Monday, May 23, 2016

Edgewater - I am not the Lizard King

Urban planner Jeff Speck equates dense, well-built and walkable cities with economic growth, environmental resilience and a safer, more livable life. In his book Walkable City he provides plenty of evidence to prove it.

This week I visited Edgewater, a small city (population 5,000) enveloped by the urban fabric that is Metro Denver. It is medium income, has diverse ethnic groups and comprises mixed residential with a commercial street of a few blocks. It is close to what Speck describes.

Edgewater street furniture, walkable streets, and human scale
From a city map it is undistinguished from surrounding Denver suburbs, until you look at its crime.

Orange and red areas showing higher crime areas, Edgewater shows lower crime rates in yellow - crime map from
As the map above shows, except for a few crimes, its crime rate is far below surrounding neighborhoods particularly one crime hotspot to the north.

The question is why? Urban design is not the only reason, but as I’ve shown in blogs on permeability in Langley and High Line Park in Manhattan, it can matter a great deal.


Planning students learn about early movements to plan cities. One history textbook that some read is Land Use Planning from 1959. A phrase in that book is instructive:
“The unit of design in New Towns is no longer each separate lot, street or building; it is the whole community; a co-ordinated entity…beauty as well as convenience is produced by the rational relations of the individual parts…”
Unfortunately that philosophy did not survive. Instead, land hungry developers gobbled up huge swaths of city edges to build suburban sprawl, regional shopping malls, supersized box stores and pedestrian-hostile commercial strips.

The idea of planned and walkable neighborhoods was lost. But not, apparently, in Edgewater.

Murals, bicycle racks, and even-grade sidewalk curbs for handicap accessibility 

Edgewater clearly works - even the quiet afternoon when I visited had walkers for whom I had to wait before taking photos. There are no more cops here than elsewhere, yet people feel safe and comfortable while walking. Why does it work?

Speck says there are four ingredients to walkability: a reason to walk, a safe walk, a comfortable walk and something interesting to see and do. Edgewater seems to capture most of them.

The residential streets are narrow and tree-lined. Most of them are within a 15 minute walk of the mini-downtown. That downtown is neatly streetscaped and has diverse uses such as restaurants, coffee-shops, a local pub, and other amenities that provide locals a reason to come here. The downtown has only 4 blocks and they are short, about 75 feet each.

Color, flowers and sculptures - Edgewater sidewalk 

Flowers sponsored by students from a local 4th Grade class
Shops are also easily walkable - the distance of one store to another, door-to-door, is no more than 15 feet. Street flower pots are planted by local school children, murals cover blank walls and street furniture, like angled benches, provides both interest and comfort.


Only a few blocks outside of Edgewater, in yet another pedestrian-hostile commercial strip, the automobile remerges as King. You can almost hear it holler: I am the Lizard King, I can do anything. (Apologies to Jim Morrison).

Just outside Edgewater, hostility awaits the walker - Cars are the Lizard King 
Here intersections are ugly and vast, speeds are high and walkers are treated like invaders. Such places force people to stay inside their car and avoid all social contact except during moments of road rage.

Speck says: "The worst idea we’ve ever had was suburban sprawl…the reorganization and creation of the landscape around the requirement for automobile use." We will probably need autos for a long time to come, but we need walkability even more. Let's get our priorities right.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Hostile architecture, CPTED and the homeless

A homeless man sleeping rough - photo by Franco Folini - Creative Commons

How often have we watched the bamboozled scientist in a dystopian horror film claiming: I am only the inventor of the new robot … I’m not responsible for how it is used! as we watch that robot trash the laboratory into smithereens?

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design - CPTED - is a powerful crime prevention technology that is vulnerable to misuse by the ill-trained or the untrained, especially regarding homelessness.

Last year the International CPTED Association ran a session on Homelessness and CPTED at its annual conference. The result was an ICA White Paper about CPTED and the homeless. Myself and Randall Atlas co-wrote the paper with the help of some dedicated ICA members. We submitted it to offer some practical and ethical guidelines to CPTED practitioners regarding homelessness.

