Sunday, July 26, 2020

Think of the teenagers

Many claim teens spend all their time on phones. Lacking
physical 'third places', this is where they seek their community

by Tarah Hodgkinson

This week we continue to watch the unfolding of the Black Lives Matter movement. As Portland becomes the new epicentre of unrest, local residents are out in droves standing against federal law enforcement. Federal authorities claim to be protecting statues from toppling and other property damage, though one could argue human life is receiving far less respect.

Residents have taken to the streets to demand a better future for themselves and their kids. Amidst the horror of watching the news about Portland, I have been reading Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg, the writing highlighted in Ifeoma Ebo and Greg Saville’s SafeGrowth presentation in Sweden last November.


I’ve always found reading Klinenberg like sitting down with an old friend. I don’t know exactly where the conversation will lead, but it will be engaging and familiar. However, just as I was settling into the accustomed pace of these ideas, a particular quotation resonated with my background thoughts of Portland. Speaking about teenagers and their tendency to shun face-to-face interactions in exchange for online communication, Klinenberg writes,
“According to research by danah boyd, director of the research institute Data & Society, young people spend so much of their social time online because adults – from helicopter parents to hyper vigilant school administrators and security guards – give them few other options”. 
Public places are designed for children, not teens

Right now, as mothers are forming human barricades between the protesters and federal agents, youth are rising up in unprecedented numbers. Sparked by the work done by the “March for our Lives” movement and others, our youth have their heads up and are looking at a pretty bleak future.

There is an ongoing lament about the younger generation. Books like The Dumbest Generation claim that the digital age has stupefied young people and made it so they are unable to engage in deep thought and meaningful conversations. However, this lament is not new. As research suggests, every generation has complained about the one after it. Indeed there is so much complaint about Millennials, most people forget that Millennials like me are in our thirties and forties with full-time careers and kids.

What Klinenberg describes is that when we deny spaces for youths to interact and engage without constant monitoring by adults, we deny them third places. These great good places, where teenagers can put aside family and school, have all but disappeared. Short of a few skateboard parks (that often impose strict rules) and community centres, there are no real places where youth can stumble upon other youth.

Teens need places to socialize


Young people need these unstructured and unmonitored spaces. These spaces should be flexible, inexpensive, inclusive of all groups, and located in neighbourhoods that do not fear the presence of young people. They should allow youth to meet and interact with diverse groups and grow intellectually and interpersonally. More importantly, in times like these, great good places create ways for young people to plan and engage civically. That kind of work cannot be done alone and online, as demonstrated in Dave Cullen's Parkland.

In a post-COVID world, we need to think about how we build social infrastructure with young adults. They need to be at the table and actively involved in these decisions. Many of our SafeGrowth communities have already worked alongside youth who are a part of local organizations, for example with neighbourhood Hubs in Honduras and while placemaking their own spaces in New Zealand.

More importantly, we need to be even more proactive and involve youth from across the spectrum of neighbourhood needs.

Not only will these third places encourage young people to make new friends and develop socially, but also help to build social capital and connection across diverse racial, sexual and class divides. These spaces will help us to build the better future our young people are already fighting for today.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

How will the pandemic change our lives?

Social and sporting events pre-pandemic - How will they change?

by Tarah Hodgkinson

How do we understand changes in our social life during an exceptional event, like the current pandemic? Over the last several months we’ve watched the world change dramatically in response to COVID-19. Many places are experiencing second waves, further lockdowns, economic crises and the tyranny of the masses. 

The pandemic raises a number of questions, in particular, what will happen to our social life? Exceptional events can be anything from the Olympics or other major sporting events, to major gatherings of people like G20 protests or natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, wildfires, or pandemics. 

I’ve spent much of my academic career studying these events. It comes down to three main theories predicting how crime will unfold in an exceptional event; 

social disorganization
social cohesion/altruism
opportunity theories. 

Each theory predicts a different outcome. 


Social disorganization suggests that during an exceptional event, crime and disorder will increase because the usual social order has been disrupted.  Exceptional events can exacerbate social inequality and emphasize the disadvantage for certain groups. 

Theories of social cohesion and altruism suggest that during an exceptional event, crime and disorder will decrease because people are more likely to help each other and act altruistically. 

SafeGrowth resident teams in Chicago - Pre-pandemic work to cut crime
Opportunity theories suggest that crime trends will go up and down based on opportunities for crime that are created or removed by the exceptional event. 

COVID-19 is certainly an exceptional event and cities across Canada and Australia have seen declines in most types of crime. Some crime types are up in some areas, such as domestic violence and commercial burglary. 

Other crime types are stable, such as drug-related crimes and robbery. Yet in the US, both increases and decreases in crime types are underway.

All of this should support opportunity theories. However, years of reading about the sociology of exceptional events, including being present on the ground for some of them, suggests there is more going on during COVID-19 than simply a change in opportunities.


