Monday, December 31, 2018

Self-care and New Year's resolutions

Art Walk in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico - Pedestrians take over the
street to socialize and enjoy evening art

by Tarah Hodgkinson

We spend many hours in our SafeGrowth training emphasizing the power of connectedness, social capital, and friendship circles. In her book, The Village Effect, Susan Pinker explains how current research points to a connection with others as the biggest contributor to psychological and physiological health. And this connection cannot be replaced with interactions like a screen (Skype and Facetime cannot replace in-person contact).

Thus, this cult of self-care has it wrong. Playing on your phone or binging on Netflix alone may actually be doing more harm than good.

Every year, at this time, I spend a few weeks leading up to the holidays wrapping presents for a charity gift wrapping station. Every year I ask my friends if they would like to join me. And every year, despite the short time requirements, the fun atmosphere, and the holiday spirit, I receive the following response: Oh that sounds great, but I’m just too busy and stressed.

Volunteer gift-wrapping in Burnaby, Canada
for the Multiple Sclerosis Society 

The holidays are a busy time for everyone. Many people are wrapping up projects at work or school, doing their own holiday shopping or attending holiday events and parties. There is a lot going on. But I wasn’t wrapping alone because others, like me, had found time to come out and volunteer. Why, I wondered, can’t I convince my friends to do the same?

Self-care has become a buzzword for this time of year. Stressed out from the holidays? You need to self-care! And anything can be self care, from treating yourself to week-long retreats to binging on Netflix, drinking a bottle of wine and ordering pizza from the couch. As long as you see your well-being as something you alone control, and spend money doing that, then the self-care market has done its job. Yet, somehow, it doesn’t seem like anyone feels more cared for.

Volunteer-run, outdoor neighborhood reading library in Ljubljana, Slovenia
- photo by Marusa Babnik

In truth, self-care really has nothing to do with the self at all.

The holiday season often leaves us reflecting on the previous year and looking forward to our possibilities, but we tend to follow a particular script when we plan for the new year. We set new goals about losing weight, getting healthy or giving up a vice. We think “this year will be better, because I will get fit and find love.” We load up on self help books and websites, buy new gadgets like fit-bits and tell ourselves that this will make us happy and fulfilled. Then we do it all again the next year.

If we really want to self-care, we need to be around people, we need connection, and we need to help others. If the holidays are stressing you out, and you need a New Year’s resolution, here’s one: I will spend more effort getting involved in my neighbourhood?

Caring about others might just be the best way to care for yourself.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Meanwhile spaces - from liabilities to assets

Vacant land in Baltimore, fenced, blighted and ugly
by Mateja Mihinjac

Vacant land is concerning because it attracts vandalism, provides refuge for drug activity and squatting, and attracts other undesirable behavior. In SafeGrowth we often find vacant lots and empty properties are associated with crime and disorder.

Fortunately, there are ways to transform these liabilities into assets. In our work, we encourage communities to activate vacant land in order to prevent a downward spiral of neighborhood disorder emerging from empty properties. This form of activation is also known as meanwhile spaces.


Land vacancy is a prevalent issue especially in formerly highly industrialized cities across North America that are dealing with the consequences of economic downturn. Some of these cities suffer from hypervacancy where 25-50% of properties per census tract have been neglected.

New York developers restricting access to the river
while vacant land sits unused

We know from 1st Generation CPTED that this is due to poor territoriality or ownership resulting in decreased quality of life. We know from 2nd Generation CPTED that different neighborhoods have different thresholds for tolerating social destabilators (like vacant land), before they tip into social disorder. A timely response to vacancies can halt the slide into disorder.

Some cities have successfully rebuilt former factory buildings into housing. Others, as I've written in prior blogs, transform vacant lots into community gardens and community gathering places. And yet there are many cities that still struggle with vacant land and the consequences of poor upkeep, disorderly conduct, and crime.


Cities across North America and Europe are increasingly activating vacant land – a phenomena sometimes called meanwhile spaces – and temporarily using it to boost the local economy, provide jobs, advocate for social justice, and attract prosocial activities. These include pop-up markets and shops, placemaking, festivals, food trucks, art installations, programs by non-profits and civic collectives, and other activities that benefit the local community.

Meanwhile spaces are a form of tactical urbanism allowing local participation, and they also help developers see what people want in a particular space.