Homelessness is a complex problem and using CPTED tactics is risky business. We are ethically responsible for how we use CPTED! That is why we wrote the ICA White Paper. Turns out, it was just in time.


Last week a news article Privatizing the Clearing of Homeless Encampments described what recently happened in Seattle when CPTED became hostile architecture. A private company was hired by the city to abate homeless encampments (Translation - trash their property). According the the news article, that company’s logo was: Let us help you develop a CPTED plan to help deter unwanted issues!

By no means do I diminish the impact of homelessness on residents and their families, but deter unwanted issues? Do we really consider homeless people the unwanted? Do we think they are best handled with metal anti-sleeping spikes? Are we really helping by target hardening them away from our park benches?

The news article tells the official story:
City officials say they offer the people they encounter shelter options. But they admit that only about 40 percent of people kicked out of illegal homeless encampments end up in city shelters—most are simply shunted to some other location.
Surely we can do better!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Rebirth in policing - PBL Conference 2016

Ancient Greece is the birthplace of modern democracy and among its most powerful legends was the Phoenix, the mythical bird that upon death regenerates in the ashes of its predecessor. The Phoenix represents the fall of a failed society and its rise into something greater.

The state of our democracy and the Phoenix came to mind this week while reflecting on the turbulence in policing. Some of that turbulence shows up in this blog over the past 5 years in
Yet the history of policing has shown, like the Phoenix, it can arise anew. For example, Problem-Oriented Policing and community policing in the 1980s arose from the abuses of the 1960s. If there was ever a time for a police Phoenix, this is it.

The 2016 Conference of the Police Society for Problem-Based Learning is the best place to find it. The PBL group has been creating new ways forward for a decade, such as emotional intelligence training, new field training, and upgraded academy training.

This year’s conference theme Warriors, Guardians, Problem-Solvers - Defining Roles Through PBL  seizes on the central recommendation of President Obama’s Task Force Report on 21st Century Policing to transform police warriors to community guardians. Seven years ago this was the same theme recommended by educator and legal specialist Gerry Cleveland in his 2009 blog, Neighborhood Safety - The Guardian and the Vanguard.


Retired Boston police commissioner Edward F. Davis will keynote the event. Commissioner Davis is not only a leader in alternative policing models, he is also well versed in responding to crisis. He was top cop during the Boston Marathon terror attack.

Says the conference brochure: “Police tactics are under a microscope. There are many causes for this turbulent climate but at the top of the list is police training and how police leaders and trainers respond. The focus of our conference is to provide some answers for trainers and leaders that will clarify police roles in the 21st Century.”

Answers like that certainly sound like the beginning of an authentic Phoenix-rebirth.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Fort McMurray forest fires

Fort McMurray Forest Fires - photo Darren RD, Creative Commons
How quickly things change. Back in 2008, City Planner Tracy Tester of Fort McMurray, Alberta, set up SafeGrowth training and program development for her Northern Alberta city. Tracey had been working on the idea for awhile and it finally came together.

A few years later all that hard work resulted in a city-wide Crime Reduction Plan approved by council in 2011. It was one of the first of its kind to adopt SafeGrowth.

A few years later student planner Jennica Collette, on assignment for Tracey, helped put a part of that plan in action and worked with a neighborhood to mobilize against crime.  Jennica is currently a SafeGrowth Advocate who has blogged here.

All that stellar work by such dedicated change agents is now going up in flames! I am not being literary, but rather literal.

The city of Fort McMurray, surrounded by a dry northern Canadian boreal forest and a raging forest fire, is currently burning. Over 80,000 people have been evacuated and much of the city has been destroyed by fire.

Thankfully news reports say everyone was evacuated in time and no one is seriously hurt - including Tracey and Jennica.  As Sue Ramsay described after the devastating Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand a few years ago, people are resilient. They will return and rebuild.

We send our condolences to Jennica, Tracey, their families (including some of mine who also fled the city) and all our Fort McMurray friends and family. May you find your way safely home to rebuild your city and your lives.