Two authors come to mind. One is Rebecca Solnit, who wrote A Paradise Built in Hell. In this book, the author provides detailed evidence that in disaster situations, people engage in altruism above all else. 

The second author, Enrico L. Quarantelli has debunked numerous myths about social behaviour in disaster situations. He wrote extensively about the acts of altruism across New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 

This dramatically countered much of the media coverage of the disaster. So how do we explain changes in crime during COVID-19?

COVID-19 is unlike any other exceptional event. Inconsistent with much of the sociology of disaster literature, the pandemic is acting to force us apart and isolate us in a number of ways. Social distancing is counter to basic human needs for connection.

There is an innate drive towards social connection

While the fluctuating trends in certain crime types may suggest that opportunity theory might be better at explaining exceptional events like pandemics, I’m inclined to believe that the significant declines in crime more broadly, across Canada, Australia and parts of the United States are more consistent with social cohesion/altruism theories.

If this is true, people are responding in ways that help, not hurt, during this pandemic, despite the social distancing. Crime trends in COVID-19 might be indicating that even with a major shift to social interaction, our desire to connect and protect – the main premise of SafeGrowth - outweighs the opportunities that these events create.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Our country is not your sandpit

by Mateja Mihinjac

Public protests and demonstrations erupted throughout the world in recent years warning us about the perils of social inequity, racial inequality, and environmental concerns. And now, over the past few weeks, as anti-government protests are underway, much of the world has united over anti-discrimination and Black Lives Matter.

One common thread that links these protests is dissatisfaction with government leaders and their inaction that underlie these disparities.


In my home country of Slovenia in central Europe, every Friday since April citizens protest against the government’s misuse and abuse of power related to controversial decisions masquerading under the pretense of COVID-19 interventions.

The public outcry started on March 13 as the new right-wing coalition government took over the leadership following the resignation of the previous centre-left Prime Minister (just after his government declared a state of epidemic). Very quickly, problems arose in the public eye about a lack of legitimacy for this new government.

Recent anti-government Slovenian protest, Ljubljana
- photo Creative Commons

The backlash arose from numerous questionable government decisions: Ministerial salary raises at the time when the unemployment rate had peaked; poorly communicated COVID-19 intervention measures; and attempts to drastically increase police powers and discredit journalists. It included irregularities in the purchase of personal protective equipment, which is currently undergoing police investigation. Many accuse the government of autocratic aspirations.

More recently, the government changed environmental laws and introduced another COVID-19 intervention act. These measures exclude the citizens and limit the participation of NGOs and environmental organisations from decision-making in new infrastructure and building projects, a move many see as prioritizing capital over nature.

The resulting mass civic engagement and social unrest are unprecedented in my lifetime. Weekly demonstrations across Slovenia attract thousands of people! In the capital city of Ljubljana, the public has been gathering in front of the House of Parliament shouting “thieves” and “fascists”. They wave signs such as “our country is not your sandpit” signifying that the government should not be allowed to mold the country to suit their needs.

The government responded with barricading access to the square in front of the Parliament building, increasing police controls and identity checks, and criminalizing participation in demonstrations. As elsewhere around the world, such responses signal the need for reform and confirm that government institutions must listen to citizens' voices more seriously than in the past.

Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia in central Europe
- photo Wiki Commons


A system in which the government wishes to single-handedly control decision-making is not a system that is well-suited for any democratic country, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Competent democratic governance requires that everyone has a voice and that decisions are based on broad consensus. It requires that all sectors are accountable to the public and that processes are fair and transparent.

And how can this be achieved? Various organisations call for inclusive citizen participation. They call for empowering citizens and for participatory governing processes. Protesters demand reform of particular sectors, such as the police.


SafeGrowth takes another path. By proposing a system of networked urban villages, the SafeGrowth model calls for democratic local governance within each of the neighbourhood villages.

It transfers the decision-making power of the citizens from the national or large regional scale to a local-neighbourhood scale, but it does so in such a way that local, democratic and fully trained organizations can plan for neighbourhood needs. Moreover, the SafeGrowth’s Livability Academy program develops local leaders who represent the voice of residents and lead changes that address social and racial inequity. Neighbourhood-level change thereby becomes the bridge between government organisations and the wider community.

In SafeGrowth neighbourhoods from New Zealand to New Orleans residents thus become an integral part of their own governing system and they link to other surrounding neighbourhoods to coordinate how they solve problems and plan for their own future.

Pre-pandemic Ljubljana, in more peaceful times


It is no longer sufficient for governments to only ask citizens for input when mandated or when it creates top-down plans for development. It is no longer sufficient that the government expects that its citizens must trust the government and public institutions without question or dissent – the government also needs to trust the public and civic organisations, and start transferring the decision-making power back to local communities.

And along the way, we must create a more sustainable governance system in which politicians start considering the long-term consequences of their decisions beyond the expiry date of the next election. If we fail to do this, democratic governance may quickly become irrelevant and lose legitimacy. We need to turn this around. The country should be its citizens’ sandpit.