In Baltimore, there are plans to turn this blank wall into a projector
screen for neighborhood movie nights

In Paris, one place was transformed into a temporary marketplace with diverse, small enterprises. It gave community groups and startups use of a rent-free space rent free until 2020 when the developer intends to commence with the construction.

Another example, from a prior blog, was SafeGrowth advocate Brad Vassallo's description of the pop-up market-place in Philadelphia, a city suffering over 40,000 vacant lots.

In Christchurch, New Zealand, an entire downtown commercial area, destroyed following a devastating earthquake, was transformed into a beautiful shipping-container shopping district. It was a temporary solution that now has wide acceptance and popular appeal (and may become a permanent feature of the city).

Christchurch NZ shipping container shopping district


There are many low-cost and low-risk ways that meanwhile spaces can respond to the needs of residents and their neighborhoods. Creative design strategies can adapt quickly to changing conditions, such as layering multiple activities into one space, thereby injecting life and vibrancy into the local community.

Meanwhile spaces strengthen local relationships, build resilience and provide ownership to spaces that could otherwise attract undesirable activity. They may also signify a shift in modern city planning toward temporary and more responsive use of space.

However, what resonates most with me as a criminologist is the importance of a dedicated local community for transforming vacant spaces from liabilities into assets, thus preventing crime and disorder.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Emotionally intelligent-led classrooms

Students of policing need skills to better communicate with
those in need, such as the homeless 

by Tarah Hodgkinson

"As I watched my class struggle, I came to realize that conversational competence might be the single-most overlooked skill we fail to teach students!" – Paul Barnswell
This quote was an accurate description of my experience teaching at a university over the last several years. Students entered the classroom, sat down, not even acknowledging the person sitting beside them and began immediately looking at their phones until the class started. Sometimes even after the class started!

When asked questions, they looked shocked they were not getting a lecture for two straight hours. When asked to get into groups, they would awkwardly look around, uncomfortable that they might have to engage with others in their class.

There are a lot of articles and stories about millennials and their lack of social skills. But I don’t just see this in millennials. I see this in meetings I have with adults from all age groups as they quickly rely more on their phones for connection than each other.

Book learning is important, but it is not enough. 

The extent of the problem wasn’t evident until I taught a class of 25, fourth-year students. Using problem-based learning methods (PBL), the same approach we use in SafeGrowth, students were constantly talking to each other, working on group projects, participating in activities, coming up with ideas and creating solutions in teams.


In their feedback at the end of the semester they said something surprising – they made friends! For the first time in university they felt that they knew people and could connect. This was the moment I realized that conversational competence, listening skills, conflict management, and emotional intelligence were more important than any of the content I had been teaching. They had learned how to talk to each other!

It is the same success emerging from a field training program for police recruits that also employs PBL and emotional intelligence – the Police Training Officer program – and it was recently adopted as PBL/emotional intelligence curricula upgrades into the teaching at a small number of leading police academies.

Academy-based PBL is new in policing

In an article entitled The Age of Loneliness is Killing Us, George Monbiot described how youth are lonelier than ever and the dramatic effects on our health and communities.

After witnessing media reports of incident after incident of excessive force and mistreatment, and a lack of police communication skills to prevent those incidents, I decided to broaden this style of teaching beyond just a fourth-year class.


Thus, this year, I introduced PBL into an introductory policing course in which many of the 70 students planned to become police officers. Did they learn the structure of policing in Canada and about different types of policing strategies and issues nationally and internationally? Of course! But they also learned how to talk to each other.

They were tested on their listening skills and then practiced those skills with a partner. They reflected on conflicts in their own lives, how they managed it and how to manage it more appropriately. They read You in Blue: Guide for the New Cop and learned how to improve their self-awareness and emotional intelligence. They explored mental health, work-life balance, and poor management in policing. We discussed how to have better conversations by acknowledging the speaker's position and listening with the intent to understand, not just to reply.

Policing texts need material on emotional intelligence
and critical thinking skills

Consider that most police training includes only a few hours of verbal judo, this course provided far more time to work on the most important skills in policing – social interaction and listening.

