Friday, April 25, 2014

Occam vs. Einstein - Crime science gets a facelift

Achilles and the heel - photo Creative Commons by Tasoskessaris 

[SPOILER ALERT - This is a rather long theory blog on emerging research. Apologies. But every now and then, like bad tasting medicine, it's necessary to ingest!]

Yesterday I was external examiner for an MA thesis defense on CPTED and the geography of youth gun violence. The candidate did a great job. She passed her defense and is now a new criminology scholar. Reading her literature review I was struck how difficult it is for new scholars to siphon out decent research. Crime and place studies range from sensible to silly.

Not long ago I got to do some siphoning of my own – for better or worse - while reading two crime studies. The better version was titled “The reasoning criminal vs. Homer Simpson: conceptual challenges for crime science”. The worse version was torturous!

A CPTED Framework Public Realm Scoping Paper was released two years ago. While it did an admirable job of covering CPTED history, particularly the Australian story, it read like exotic buffet where each tasty morsel was spread out without rhyme or reason.


Framework tossed out ideas like "thermal comfort" and "empathic interaction" in willy nilly fashion. On one hand it slammed 2nd Generation CPTED theory as “superfluous second generation nomenclature” and then followed that up with this poster-child for superfluous:

“Whole area image, in a Gestalt sense, is very different from the meaning embedded in individual site characteristics… Past psycho-social experiences, role-models, somatic and genetic tendencies and inheritance, introvert-extroversion personality-typing, psychological stressor thresholds, 'get even' desires, thrill seeking, peer pressures, and gang membership, inter alia...encourage individuals considering a delinquent, anti-social or criminal activity to take action (or not)."


Ironically the author then claims social programming has been part of CPTED all along. It hasn't! That’s why we created 2nd Generation CPTED in the first place.

Into this theoretical bucket the author scoops environmental, thermal, planning, and design cases as CPTED examples, all the while supporting bottom-up ideas similar to SafeGrowth ("local control is best practice"). But then we’re offered up cases such as a Viennese coffeehouse that "employs people suffering from mental handicaps…aiming to stabilize the personality of the participants."


Framework is a frustrating read. There is a rich historical review in this paper. The author is clearly knowledgeable (in the 1990s he led pioneering research into fear mapping). Sadly this is not his best work. It is in dire need of a disciplined copy editor.

As luck would have it my next read was about Homer Simpson in an article about the emerging field of crime science!


Last October Frontiers in Human Neuroscience published Naemie Bouhana's article, The reasoning criminal vs. Homer Simpson: Conceptual challenges for crime science.

It was concise, non-pretentious and penetrating. It described a new branch of criminology – crime science – as the study of crime prevention "chiefly concerned with the design of social and technological systems…an engineering discipline, with a self-confessed preference for short-term problem-solving."

I suspect crime science researchers see their role a bit broader. Last year their inaugural journal said crime science is about cutting crime opportunities. “In blocking opportunities for crime and terrorism we are not simply reducing the incidence, we are also removing one of the causes.”

Obviously CPTED is a practical piece that fits neatly into the center of that puzzle. Yet crime science has an Achilles Heel: "It is not possible to leave the offender out of crime prevention altogether. In order to “increase effort” and “reduce rewards”, a model of criminal decision-making is needed. For this purpose, the fathers of situational crime prevention adopted the Rational Choice Perspective (RCP).”

Bouhana claims that RCP "has fallen short as a model of offender decision-making." He explains why with a razor.


Occam's Razor says theories with the fewest assumptions are preferable to those more complex. Aristole said it first: all things being equal, theories that explain the world with fewer hypotheses are better. Science calls it parsimony.

The parsimony razor helps shave away the complex to arrive at the simplest solution. RCP is the perfect theory for crime reduction and opportunity the perfect tool cut it; cut the opportunity and you cut the crime. It is Occam’s Razor incarnate.

Bouhana says there are three arrows through the heel of RCP in crime science:

  1. In strictly scientific terms, parsimony is never irrefutable. Especially in modern science, complexity often works best. RCP’s simplicity may be its weakness, not its strength.
  2. When are all things ever equal in the social world? 
  3. Einstein warned that a theory should never simplify to the point of sacrificing "the adequate representation of a single datum of experience." In other words, reducing prevention to “where” and “when” leaves out too many of the big questions, like “why”. 

In criminal behavior people don’t always act like Mr. Spock - logical and rational. Bouhana says crime science must expand to include new theories in neuroscience and behavioral geography. Those theories suggest people often behave irrationally, more like Homer Simpson, sometimes responding to the environment, sometimes not. Consider the well-known "By-stander Effect"; natural surveillance did nothing to stop the Kitty Genovese murder in New York.

"This state of affairs has had the consequence of stifling theoretical development in crime science, so much so that RCP has remained essentially static since the 1980s." This is exactly what many of us have said about 1st Generation CPTED for years.

In addition to neuroscience and behavioral geography, I’ve mentioned other theories in this blog that crime science might consider like emotional intelligence, the civilizing effect, and the public health concept.

These new theories are not parsimony. Like the criminal behavior they study, they are complex. Occam would not approve, though Einstein might.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The city at night

Night time economy in Hoboken, NY - photo Tarah Hodgkinson

GUEST BLOG: Tarah Hodgkinson is a senior researcher in the Integrated Risk Assessment Instrument Research Group in Vancouver, Canada. She is a member of the International CPTED Association and a certified SafeGrowth instructor. She is completing Ph.D in criminology at Simon Fraser University. 

