Monday, May 28, 2012

Shooting sprees and neighborhood grants

Seattle sunset (photo: manleyaudit, Creative Commons)

"Too often, when there’s crime, people think ‘more police.’ That isn’t the solution.” (Jim Diers, "Neighborhood Power")

It's interesting to see a story about your new home city in the eyes of someone from your old home city. 

I just received a link from Seattle Police Sgt. Cindy Granard. (Cindy is an exceptional community cop and CPTED expert. Though no longer tasked with CPTED, she has won national awards for cutting crime with local residents and organizations like LISC). The link was to a Toronto Star column about Seattle's Neighborhood Matching Grants program. 

The columnist wrote enviously on Seattle's program that helps residents take ownership of their neighborhoods to enhance livability. Since 1988 it has distributed $49 million in grants to 4,000 neighborhood projects like building community gardens, painting murals, etc.

Toronto, says the columnist, could learn from Seattle. (I think most cities can learn from Seattle's example in this regards.)

Nevertheless, columnists can get it wrong (or, in this case, half right). City comparisons lead to non sequiturs and monkey wrenches. The grass isn't really all that much greener. 

Toronto sunset (photo: paul[dex], Creative Commons)
Monkey wrench #1 - Toronto has long been renown for over 200 distinct and lively neighborhoods, 25 in the city center alone. One reason those neighborhoods work is because Toronto has a safe, well-used street-car and subway system. Seattle, by comparison, doesn't. (Both have trolley's and light rail, though in Seattle the latter is limited to a recent line to the airport.) 

Wrench #2 - crime. Though less than half Toronto's size, Seattle's 2011 murder rate was double Toronto's (3.3 vs 1.7 per 100,000). Worse still; a rash of shootings in which, last night, Seattle suffered its 16th homicide this year (there were 21 in all 2011). Toronto's homicide rate is still falling.

In truth (shooting spree's notwithstanding) Seattle and Toronto are both relatively safe cities. In fact, Toronto had its own "summer of the gun" a few years ago. 

Jim Diers is right! There is no mystery to untangle. Because both cities focus on neighborhoods, they are both exceptional and vibrant. No doubt their exceptional neighborhoods play a big role.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

And now, for something completely different...

RoboCop portray's a failed policing system in a dystopian future - photo Sony Corp.

While governments in the UK are taking the remarkable step of hiring security to privatize police, something equally remarkable, and almost unnoticed, is unfolding in Detroit. 

Resident groups, fed-up with declining resources, a cash-strapped police department and crime and disorder, have decided to take advantage of a recently updated Michigan law - the Home Rule City Act - and hire their own private security to police their neighborhoods. Council has yet to approve the proposal. 

The Act allows neighborhoods to levy a service fee on residents for private security. In America, neighborhood's hiring their own security is not new. Allowing neighborhoods to tax themselves to fund it…that is!  

Drastic times call for drastic measures! Really? Without clearly thought out public policy? Without proper hiring benchmarks? Without quality control for training and selection? Who will do that? The Detroit police? How can Detroit police monitor, control, or audit quality of neighborhood security when they are too cash-strapped to deliver services themselves? 

Pythonic thinking to solve the privatization crisis

In a stunning leap of Monty Python logic, I'm told the British Home Office thinks it can do all that quality control, monitoring and auditing of UK police privatization themselves. After all, as this Pythonic thinking goes, they did it for public police…that is to say the same "inefficient" public police the government is now privatizing. 

In other words, more bureaucracy to control outsourcing due to funding shortfalls for inefficient policing from government funding. Blimey! That circular logic makes one's head spin. It's the Ministry of Silly Walks through and through.

And how's that working for them? I just read news that a former division of Hallibuton Inc was a leading bidder to privatize UK police services. That's Halliburton - the same military-industrial giant of Iraq infamy. The same Halliburton implicated in the Gulf Oil spill a few years ago. 

There is nothing wrong with private security (in fact the opposite) as long as it is administered properly and monitored for quality by qualified experts. But does Detroit really want in on this game without well-thought policy mechanisms? 

Is it just me, or does the dystopian RoboCop future seem just a bit closer today?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Rochester - Art matters

Flat-Iron building on Rochester's University Avenue
Rochester, NY, is one of those places you think vanished from economic prominence when manufacturing moved to low income southern states, or to zero income automated robots. Truth is in the late 19th and early 20th Century, Rochester was one of America's first boomtowns.                                                                                                                                                                              
Today it still sports some excellent university and medical centers but sadly, like many northern cities around the rust belt, it has struggled with a high crime rate and declining economy.

Rochester's metro population is over a million and it is the second largest urban economy in New York State. Like other places, some neighborhoods are troubled with disorder and drugs. 
Comic relief on a public bench in Neighborhood of the Arts
Look a bit closer, though, and Rochester surprises. Some neighborhoods are emerging as cultural landmarks and quality of life stars. One of those is the Neighborhood of the Arts along University Avenue. Our Rochester SafeGrowth class recently walked a night-time audit here. 

Streetscaping and outdoor art is the dominant feature. Sure, along with demographics and prosperity, it is only one ingredient in the crime mix. Still...murals, sculptures, flower planters, and other art plays a significant role. For example, though street lighting wasn't particularly good, it didn't matter. There was a palpable comfort walking here at night. Lone women jogged by us quite relaxed as nearby bar patrons celebrated something or other. 

This is a cool area and a great asset. For humanizing the public realm Rochester proves, art matters.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The red light player

Every detail in the city should show respect for human dignity and reflect that everything human is sacred - Enrique Penalosa

Streets are not all there is to the crime story. But they are a barometer for deeper threads in the urban fabric. The poorly designed or ill-managed street is the hostile, uninviting territory of no-man's land. Over and over that's where crime opportunities show up. 

How do we make engaging our experience in such menial landscapes? Like waiting at a pedestrian  crossing. 

Charles Landry believes the creative city takes many forms. I've shown examples such as street pianos and intersection painting.

Here is another.