Equally important, when we reflected on the class in the last day, over 90% of the students responded they had made new friends in the class. Maybe the “Age of Loneliness” is not killing us. Maybe we just need to help our students (and new police officers), learn how to better connect with others in their classes and in their communities!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

May they fail

Times Square echoes Bladerunner - hyper-commercialized,
electronic billboards in every direction

by Gregory Saville

The writing on the shop walls and the floating billboards was Anglo-Chinese. On the street, the cityspeak combined English, Chinese and Spanish, a vernacular that served the homeless, the marginally employed and the unfortunate. Pollution and environmental collapse led to constant clouds and pelting rain. The affluent traveled to off-world colonies on Mars and elsewhere, leaving the rest of us behind. Bio-engineered, human-like robots called Replicants used their artificial intelligence and rebelled.

That was the horrific world described in Philip K. Dick’s book that became the 1982 sci-fi classic, Bladerunner. I blogged on Bladerunner architecture last year. When I watched Bladerunner in the 1980s it seemed like an impossible future. And it was set for such a long way ahead – 2019!

That's next year! With only a month left, how close is that future?

No escape - walls of electonics


It doesn’t take much imagination to see a Bladerunner vision unfolding. True, we are nowhere near that specific dystopia. We still don’t have flying cars (but we have self-driving ones!). Yet, one wonders...

This week I watched NASA’s exciting landing on the planet Mars. Space X CEO Elon Musk says he’ll get people to Mars within six years. How long before off-world colonies evolve?

This year I watched the fruits of some incredible advances in artificial intelligence and bio-engineering, including the world tour of the remarkable Sophie, the first thinking and speaking robot to attain citizenship. Sophie tells us not to worry; real robots are not like Bladerunner.

Then there is the decades-long Chinese economic miracle or the environmental mess we watch with increasing regularity in hurricanes, wildfires, species extinction and climate chaos.

Philip K. Dick, it seems, was on track.

How might we derail that particular future? The usual formula is to rethink geo-politics and create new macroeconomics. Nevertheless, the maxim ‘think global, act local’ has special relevance here. Take, for example, Philadelphia!


Over the past few years, we brought SafeGrowth to Philadelphia. We now have some great advocates working for the neighborhood association, HACE. This year they began implementing their latest 10-year 2025 Neighborhood Plan.

For years HACE and friends have been diligently working to transform the blight, drugs, and crime into a greener, socially connected, economically vibrant neighborhood. Now their new, SafeGrowth-infused 2025 plan is underway and they’ve been making strides.

They installed new, clean walking trails where garbage was once strewn.

The HACE Trail project in Philadelphia

They instituted Philadelphia’s first SafeGrowth Livability Academy, a collaborative workshop with 30 neighbors and police during which they developed problem-solving strategies for their neighborhood.

The HACE plan envisions greener areas, community gardens, better resourced neighborhood hubs, safe intergenerational and affordable housing. HACE has already built over 200 units of affordable housing and leveraged over $100 million in redevelopment and improvements. A host of community-building strategies are already underway.

Neighborhood bridge now cleaned and repainted

For example, they, and their partners shut down a drug infested, homeless camp along a railway underpass. That naturally displaced addicts to street level, resulting in a public outcry (after decades of inaction). Ultimately, that led to a more coordinated city response to treat drug users, expand homeless beds and increase shelters.

HACE built affordable housing
There is a long way to go and resources and shelter beds are still scarce (one estimate suggest Philadelphia has 50,000 opioid addicts, many of whom end up here). But at least action is finally underway.

That is the hard community-building work that cuts crime, improves livability, and gets neighbors engaged in shaping their own future.

In spite of successful resident-based projects, cities like Detroit
fund expensive CCTV technology to cut crime


Too many mayors get caught up in a fear-based echo chamber that makes them vulnerable to peddlers of security technology and promises of a bright, high-tech future.

Too many city leaders act as obsequious errand-boys for the technologists, embracing the faint promise of hostile architecture, public CCTV, automated security robots, predictive algorithms seeking crime, and audio software to track gang gunfire. (Wouldn't it be better to prevent the gunfire in the first place?)

They do this with the ill-informed hope that technology will prevail. But in doing this, they snatch defeat from the hands of successful action-based community projects right in front of them.

They invite a Bladerunner future. May they fail.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Reducing domestic violence

Domestic violence - behind palm trees and quiet suburban streets
 - photo Google Earth

by Gregory Saville

Every now and then it is worth examining the mechanics of successful crime reduction programs to see what parts work best. With that in mind, I was impressed by this year’s International Problem-Oriented Policing conference in Providence, Rhode Island. As a regular presenter at the conference, I am always encouraged by the remarkable finalists in the prestigious Herman Goldstein Award program for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing.

