Saturday, June 28, 2014

The curse of abandoned lots

What to do with abandoned lots? Photo - Belmont community SafeGrowth Team 

SafeGrowth teams in Philadelphia and Newark this week produced some remarkable gems for transforming troubled areas. They tackled neglected parks, drug infested commercial corridors, and blighted playgrounds.

One of my favorites was a team from the Belmont community in Philadelphia who zeroed on an abandoned lot. Abandoned lots are not just an eyesore. This one triggered disorder, health and squatting problems for the entire for the neighborhood.

The Belmont team came up with some fascinating ideas for rehabilitation and in a tabletop exercise solicited us for some new ideas.

It was a bright side to this creeping plague. One estimate puts the number of abandoned lots at astronomical levels. It says in 2010 there were 12,000 in Detroit, 40,000 in Philadelphia and 90,000 in Baltimore alone...that's not a typo - 90,000!


The POP Center Guidebook on the topic lists solutions but few actually deal with the root of the problem. Most are superficial situational prevention tactics - changing the environment, installing CCTV, enforcing building codes, and cleanup campaigns. A few are a bit more substantive such as financing to rehabilitate or reuse the property.

More specific help appears in horticulture magazines, especially one interesting decade-long study comparing blighted lots with greened vacant lots. Greening was linked to significant reductions in gun assaults across most of Philadelphia and significant reductions in vandalism in one section of the city.

Another interesting approach appears in an architectural article about a Philadelphia program turning blighted lots into produce generating mini-farms.

Still another idea is a Rhode Island program turning abandoned lots into community gardens. The Philadelphia SafeGrowth presentation on abandoned lots, like all the SafeGrowth presentations this week, was inspiring. It showed how we can turn these places around.

Rhode Island urban community garden. Turning abandoned lots into fun. Photo Maravillosospaisajes

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Spiking anti-social behavior?

Activists dressed as city workers use rapid cement to cover spikes - photo by Vice 
Homelessness in England is up and news reports now call it Anti-Social Behavior. In the UK, Design Out Crime has had success reducing ASB, but not always. Some solutions, unfortunately, have been a disaster. Case in point: Anti-sleeping spikes to deter homeless transients.

Bench dividers and seating spikes have long been used by target hardeners as a loitering deterrent. Now some properties in London use spikes to deter the homeless from sleeping on windows and doorway entrances near their stores. Even the Mayor of London hates the idea. Public outrage agrees.

Anti-spiking activists

Anti-spiking groups have now taken action and poured cement over spikes. They complain that spiking is unethical when program budgets to house the homeless are cut to the bone.

One online petition to remove anti-homeless spikes reached 120,000 names in a single week.

Not that it needs repeating yet again on this blog, but opportunity reduction by itself is insufficient. Singular strategies that attack crime and place alone - and not the conditions that give rise to them - divert attention from long-term solutions. They lull us into believing the problem is gone when it isn't.

This is an important lesson for target hardeners. Fail to use collaborative solutions and targeted social strategies - or do so without a coherent plan to apply 2nd Generation CPTED - and risk a backlash of unintended consequences.

The Irony

Less than a mile from this latest controversy are the buildings of the award-winning Design Against Crime Centre at Central St Martin's College. Professor Lorraine Gamman and her talented team have led socially responsive crime prevention design projects for ages.

Why don't the target hardeners just ask experts like Lorraine's group how to work with the homeless and build more inclusive and safe environments?

My favorite Lorraine quote:"Spikes are part of an outdated fortress aesthetic not welcome in communities, where there is recognition that urban design needs to be inclusive."

Monday, June 16, 2014

Fine grain design - the permeability remedy

Laneway in Langley - flowers, color, and personal touches

Yesterday I walked another small town, this time the village of Langley in Washington State, and found a gem. It reminded me of themes from the book Happy City and what my social planner friend Wendy Sarkissian says about making spaces work well. "We must pay careful – and loving – attention to the fine grain. The divine dwells in the details."

That was true last week in my blog on Brandon where high-density, low income housing so dramatically outshone nearby low-density suburban sprawl. And it was true yesterday in Langley where plants, paintings, murals, and all sorts of personal embellishments adorned laneways, alleys and the walkways between them. More importantly, those adornments were installed and maintained with loving attention by the owners of adjacent shops and residents living nearby.

Walkways need attention - plants, windows and natural surveillance 
Wisely, the town council did not regulate away these informal design details in some regulatory panic. That was wise. It is a step towards the fine grained urban design that will succeed where design guidelines will not. And it looks beautiful. (They were busy too! I waited for ages to take pictures without people walking in the alleyways). People say they don't like alleyways and high density until they see how well it can work.

In her 2012 presentation What's Psychology got to do with NIMBY? Wendy reminds us in order to show residents how it works "we must retrieve and embrace our lost sociological and psychological wisdom about what makes good housing and good neighborhoods."

In Langley lanes were decorated with flowers and windows looked down upon those flower-strewn spaces. Beauty and natural surveillance work better when they go hand in hand.

Decorations, landscaping, clear sightlines and windows - details matter
Skillful attention to the fine grain is precisely why the permeability-is-bad crowd miss the point. They believe more people walking and driving through an area increases crime risks because more potential criminals can access crime opportunities anonymously.

We don't need gated communities to be safe. What places inside Brandon and Langley show is that even places with plenty of flow-through can be made safe with the right kind of density, fine grain design, and locals who care.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The city: A happiness project?

Montgomery's new book - Happy City - provides an antidote to dispersed cities
During a hectic month of business travel with little time for blogging I  read the recent book by Charles Montgomery, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.

Montgomery says "If we are to escape the effects of dispersal, then dense places have got to meet our psychological needs better than sprawl."

That idea resonated during an afternoon walk in the prairie city of Brandon, Manitoba where I worked this week. Brandon is one of those mid-western cities with wide streets and sprawl suburbs. Yet even here I found an interesting (and dense) lower income multi-family townhouse project that Montgomery would appreciate.

Play areas inside the lower income multi-family housing. Good visibility, easy access
There is a tendency to think of low income, multi-family housing as crime-ridden. Yet this attractive, well designed multi-family complex had plenty of social mojo. Kids enjoyed a playground in clear view of nearby windows, walkways and grounds were clean, and dozens of people enjoyed their small front yards, barbecues, and common garden areas.

Interior courtyard, green and clean
Police told me there were few calls for service here even though it housed 300 residents in a hundred units, very high density compared to the nearby sprawl.

Nearby, as Montgomery might predict, a traditional suburb was vacant, graffitied, and sparse. In my hour-long walk there I uncovered only a few people, mostly working on cars. Few streets had sidewalks and I saw no one on their front lawns.

A few blocks away in a traditional suburb - Millennial messages
The New York Times says about Happy City, "It was only a matter of time before someone figured out that if there were new things to say about happiness and a new interest in the evolution of urban life, the two subjects could be linked together." Montgomery has chapters on How to be Closer, Convivialities, and Redesigning for Freedom. They fit what I saw here.

Adjacent streets - no sidewalks, fencing to isolate the road