantees anything.

Crime can and still does happen on bike trails.

Seattle KOMO News 4 newsclip of bike trail through "the Jungle"

What do we actually know? 

In 1987 one of the first-ever studies on bike trail crime reported a remarkably low crime rate near and on bike trails in Eugene, Oregon. It also shocked detractors by reporting increased property values for adjacent trail properties.

A decade later the same results were reported in a study in Omaha, Nebraska and again in 2000 another Rails to Trails study confirmed those results. What all these studies show is less than 5% of all residents living adjacent to trails reported crime or burglary. In the Rails to Trails study only 3% of 373 trails surveyed reported major crimes.

But, as they say, the devil is in the details. There are ways to design bike trails that simply displace troubles from one place to another. The Seattle news video above suggests exactly this problem in a new bike trail running through "the Jungle".

Beelzebub, it seems, has made an appearance.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

In the eye of the beholder

Fear and risk are two very different things. Solving one does not always solve the other.

I live in one of the most livable towns in the country. It has a variety of bookstores, an active and safe teen skate park, accommodation for the elderly, alternative housing options like cohousing, and two local industries.

There are over 40 restaurants for just 8,000 people (obviously a tourist town) and a festival every weekend from spring till winter. It has one of the most successful farmers markets and a vibrant and architecturally interesting downtown.

There hasn't been a murder in the city for decades and last year there were 52 violent crimes (mostly minor assaults) in the county with about 29,000 residents producing a county violence rate of 17 violent incidents per 100,000 residents.

In short, it is safe and vibrant.

Gotham City crime

New York City is also one of the most vibrant cities in the country and by every meaningful measure, it dwarfs my town. It has thousands of restaurants, bookstores, festivals, and every other amenity imaginable serving a city of over 8 million. It has a lower crime rate than most large cities. Yet, in comparison to my town the violent crime rate last year in NYC was 55 violent crimes per 100,000 residents.

In other words, the violent crime rate there was three times higher than here.

Yet a former neighbor, a young woman who lived in New York until recently, describes feeling much safer on New York streets than here. She is more concerned about walking home in the dark here than walking there even though her actual risk is 3 times higher (To be fair I doubt she knew the different rates, only how she felt).


The Truth about Risk

Perception and risk are two entirely different animals. I have spent many years working in high crime places. I learn about the cues of environment, attitude of the locals, and actual crime risks. My first lesson - we may feel safe but not be so.

This week I read a great blog about crime risk by Sam Harris titled The Truth about Violence. He cites four basic safety principles including how to avoid dangerous places and people.

Harris also describes a truism about us: It is unpleasant to study the details of crime and violence—and for this reason many of us never do. I am convinced, however, that some planning and preparation can greatly reduce a person’s risk.

I agree.

Read Harris's blog. It's worthwhile.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Parking lots can't vote

In too many places vehicles run the show when it comes to urban design. 

Reflecting on the allure of a pleasant downtown stroll in the fading days of late summer, a thought occurs; the quality of urban design sets the stage for crime or vitality.

Downtowns can draw people in for pleasant strolls or for traversing a no-man's land where drug dealers, hookers, and gang-bangers ply their trade with impunity in dark nooks and crannies.

In one way or another land uses are the key to urban safety and from what I saw this summer, success or failure depends on one particular type of land use - the surface parking lot.


We obsess on the parking lot as though cars are old enough to want their own room. They are everywhere. By some estimates they comprise up to 30% of downtown land use. It's as though cars have their own vote in the urban household.  And if you talk to developers and shop owners, they do.

Yet to anyone amendable to reason and unwilling to sing the praise of the status quo, most parking lots are shameful. They are under-lit (or over-lit), poorly designed and offer poor access controls (or fortress-like walls). They are perfect spots for crime. CPTED consultant John Roberts has written a passionate story about suburban parking lot crime in Target: Wal-Mart.