This year's Goldstein Award winner was a two-time winner, the Chula Vista police department, who developed a project to reduce domestic violence in that city. (They also won the award ten years ago)

Suburban Chula Vista, south of San Diego - photo Google Earth

A few miles south of downtown San Diego lies the small city of Chula Vista, population 267,000. Over the past few years, calls to police for domestic violence (DV) persisted as the second most common occurrence. At a time when total police calls dropped 10%, domestic violence stubbornly refused to budge.

Like many other police agencies, the cops in Chula Vista had already partnered with a domestic violence advocacy organization to provide 24/7 joint services, but even this did not stem the tide of violence inside the home.

In collaboration with researcher Deborah Lamm Weisel and police crime analysts Nanci Plouffe, Kristen Miggans, and Karen Schmerler, the team began examining the problem in detail. It’s notable that Karen was also the lead analyst with the Chula Vista team that won their 2009 award. (Obviously, a major part of prevention success includes talented analysts like Karen who know how to put programs together).

Chula Vista police HQ


In addition to analysing a wide array of data, they also included informal research by a Chula Vista officer who conducted follow-up visits with some domestic violence victims. All that data provided crucial facts about victims and offenders in Chula Vista and gave them the necessary context. As we say in SafeGrowth, diagnosis must precede prescription because context is everything!

The Chula Vista team also discovered how three other police jurisdictions had successfully implemented a graduated response to DV, now termed focused deterrence. They tailored their own graduated response program and, tellingly, a large number of patrol officers eagerly asked to join the program, mostly from frustration about ineffective traditional responses.

Graduated response is based on an elevated approach to each subsequent call for domestic violence. Since many domestic homicides emerge after repeated DV incidents, the graduated response provides officers a consistent way to intervene in the cycle sooner, not later. If more than one DV call emerges, each subsequent call is met by deeper interventions, from education and counseling to progressively stricter responses.

Early intervention educational material for a graduated response

The Chula Vista crime analysts assessed the results after a year. When they measured the results they found DV finally dropped by 23%. Calls for police service also declined unlike the nearby control area where both incidents and calls worsened. Their data collection allowed them to discount possible displacement to that nearby control area.

The Chula Vista team successfully tailored a new program and made life safer for domestic partners. They helped increase public confidence in police and increased officer safety by cutting domestic incidents.

Most importantly, especially for the children, relatives and friends of domestic partners, they cut the fact and the risk of domestic violence in their city.

Congratulations to the Chula Vista team and their partners.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

From desert to oasis - food access

Finding space for healthy food gardens on rooftops 
by Mateja Mihinjac

In the previous blog I wrote about the issue of food access and underlying problems that stem from inequality. We have learned in our SafeGrowth work that there is a connection between inequality, food access and the conditions that create crime. In this blog I present three pillars that can transform food deserts into food oases and concurrently tackle socio-economic disadvantage and crime.


Physical accessibility is the first pillar. Local infrastructure and zoning should support access to affordable fresh food within half a mile of residential areas. Many disadvantaged neighborhoods are faced with urban obstacles rooted in socio-economic inequality and high levels of crime that fail to achieve this objective.

Importantly, new supermarkets will not in themselves shift deeply ingrained eating habits without providing nutritional education.


In addition to physical access, another challenge is insufficient knowledge about nutrition and the effects of eating habits on health.

Community education about healthy food and gardening
should include resident involvement
Education about health-promoting eating patterns should complement physical food accessibility. The Design for America Healthy Food (Access) Project developed an innovative approach that provides helpful graphic food guidelines for shoppers.


The third pillar focuses on financial aspects. Encouraging providers of fresh and affordable foods to partner with locally owned stores, thereby investing in the local economy, is preferable to relying on large supermarket chains. One strategy to achieve this is Rossi and Brunori's proposals for public and private stakeholder partnerships.

Another report looks at New York public housing and suggests the housing authority should contribute towards food access and economic security by encouraging commercial development on the housing properties. This could be coupled with employing residents to drive both local economy and local governance. Echoing Jane Jacobs, mixed uses promote safety by increasing occupancy and human interaction.

