Friday, March 27, 2020

Resilience during COVID-19 - Antidote to a social virus

by Mateja Mihinjac

It feels as if overnight our lives have dramatically changed. People getting sick and dying by thousands, hospitals inundated with an influx of patients, the economy heading into recession, and countries in lockdown. There is much uncertainty about what the future months will bring.

At a time when our solidarity should be at its highest, reports show how criminals (and some politicians) are exploiting people’s fear and how crises like these “bring out the worst in humanity”. Despite these bleak times, we cannot let COVID-19 also become a social virus. We need to start building resilience now so that we can tackle the challenges that lie ahead.

Quarantines and empty playgrounds

In the previous blog, Tarah wrote about the importance of maintaining social connections while we physically distance ourselves from our loved ones. Our positive personal relationships keep us grounded.

Luckily, with today’s technology maintaining social connections is easier than ever. And new social innovations are arising to help us connect, such as the Canadian caremonger movement.


As family members are trapped in their homes, many find it difficult to cope and maintain peace. Children and youth who lack peer support and school connections, due to social distancing, rely more than ever on their parents to provide support and reassurance.

This brought back personal memories of the 1991 Slovenian Independence War when my family had to shelter from potential bombing in a 2 x 2 metre basement space. As a young child, I did not grasp the severity of the situation as warplanes flew over us. To make it easier on my brother and me our parents made the hours of basement hiding appear like a game. As a result, my memory from then is that of closeness and safety.

We seek connections in families and in groups

For children, the quality time they spend with their parents during these weeks might define whether they remember grief and trauma in the years to come or a sense of care and safety from which they can build resilience. The family bonds they develop during this time represent a critical point in the life of children that can protect against potential future anti-social behaviour and criminality.


Our neighbourhoods are our tribe. A socially cohesive neighbourhood is resilient and able to rebound and restore quicker than a neighbourhood with alienated residents when confronted with hardship. We have published our account of how SafeGrowth provided collective action and neighbourhood resilience in a post-disaster New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

Some of our post-hurricane community building in New Orleans

As Tarah mentioned in the last blog, the current social distancing restrictions are in stark contrast with the SafeGrowth philosophy. But we can still continue to greet local residents with a smile as we pass them (from the appropriate distance), we can talk to our neighbours and check on their wellbeing, and thank our local business and services for their work in supporting us. We can start planning local events and meetings, and set common goals to work towards as we restore our neighbourhoods post-crisis. We can activate our tribe and prepare for collective action now.

Activating our tribe - Outdoor events will return

In the next blog, Greg will describe practical ways we can move forward into the future following COVID-19. As life starts to normalize in the coming months, we will slowly start rebuilding our lives. It won’t be easy. We will continue being cautious about physical interactions, travel restrictions will likely still be in place, unemployment and homelessness will be high, businesses will go bankrupt, and many of us will grieve for loved ones lost to the pandemic.

Despite the promises of a job stimulus and financial assistance, governments won’t have the resources and capacity to help everyone, every family and every neighbourhood. But there are things we can do to plan for the future.

We cannot let COVID-19 become a social virus. Our shared global experience will change us collectively. Our hope at the SafeGrowth Network is that we realise how interdependent we are and how important it is that we build resilience not only within our family and friendship networks, but within our neighbourhoods where we spend our lives.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Social distancing vs social isolation during COVID-19

Grocery shopping yesterday - produce dwindles
Tarah Hodgkinson

Wow, what a week its been. I had a few ideas for this week’s blog, but it feels negligent not to write about what is affecting all of our communities right now. And that is COVID-19.

We are in an unprecedented time for this generation. The world is shutting down and a highly contagious flu is spreading like wildfire across our increasingly connected world. Indeed, we are witnessing a global pandemic.

Here in Australia, universities are closing their doors and classes are going online. Residents are being encouraged to stay home and avoid social gatherings. Many are panic-buying toilet paper and other necessities, leaving shelves totally empty. Grocery store chains are being forced to limit the purchase of numerous items.

More importantly, and almost completely against our ethos at SafeGrowth, people are being told to socially distance themselves from others. Major public health authorities are encouraging people to work from home (if they can), stay home if they feel sick at all and avoid large social gatherings to “flatten the curve.”

Department stores everywhere are emptying 


And this is the right advice. For highly contagious viruses like COVID-19, the risk of exposure is huge for people who are older, have weakened immune systems, respiratory issues, or other preconditions. Social distancing will reduce the demand on already over-burdened hospitals and their staff who, like Italy, will quickly run out of treatment facilities.

