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!