Community gardens are not viable in winter

Food access from a local perspective is gaining traction in food justice circles. Knowing that available resources and education strongly influence food purchasing habits, it is unquestionable that food deserts are not a simple solution solved with new supermarkets.

Food accessibility and food education at a scale that responds to local demands is one major step towards food oases and away from barren food deserts. In SafeGrowth we suggest such changes should be driven With and By local residents for a lasting change towards 21st Century neighborhoods.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Access to food - Justice in the city

Community gardens in New York public housing - responding to food deserts

by Mateja Mihinjac

When a neighborhood team at our recent SafeGrowth workshop decided to tackle the issue of food access, the topic sparked my interest. As they uncovered the links between food access and food deserts, the conversation quickly shifted toward injustice and social disadvantage and what could be done about it.


It isn’t that municipalities ignore food access. Decision makers have been attempting to address the issues of food deserts and food swamps by introducing new supermarkets into needy neighborhoods. However, simply installing a new supermarket in a deprived neighborhood will not solve inequality. Food access has historic roots in structural racism, segregation and concentration of poverty in pockets around cities, not surprisingly the same neighborhoods where crime flourishes. These are the sparks that ignited the food justice movement.

Detroit church replacing parking lots with gardens 

Activist and community leader Karen Washington talks about food apartheid in African American neighborhoods as a symbol of the inequality that has led to numerous social problems and limited access to affordable and nutritious foods.

The consequences manifest in reduced levels of both physiological and psychological health, so frequently prevalent among the socially disadvantaged. Many of these disadvantaged neighborhoods also suffer from disproportionately high levels of crime and weak social cohesion.


There are well-established correlations between violent crime and socio-economic inequality. For example, research from New York City shows that neighborhoods in the city with the lowest median household income have the highest numbers of food deserts. Unsurprisingly, these neighborhoods persistently suffer from higher levels of crime than other more affluent neighborhoods.

Ottawa apartment towers overlook new public gardens

To the residents on the ground the consequences are dire. As they navigate through high-risk streets – for example, when they get groceries – they are vulnerable to crime. The elderly, especially, are fearful of gang violence simply by walking or using public transportation. To worsen their fears, when they travel to outside neighborhoods they tend to experience discriminatory attitudes and harassment.

As a result, residents end up spending their meager earnings by having groceries delivered despite the additional expense. Too often they must rely on cheaper processed (and less healthy) food options near their neighborhood.

Rooftop gardens in New York - using all available space  

New shop owners are also less likely to invest in these food inaccessible neighborhoods because they don’t consider it economically viable. Not only must they factor the reduced buying power of residents, but they must balance their resources with safety risks and the effects of fear from crime. All too often, these factors do not pass the cost-benefit test of food corporations, thus leaving too many city residents out of the equity equation.

Next blog: Some solutions for a lasting change.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Big Apple Rot - New York's Street Scaffolds

Sidewalk scaffolding at night in New York
by Tarah Hodgkinson 

Strolling down the streets of New York is always awe-inspiring. The buildings are beautiful and the streets are alive with the bustle of a city that never sleeps. But in the last few visits to New York I have had a hard time looking up at the buildings in Manhattan. Shielding my view, block after block, are scaffolds on building fronts covering sidewalks. These scaffolds cover sidewalks and make it difficult to walk through the already crowded streets.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one concerned as I found numerous articles about the issue. I also found that due to numerous accidents related to falling building facades and bricks from New York’s aging buildings, the city enacted Local Law 11, requiring an engineering brickwork check on building facades every five years.

Over 7,700 building scaffolds cover New York City sidewalks

Since New York is an older metropolis, it makes sense that the city does not want people getting injured from falling debris. But is it possible that everyone is checking their brickwork at the same time? There had to be more to it.

One NYC Buildings Dept map shows over 7,700 scaffold sheds


It turns out it costs roughly $25,000 to put up the scaffolding to do the appropriate work on a building fa├žade. However, half of that cost is paid to put that scaffolding up, and the other half is paid when taking it down. Reports indicated that many building owners were simply avoiding the teardown costs and retaining the scaffolding as a permanent protection against liability.

Perhaps this pricing model is part of the reason for all the scaffolding. If you have to pay to have it taken down, why bother?