But, as we know, social distancing is not an option for many of our fellow SafeGrowth communities, who do not have access to paid sick leave or are living from paycheck to paycheck and have to work to survive. Never have these issues seemed more pressing.

Furthermore, social distancing can also lead to social isolation. By staying home and away from others, we can feel disconnected and lonely. And while social distancing is an important part of protection from viruses, as we know from research, social isolation isn’t good for our health. Just yesterday I received a message from one of my close friends at home. She has been instructed to work from home and is already feeling alone and isolated.

Farmer's market yesterday in Brisbane - events remain open


What do we do? Well, we have many accounts of what humans do in disaster to help guide us. Eric Klinenberg’s book Heat Wave details how older women survived one of the worst heat waves in Chicago in 1995. They called each other. Every day, they sat is tubs full of water or under air conditioning or fans and called to check in on each other and stay connected.

Rebecca Solnit’s book Paradise Built in Hell, reminds us throughout human history, in disaster situations, humans engage in incredible acts of altruism. They donate more, set up relief shelters, check on their neighbours and prepare meals for those who can’t.

In this time of uncertainty, instability, and fear, we encourage our fellow SafeGrowth community to reach out and check in with each other (phone, skype, facetime, letters!) and share those extra items you may have bought with those who may be struggling.

Most importantly, be kind to one another and don’t forget to wash your hands!

Sunday, March 8, 2020

How not to lose your city - Vacant storefronts Part 2

Activating downtown streets need not be complicated
by Mateja Mihinjac

In the previous blog, I presented the extent of vacant storefronts. This blog looks at how they impact crime and fear, and proposes some possible measures that could be implemented to tackle the problem.

Vacant storefronts may impact safety and perception of safety in two major ways. First, vacancies signify lack of ownership over the stores, especially if defaced, and can become crime generators or areas that trigger undesirable street behaviours.

This can be especially problematic if the number of vacancies within a defined area reaches its tipping point and becomes blighted, the concept from the Second Generation CPTED.

Even narrow back streets can become lively

Second, decreased street usage from vacant storefronts impacts perceptions of safety. Street users are strongly influenced by others around them that they perceive as non-threatening. This is why streets that focus on pedestrians and entice them with active storefronts and street vendors increase street activity and make the users feel safer.

Thus, if parts of the city communicate isolation or activities by undesirable groups, they will cease to be a place the general population visits, or visits only for a limited time.

Bicycle parking near outdoor seating - protecting property
while enjoying lunch


There are three main categories of possible responses: urban planning; economic development; rent and regulations.


  • Promote pedestrian-friendly and safe activity centers that avoid overreliance on cars and the demand for surface parking lots. We wrote about one type of safe activity center called the Neighborhood Hub in our SafeGrowth book.
  • Avoid exceeding the Second Generation CPTED concept - threshold capacity - when zoning downtown areas. Replace possible crime attractors with prosocial businesses or community places that act as crime detractors.  
  • Create a downtown that is more than retail (sticky places) with a mix of activities that will attract people to visit and stay. For example, shopping malls have expanded to include medical services, cinemas, dining and entertainment options, and libraries. 
  • Plan for a diverse range of businesses and corridors in different neighborhoods and populate vacant shops with tenants less vulnerable to the e-commerce effect (i.e. less dry retail shops). Remember: commercial streets need flexibility to adapt to changing economic trends, consumer preferences, and demographics. 

Grocery stores with healthy food options - planning for health


Pop-ups help street life


  • Provide tax deductions for business owners and developers to occupy the shops quickly and similar financial incentives
  • Institute vacancy tax/fees and remove tax deductions on vacant shops.
  • Change existing regulations and remove inflexible or prescriptive policies that create obstacles for business owners and increases costs of operation.


Any initiatives targeted at boosting business and providing incentives for business owners and shoppers are futile if safety concerns are not addressed.

I disagree with the perspective that urban regeneration should start only when crime drops. Waiting for problems to arise only perpetuates the vicious cycle of crime while citizens stay away from downtown areas. When that occurs, shop owners are left with few options except to purchase expensive and obstructive security measures. This is why safety is an integral part of successful and liveable neighborhoods.

Despite claims to the contrary, reclaiming livability from neighborhoods with entrenched crime and blight is much more difficult and costly than preventing it in the first place. Integrating land uses, zoning, economic activity, regulations and rents, in collaboration with local stakeholders, is the key to livable active streets and what we now call Third Generation CPTED.