Similar risks exist in urban parking lots. The obvious design flaw is wayfinding. Wayfinding is an abysmal mess in most parking lots. Wayfinding is one of the easiest problems to solve. A few years ago Saskatoon planner Elisabeth Miller and myself created a design guidebook including 24 design recommendations for surface parking lots.

Here are a few other examples:

Wayfinding, made easy, across a surface parking lot in San Diega
Parking lots need clearly designed access points - Saskatoon, Canada
Pedestrian walkway in Saskatoon parking lot

Covered walkway in Seattle - photo Marie Bailey

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Theatre of the Absurd - Fast and Furious

I get mystified by large G government attempts to tackle crime, unless they invoke neighborhoods directly in local problem solving.

This week Stratfor published a follow-up report about just such a program - the Alcohol/Tobacco/Firearms program Fast and Furious. It was a get-tough-on-crime sting operation that turned into a gun-walking catastrophe more appropriately named Lost and Spuriousness.

Recall the border patrol agent found shot to death by Fast and Furious guns in 2010 that led to the initial congressional investigation. Fast and Furious was supposed to stem the free flow of guns that fuel the narco-insurgency and gang killings in Mexico. Then over 1,000 guns went "missing" and are suspected to have ended up in the hands of gang members. One example was the Monterrey night-club massacre last year.


The Stratfor report describes some consequences of that investigation:

1. More ATF gun inspectors in southern Arizona to monitor gun sales of 430 firearms dealers in six counties on the Mexican border. Previously there were 3 inspectors monitoring 143 dealers each; now there are 8 monitoring 53 each.

2. New reporting requirements for gun dealers have helped stem the flow of bulk assault rifle purchases. Now the cartels have difficulty replenishing their supplies of M60 machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and M-72 anti-tank rockets.

We are told the cartels have little difficulty obtaining their preferred weapons of choice, the AR15, M16, and the AK47 from thousands of gun dealers in Arizona, Texas and California.

US gang proxies purchase the guns for the narcos, none of whom can be apprehended via the tough-on-illegal-immigration Arizona law (most of which was struck down by the Supreme Court last month).

Is it me, or does this all sound like the Theatre of the Absurd?

Tough on narco-guns with the Theatre of the Absurd 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

CPTED at the London Olympics

Night-time London hosting the 2012 Olympics

The London 2012 Olympics are almost over. Aside from some unsympathetic rain (like Vancouver's 2010 winter Olympics), things seem successful. In spite of a major gaffe with a private security company (the military came to the rescue), the Games are fascinating and safe. Was CPTED  involved?

Back in 2000 myself and Australian social planner Wendy Sarkissian provided CPTED training for the Sydney 2000 Olympics design staff. To our knowledge it was the first (and last) time an Olympics specifically employed CPTED strategies.

No longer.

This year the largest transport system in Europe, Transport for London, is benefiting from CPTED training. The IRA years gave London a head start as authorities created anti-terrorist designs like see-through trash receptacles making it difficult to hide bombs.

Now those lessons are expanded through the work of my old friend Dr. Tim Pascoe (an international director of the ICA) and his colleague Kate Broadhurst. They have presented a specialized training-for-trainers course to transport officials.

Pascoe and Broadhurst with their students from Transport for London
Their training combines CPTED along with skills to identify potential targets that offenders might select. This allows transport officials to more efficiently deploy CPTED at high risk locations.

Transport for London brings hundreds of thousands of Olympic fans safely to the games each day. The full story is in the latest CPTED Perspective newsletter.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Sci-fi policing and the Holy Grail

"When predictive experts fail they are just replaced by a new group who say they can do better." John Ralston Saul

The prediction game is making the rounds again. If we are to believe the New York Times and the Huffington Post, there is this tiny corner of criminology where computer scientists and math types squirrel away like mad scientists decrypting secret code.

The predictive experts are the latest media darlings. No facetiousness intended. If prediction delivers on what it promises and becomes an early warning sign to improve community-based, proactive problem solving you can count me in.