I would argue there are a few reasons to take it down. It impedes pedestrian traffic and it’s difficult to navigate if you have mobility issues (imagine trying to get around these with a wheelchair). The excessive scaffolding also reduces street visibility, requires extra lighting (and higher energy costs) to enhance visibility at night and takes away from the historic beauty of New York City.

There must be a better way to protect pedestrians

Why not rewrite city policy and instead create an incentive system to take down the scaffolding? What if property owners paid $30,000 to put the scaffolding up, but received $5,000 when it was taken down? I have no idea if this fits into the current payment scheme, but it seems this change would trigger more demand to remove all that unnecessary scaffolding.

While it may not address the sheer number of buildings that require these five-year checks, it would help to restore the Big Apple’s walkability and visibility that is so important for street life and safety.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Small is beautiful - Pastor Barry and Islandview

GoogleEarth view of the Episcopal Church and Detroit's Islandview neighborhood

by Gregory Saville

With 267 murders last year, Detroit has a city population of 700,000 and murder rate 8 times the national average. It suffers a decimated tax base and in 2013, the largest city bankruptcy in US history. Naturally, you might associate it with crime, racial inequity, and blight. But would you associate it with urban innovation and rebirth?

With a renaissance of late, a lively downtown Detroit looks far different than a decade ago. And while that transformation is triggered by large, corporate reinvestment, it is the inner and outer suburbs where much of the blight and crime originates. How, I wondered this past week on project work in Detroit, does a neighborhood reinvent itself?

Neighborhood hubs can emerge from local churches

Then I met Pastor Barry Randolf at his Episcopal Church in the Lower Eastside neighborhood of Islandview. Not only has Islandview begun transformation, but Pastor Barry and his team have grand visions for the years ahead. Our task was to teach the SafeGrowth program in the neighborhood and work with our new friends at the Restorative City initiative.

New initiatives have fertile ground in a place like Islandview thanks, in no small measure, to Pastor Barry. He leads his church with programs like a community garden, a tea manufacturer, T-shirt design company, landscaping company, an employment program, a bike repair shop, mentorship programs, media production workshop, audio/video production, and others.

Community gardening on church property


Not only does the church provide opportunities for jobs and work, but it also spearheads a community development corporation to build and purchase affordable housing (213 units in the neighborhood thus far). Pastor Barry told me that he and his team locate small numbers of market-rate housing across from well-designed, affordable housing to help stabilize and diversify the neighborhood. They then hire local residents to work with builders and learn the skills of construction. 

With baseball cap and passion, Pastor Barry shows us housing under renovation
sponsored by the church housing corporation

Pastor Barry’s work is widely featured in local media and we were thrilled to offer our SafeGrowth tools to Islandview’s considerable toolkit. For me, the Islandview story illustrates the value of local organization and the power of competent neighborhood planning. As we say in our SafeGrowth Vision Statement, the successful 21st Century city will be based on a linked network of self-governing and self-learning neighborhoods

A few units of nearby affordable housing.
Small diverse pockets of housing can stabilize neighborhoods.
When it comes to designing out crime beyond superficial security strategies, urban development and community-building like this digs at the roots of crime. With apologies to E. F. Schumacher, small truly is beautiful. Thanks, Pastor Barry, for the reminder.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Gentrification vs the cultural creatives

Doing it right - Denver artists spruce up a local storefront

by Gregory Saville

It was November 22, 2017, and a sidewalk sign just went up outside a Denver coffee shop. It read:  “Happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2011”. The neighborhood exploded in outrage and the latest Internet meme was born. Realizing his massive gaffe, the owner dumped the sign, apologized, and has suffered a PR disaster ever since.

Gentrification is an ugly word these days. In SafeGrowth we spend much time in troubled places facing reinvestment and redevelopment. What can be done about crime prevention efforts and gentrification?


The cycle is well-known. Older neighborhoods suffering blight and crime turn into run-down wastelands. Groups looking for affordable spaces - artists, students or working class folks - move in and begin to fix them up. They build play areas for kids, bocce ball courts for elders and handball courts for kids, or gazebos in parks for weekend barbeques. Residents patronize local Mom & Pop stores. Artists set up studio lofts and paint interesting murals in alleys and eventually open spaces to showcase their art.

Movie night on the neighborhood basketball court

Richard Florida once described this process glowingly and called such groups Cultural Creatives who end up bringing a new life to old neighborhoods.