On a recent trip to New Jersey, I had the opportunity to discuss the CPTED concept called activity generators with a local community group. I was reminded of the distinct differences between day time and night time economies. Activity generators (ways of activating spaces for legitimate or positive uses that put eyes on the street) are easy to support during the day time. Examples include food trucks, scheduling outdoor sports games and encouraging community fairs. However, I struggled to think of examples of night time activity generators until I went walking around in the city at night.

Hoboken night time economy

After dinner with friends in Hoboken, we headed back to the train station. Hoboken has a beautiful main street that was bustling. When I think of activity generators for night time, I often think of bars or pubs that might attract people, but not always with positive results. While Hoboken had a few pubs, it also had outdoor fruit markets and late night coffee shops. Legitimately activating their main street, Hoboken businesses encouraged non-drinkers to use the space as well.

Night time strollers in the High Line park - photo Tarah Hodgkinson
The following night another friend took us to the New York High Line. As mentioned in The future of sidewalks, the highline is a well-lit, pedestrian friendly public space that encourages legitimate day and night activity. Through proper lighting, lots of seating, close proximity to homes and shops and incredible design, the High Line draws both tourists and residents alike.

Winter evenings in Vancouver?

While both were great examples of activity generators at night, as a Canadian, I couldn’t help but wonder what to do when the snow falls.

Upon returning home to Vancouver, I walked by Robson Square. In the centre of downtown, surrounded by commercial buildings, this square is largely deserted after five o’clock at night. However, this space is activated with events throughout the summer and is transformed into an ice rink in the winter. Skating takes place both day and night at Robson square with live music, local vendors and tons of people embracing the night and the cold at the same time!

Evening activities in Vancouver's Robson Square 
The possibility for night time activity generators are abundant. We need only look at spaces where people feel safe exploring their neighbourhoods both day and night.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The future of sidewalks - High Line Park

Creative lighting schemes show up at different parts of the park
Five years ago an abandoned, elevated rail line in Manhattan morphed into the future. Once a gritty freight line that died with the economy in 1980, demolition was the extent of government creativity. 

Then two locals came along, started a grass-roots, non-profit Friends of the High Line campaign and started working with city hall on a new kind of elevated walking greenspace. Thus was born New York's High Line Park.

Yesterday a few of us from the recent SafeGrowth class walked a mile of this park alongside hundreds of strolling families and couples relaxing on lounge chairs. It's a unique oasis where locals and tourists retreat from the noisy cars and paved sidewalks below. By some counts over a million walk it yearly. 

People will comfortably walk 20 blocks up here versus fighting the mayhem that passes for New York traffic. The park meanders past vistas of the river on one side and through newly constructed glass office buildings on the other. At night, when we visited, it was creatively lighted and felt like a sidewalk of the future.

An evening oasis above city streets
Park police patrol it and I saw a few CCTV, but mostly the large number of people using it made the remarkable landscaping their own space. As for crime the New York Times said it best: "The park might be elevated, but the crime rate is not."

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Cul-de-sacs - crime and controversy

Road design and crime?
A recent email from a planner friend asked about reconfiguring a roadway: "I am working on rightsizing a suburban arterial. There have been some assaults and break ins. There is some speculation as to whether converting it from 6 lanes wide setbacks to 4 lanes with buildings up to the street will change this dynamic"

It made me think of other 6 lane, car-dominated cities. It also brought to mind some environmental criminology (EC) research supporting cul-de-sacs. The EC crowd is generally critical of New Urbanist  designs for grid streets and increased neighborhood permeability.

The New Urbanism version goes like this: If we narrow the streets and avoid wide boulevards to slow car traffic we will encourage a more walkable street. If we use grid designs versus cul de sacs we can better provide walkable locations for people, activate neighborhoods, and make them safer.

The EC version goes like this: Grid layouts increase permeability and let more strangers through and that increases the risk of crime. That's why corner houses have more crime! Cul-de-sacs have less crime than grids for the same reason.

Not exactly.

Environmental criminology and burglary

What most EC studies actually show isn't patterns of crime. They show patterns of burglary. In fact the preponderance of EC studies (at least in the early years) were on burglary and theft versus robbery, interpersonal violence, shootings, gangs or drug crime - the crimes people fear most.

Still, EC's burglary-obsession should not detract from the point. Tantalizing answers emerge elsewhere; within the library of Problem Oriented Policing projects.

The POP library lists hundreds of projects on a wide variety of crimes. They describe both physical place-based prevention combined with social prevention. In most cases it was not physical tactics - design-out-crime - that did the trick. It was the  holistic ones that did, tactics that carefully considered context first and design impact second.

Curvilinear suburban road design - where do you walk? 
Interestingly, one EC reviewer says this about context:

"Today, interior spaces within the home are dominant, and are commonly filled with electronic multimedia technologies and entertainment (also providing more opportunities for crime). The interior is now defined as the ‘leisure action space’ for both adults and children. This has led to exterior/public spaces being less used and this withdrawal has led to them being re-labeled and re-defined, often as ‘dangerous’ spaces."

Exterior spaces less used and defined as dangerous? If ever there was ever a context for New Urbanism, there it is!

Good design 

Good urban design should make exterior spaces less vacant, boring and unfriendly. It should create interesting walkable streets, places to go within walking distance, and a lively outdoors with ample social spaces for diverse people to socialize.

Urban guru Enrico Penalosa, and former mayor of Bogota during its widely-acclaimed redevelopment, finishes the thought: "The most dynamic economies of the twentieth century produced the most miserable cities of all. I'm talking about the U.S. of course - Atlanta, Phoenix, Miami, cities totally dominated by private cars."

"The most miserable cities are dominated by cars" - Penalosa