IBM and Memphis Police

The latest iteration, this one from IBM, is on a crusade and they have some new friends in police departments like Memphis.  Memphis points to their new predictive policing program called "Blue CRUSH" to account for a 26% crime drop in the past five years.

Sci-fi policing in real-time! Kewl. The mad scientists are positively tingling. IBM's background report explains it all.

Wait! Not so fast.

From 2002 to 2011 Tampa had a 72% felony crime plunge. Police say Tampa did it with proactive problem solving, analysis from their crime mapping unit, and a compstat performance review to hold area managers accountable. Others point to demographics. Tampa had a 40% increase in 50-64 yr olds with the financial resources to trickle some positive mojo into the local economy. That in turn mitigated, or displaced, younger crime-prone age groups.

Either way, predictive policing had nothing to do with it.

Predictive policing and the promise of sci-fi
Still, I have a soft spot for the sci-fi promise. My blogs show it; Solving the city with math and Predictive policing and the PreCog paradox are the latest examples.

Disclaimer: In 1988 I co-published a predictive spatial analysis on probable locations of professional auto thieves. In the 1990s we expanded that into a tipping point theory predicting how neighborhoods tip into crime. Sci-fi policing groupie? Guilty as charged.

All great fun. All beside the point.

Police resources nowadays, razor thin and bloated on salaries, can scarcely afford expensive math experiments. Tampa did fine without it. Would they do better with it? Maybe. But if demographics are the primary cause of crime declines then we're fooling ourselves with fancy math and ignoring the root social causes that trigger it in the first place.

Anyway I'll continue reading about it. After all, who can resist such appealing titles like Poisson-based regression analysis of aggregate crime?

Not me.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Spreading good ideas - BoulveArt in Rochester

The BoulevArt project happening across Rochester [photo Michael E. Tomb]

A few months ago we completed SafeGrowth training in Rochester. Many of those projects are still underway.

During our training we describe the importance of community art, what planners call place-making, as one step for creating positive neighborhood culture. We highlight Portland's famous Intersection Repair project that I blogged about a few years ago.

One of the exceptional SafeGrowther's in Rochester, Rachel Pickering, just sent me this fascinating link to the BoulveArt project now happening across Rochester.

Photo: Michael E. Tomb
Painting an intersection is so simple, colorful, and remarkably fun, it's a wonder it doesn't happen everywhere. I'm told it is a daunting process to organize it and sell it to the city. That's not the case in Rochester, who actually host this site.

Good ideas, apparently, can spread.

Photo: Michael E. Tomb

Monday, July 23, 2012

A thousand small sanities

 NYPD's hotspot tactics & Compstat are controversial - but effective
[Photo: Ianqui Doodle/Flickr]
Readers of SafeGrowth know certain high crime properties are incubators for gangs and violence. That isn't destiny, it's reality. If SafeGrowth (and approaches like it) prove anything, it proves residents are not doomed to a life of mayhem. Environment can be changed and streets transformed.  

It also proves we can do it with coherent planning, mobilized neighborhoods and intelligent anticrime strategies like hotspot policing.

Case in point: crime declines in New York.

I recently read Frank Zimring in the New York Times:  "The 40% drop in crime that occurred across the U.S. from 1991 to 2000 largely remains an unsolved mystery. Even more puzzling then is the crime rate drop in New York City, which lasted twice long and was twice as large. This 80% drop in crime over nineteen years represents the largest crime decline on record."

Zimring studies New York's crime declines - A book worth reading.
A mystery?

I'm not big on mysteries that aren't. It's like watching a Hollywood flick and expecting some magical, non-formulaic finale. Not going to happen!

That 40% drop nation-wide followed a decades-long demographic metamorphosis that swept North America more than anywhere else since WW2. Since the 1990s crime-prone cohorts aged out of crime in record numbers. Those crime declines continue today.                                                          
Then New York built on that perfect demographic storm as NYPD added crime suppression tactics like proactive street stops and controversial (but clearly effective) quality-of-life enforcement.               
Intensive street stops increased the risk of getting caught with an illegal gun. That led to a 39% drop in gun toting criminals from 1993-1995. Is it really a mystery that kind of informal gun control cut violence?