Then the new life evolves into a cultural economy that triggers waves of consumer spending, especially by real estate investors looking to capitalize on the “cool factor”. Reinvestment displaces low-income apartments as rents increase to accompany investment.

Ultimately the Creatives are forced out, and the area becomes the latest wealthy, unaffordable hangout for Hipsters.

It is called gentrification and it is the real estate version of hostile architecture. In his latest book Florida no longer speaks so glowingly of the process and now claims Creative Class migration ends up becoming a winner-take-all game that makes things worse.


A recent study on gentrification by the Federal Reserve Bank says:
"In its early phases, gentrification may not result in displacement, but over time, in the absence of protections, tenants may be forced to move." 
Pop-up neighborhood bookstore in New York City

The study concludes that gentrification often leads to exclusionary displacement unless careful planning and protections are put in place. Even in places where cities try to protect affordability, some owners install “poor doors” for low-income residents and other doors for the rest (a practice recently outlawed in New York City).

Obviously we must be vigilant. In SafeGrowth our motto “To-For-With-By” proclaims that we work with residents and enact strategies by residents versus to or for them.

In our new SafeGrowth book Mateja Mihinjac describes the SafeGrowth principle called Neighborhood Activation. It shows how we navigate through the gentrification conundrum because, ultimately, all those engaged in crime prevention and urban redevelopment must be careful to do no harm.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Security and beauty - A new kind of fencing

Decorative fencing in British Columbia
by Tarah Hodgkinson

On a recent walk in Burnaby, British Columbia, what was normally an uninteresting and car-dominated street, offered a surprise. As I turned a corner, I was delighted to see a major change since my last visit. The city had built a vertical park! A beautiful walking space including bike lanes, areas to sit, green spaces and artistic architecture.

What was most interesting was the way in which they city had treated the neighboring houses. Along this vertical park, the city had installed decorative visibility fences. Essentially these fences are neither wooden fences with no visibility nor chain-link fences with visibility but a hideous look.

Presenting the street with a more attractive, look
These fences are particularly interesting because they address an important issue for corner homes and homes on edges of land-use changes, in this case, residential to commercial. Homes in these locations are often at increased risk of burglary and vandalism.

Tall wooden fences can simply block the external view of an intruder once they are over the fence, making it easier for these individuals to commit a crime. Additionally, residents cannot see if a threat exists on the other side of the fence. Chain link fencing, however, often gives the impression of “fortress” mentality and can increase feelings of fear, making the neighborhood appear hardened. Chain link fences are also quite easy to climb.

Vibrant colors make a difference
These decorative visibility fences provided visibility to both residents and surrounding eyes. At the same time, they create a beautiful linear space for folks to walk through. They are also difficult to climb.

This vertical park and the accompanying decorative visibility fences are a great example of finding beautiful ways to address privacy and safety in neighborhoods on the edges of commercial use.

Friday, August 24, 2018

What if public art could serve a second purpose?

Public art framing a street artist in Brisbane
GUEST BLOG: SafeGrowth Advocate Anna Brassard recently mentored a high school student about design and safety and encouraged her to submit her project here. Sophia Marchenko is a grade 9 student at Calgary’s Master’s Academy and College. We congratulate Sophia on her exceptional work and welcome her contribution to SafeGrowth. 

by Sophia Marchenko

In grade nine this past year, I had the opportunity to participate in the Professional Initiatives Program at my school, Master’s Academy and College. As part of the program, I was matched with a mentor in a field of my interest and was challenged to create my own research project. I was fortunate to be matched with Anna Brassard, an urban planner. The central question of my research project became “What if public art could serve a second purpose?”

I asked: What if public art could also be a bird sanctuary? A way to improve safety? A crime prevention system? An electric vehicle charging station? A way to generate electricity?

Public art and street furniture in Christchurch, New Zealand container village

I found many examples of public art serving a functional purpose within Calgary and beyond. There were examples in Calgary, such as the public transit bus stops currently being built with art pieces, and artistically designed stormwater filtration systems. I looked into musical swings in Montreal, Quebec, and Chicago’s multimedia Crown Fountain. All of these examples display messages of beauty, culture, environmental stewardship, and community, while serving a practical purpose.

Since my school is located right beside the newly constructed Flander’s Bridge, I’ve seen how reckless drivers can get in that area. There is a plan for a new piece of public art for that area and I wondered whether a piece of public art could contribute artistic elements to the bridge while also helping to slow down traffic and improve safety.

I was put in contact with a transport engineering at the City of Calgary and he described the existing traffic volume is 94,000 vehicles per day at that location, a very large amount of road traffic. There were many schools in the area that have kids crossing Flanders Bridge every day.

Flander's Bridge in Calgary, site of potential public art project - photo City of Calgary


I decided that my public art would have speed signs incorporated in an artistic way, showing drivers their current speed and encouraging them to slow down. It would also have artistically-integrated solar panels to generate the needed electricity. I liked the idea of using strips of copper for most of the design and having the whole design illuminated with soft light at night.

By the end of my research project, I realized that I had learned a lot about public art and how an artistic element on a key piece of Calgary’s infrastructure could also contribute to a safer environment for both drivers and pedestrians. It was an eye-opening experience to learn from an urban planner, an architect, students at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Environmental Design, where Anna had years ago taught a SafeGrowth program, as well as planners and engineers from the City of Calgary. Many thanks to my mentor throughout this program, Anna Brassard, for opening my eyes to the field of urban planning.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Philadelphia Pop-ups - Placemaking for abandoned lots

Plans for a POP-up market in Philadelphia - diagram by Brad Vassallo

GUEST BLOG: Brad Vassallo is a SafeGrowth Advocate having taught POP-up placemaking and community development as part of a SafeGrowth team. He has worked in community development in Philadelphia for the past few years and offers here a case study from that city.


Philadelphia is a city of 40,000 vacant lots. Like many post-industrial cities, it fell victim to a mass exodus of middle-class residents in the mid-20th century. Unfortunately, the 40-plus-year drought in tax revenues has taken its toll, with neighborhoods in North and West Philadelphia ailing from high crime rates and rampant vacancy. These conditions have had a torturous effect on neighborhood quality of life.

As a former student at Temple University in community development, I witnessed first-hand the effects of this multi-generational disinvestment. Asociacion Puertorriquenos en Marcha (APM) is a neighborhood nonprofit serving residents of all color and creed, with a mission of helping families. This is no easy task in a neighborhood commonly referred to as "the Badlands" due to its high frequency of violent crime.


As part of my degree, I found myself working with APM during the beginning of a new creative placemaking grant. The goal of the Pop Up Market Place (PUMP), was to reactivate a vacant lot at the corner of 6th Street and Susquehanna Avenue. The 11,000-square-foot lot was slated to become a youth housing facility with ground-floor retail, but the development cycle often takes five or more years. Our task was to reimagine the space as a gateway for a downtrodden stretch of Germantown Avenue. The project involved several layers:

Using 3-D modeling during design charrettes - photo Brad Vassallo

  • Engage the local community in a conversation about the future of Germantown Avenue using the PUMP site as a centerpiece. Similar to the SafeGrowth model, we operated on a To-For-With-By model; each level represents a greater level of civic participation, with the pinnacle being those projects that are done with or by the community. We assembled a diverse steering committee and arrived at three focus areas: Crime and Safety, Jobs, and Youth Engagement.
  • Using feedback from the Steering Committee, we offered regular programming on the site to draw foot traffic and build awareness. Our events included an end-of-school summer block party, neighborhood potluck, and movie nights. Children flocked to the site for water balloon fights and piragua on a hot summer day. Neighborhoods like this have endured a great deal of trauma. By holding a small community event on the project site, we began to strip away some of the negative association people had with that location. 

Mapping survey and data collection areas

  • We led entrepreneurship training to build capacity. In a neighborhood like ours, educational attainment is low, making traditional employment difficult for most residents. Starting a small business is a more attractive option for first-generation immigrant families. By offering free training we were able to tap into our neighborhood's entrepreneurial spirit and offer an alternative income stream.
  • The final step was to identify a few promising candidates from our training with whom we could launch a business incubator on the site. Brick-and-mortar businesses have significant overhead expenses. By repurposing a few recycled shipping containers for micro-retail, we could lower the barrier to entry for these new business owners and provide a safe haven for residents to shop locally and explore.

Activating spaces at night - photo Brad Vassallo

Despite problems moving this version of the project forward, we learned how to revive vacant land and encourage business activities. We also learned that this unique design style was easy to mobilize, it could move from parcel to parcel, and it provided a beta-test for local businesses as an alternative form of entrepreneurialism.