It's what Greg Bergman calls A Thousand Small Sanities (another excellent read).

During the peak crime declines fewer arrestees went to prison. Why? Bergman describes the vast network of incarceration alternatives evolved in New York - drug courts, mental health courts and community courts providing meaningful community alternatives like drug treatment and restorative justice.

Says Bergman "there needs to be a continuum of non-incarcerative interventions for offenders with the most intensive options reserved for populations that are both high risk and high-need."

Hotspot policing, neighborhood justice courts, and targeted suppression. Anchor that with permanent SafeGrowth planning and neighborhood capacity building and voila -  a finale that makes sense.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Anti-crime and government cash

A hot and muggy Toronto summer night. Crime in the city.
I'm back in Toronto this week pondering recent shootings and how things have changed in this city. Like everywhere, crime is down here too. Is shifting demographics or the economy the cause? Better policing? Crime prevention?

In 2005 Toronto experienced the "summer of the gun" - rampant shootings and gang killings. The government responded with a $200 million social development program, the so-called neighborhoods strategy. From what I can see it was implemented on a wide range of social programs, focused on high crime hotspots. No doubt some great individual stories and anecdotes arose.

Today a Toronto Star news article reports the program is running out of government cash. So local politicians just decided to refund it. Incidentally, without hard evidence.

That's right: After 7 years of operation the Toronto Star says "hard data on the campaign’s impact does not exist...They are working on a plan to track progress this time around."

What? Almost a quarter billion dollars and no hard evidence? It took them 7 years to figure out evidence is not a trivial matter?


Ironically (or more to the point, intentionally) our 2000 - 2011 San Romanoway SafeGrowth project in that same city was intensely researched and tracked.

We saw crime declines, minimal displacement, and neighborhood capacity building. Results were published in scholarly journals and released for scrutiny. Now 12 years later, residents there run and fund programs themselves.

Yet, in the same city a few miles away no one thought to track nearly a quarter billion dollars for a 2005 anti-crime social program?

Next blog: A better way. Frank Zimring's book "New York's Lessons for Crime and it's Control."

Monday, July 9, 2012

SafeGrowth in San Diego

SafeGrowth team member and local resident John Thurston
took this photo of Fairmont Village [Photo John Thurston Photography]

A year ago we completed SafeGrowth training in Fairmont Village, a neighborhood in San Diego. We set up neighborhood leadership teams to tackle neighborhood problems. I'm thrilled to say they're still at it! 

Coordinated by Jessica Robinson from San Diego State University's Consensus Organizing Center and assisted by nationally renown crime analyst Julie Wartell, project team members are still doing the hard work to make their neighborhood a better place to live. 

Project sponsor, Price Charities has a long history of neighborhood philanthropy involving revitalization and safety in the larger area called City Heights, the region encompassing Fairmont Village.

City Heights has overcrowded schools, parks and streets in disrepair, and 37% of residents below the poverty line. In the 3 years prior to 2010, Fairmont Village suffered 63 robberies and 94 burglaries. 

Housing in City Heights [Photo John Thurston Photography]
CPTED theory predicts robbers and burglars are emboldened when streets are empty and neighborhoods in disarray. The SafeGrowth leadership teams tackled those concerns. Their SafeGrowth projects reflected that:
  • fixing a troubled street plaza
  • CPTED in schools 
  • an "adopt a trash can" image and maintenance project, and 
  • improved walkability through pedestrian safety.                                                                       
They were able to enhance city development work that spruced up the business area and revamped a local school. Leadership teams extended that into livability and walkability.

In fact Price Charities has now hired a full-time crime prevention coordinator and Jessica continues to help organize. She has created a great new website to describe the initiative. Check out their City Heights Safety Initiative website.