Monday, August 31, 2020

Back to the future

by Gregory Saville

Today I spoke to some colleagues in Europe about teaching a virtual course in SafeGrowth to students at a Swedish Technical University. It was remarkable in a number of ways. First, although cultural differences between countries make it difficult to apply anything from one place to another, I was amazed at the many similarities between different people in different cultures. It seems we are not all that different. 

But it was another dimension to our conversation that struck me as surreal.

We were using Zoom, speaking in real-time, watching each other’s expressions thousands of miles, and many times zones apart. We showed different images on our computer files and used shared digital calendars to plan the workshop. I had never before met one of those colleagues and yet here we were, quite comfortable getting to share ideas and stories.

We dialed into our call as easy as changing chairs in a coffee shop. There was no difficulty or stress in setting up the meeting (aside from me fumbling with the wrong dial-in code). There was no fear of sharing with someone I had never before met in person.

Such is the reality of daily living in, not only a pandemic, but in the second decade of the 21st Century. 

You may think that is all so, well, ho-hum. But it is actually quite remarkable! 


It's a hot and muggy summer afternoon in 1961 and journalist Jane Jacobs is banging away on her Underwood typewriter in New York’s Greenwich Village. Her ideas will later turn into one of the most famous urban reform books of her generation “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”. Consider the reality of her world at that time, only one lifetime ago.

A typewriter of 1961 - photo Creative Commons

Overseas commercial jet travel was less than a decade old and a rare event for average citizens. Propeller airplanes were commonly used for overseas travel. Passenger ships were popular for commercial passage to and from Europe (I travelled to Britain on one as a kid 6 years later). Television was a novelty and broadcast in black-and-white. TV signals arrived via cumbersome TV “rabbit ears”. 

Suffice to say the internet and computers did not exist for private citizens. Laptop computers would not be invented for decades to come. For entertainment and amusement, kids would go outside and play. Just imagine! Music was unrecognizable compared to what airs today – the Beatles appearance in the U.S. was still 3 years away. 

In many neighborhoods, ice trucks transported huge ice blocks for home freezer boxes. Widely distributed electronic refrigerators were just being manufactured. Milk arrived at the front door of many homes in the form of a milkman placing milk bottles on your doorstep. Newspapers were delivered by the paperboy to each doorstep and the main source for immediate news was radio. 

During hot and muggy days of a New York summer, apartments like those of Jacobs became sweltering ovens, even with fans and open windows. Air conditioning units were far too large for common use – the rotary compressor was invented only four years earlier. 

The Greenwich Village apartment building where Jacobs lived in 1961

Crime flourished in many neighborhood pockets and, in the decades that followed, many American cities, in particular, would experience an unimaginable explosion of urban crime. The justice system of 1961 was, frankly, utterly unprepared for the crime storm on the horizon. 


Now fast forward 60 years from today to 2080! 

What new technologies will shape daily lives? How will we travel and how will we communicate? Will this pandemic, or the next, force us into permanent social distances and some futuristic face covering? Will personal intimacy be relegated to staged meet-ups and software date matching? We have worked with the Swedish Helsingborg City 2022 Smart City initiative and they ask these very questions about our cities of tomorrow.

How will we communicate in 2080?

What will our streets and neighborhoods look like? Will we get climate change under control or will the number and intensity of weather catastrophes erase coastal cities and trigger mass migrations like never before in history? Or will renewable technologies create electric vehicles and flying drones to transport us in highways in the sky? Certainly, those technologies are already in our grasp. Will artificial technologies transform our cities into Smart Cities in which we need no longer worry about car crashes, traffic jams, or traffic? Will cars exist?

The technologies we take for granted today would be fantastical to the Jane Jacobs of 1961. As she pounded away at her typewriter in a humid and stuffy hot New York afternoon, today’s world would be as alien as a Martian from the 1950s science fiction film, War of the Worlds

If we are to believe Einstein (I place my bets on Albert), then time travel is quite impossible. So, there is no way to know what will unfold by 2080. Some of you reading these words will be alive to see those times and I wonder what you will see. 

Today, as I chatted with friends far away, with technologies unimaginable long ago, it occurred that the ideas we develop, the actions we take, and the virtual courses we teach, represent an important drop in the proverbial pond of time. Jacobs wrote well. We learn from her words even today. For the sake of our progeny, may we offer the same kind of wisdom for their future!

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Essential spaces for healthy city living

Urban apartments without social or green spaces nearby
- a recipe for trouble

By Mateja Mihinjac

During coronavirus lockdowns, there is much talk about essential and frontline workers and how we depend on their services. Indeed, they have been paramount in supporting us for many months. 

After weeks of the crisis, essential workers are exhausted from working overtime. Many others in lockdown, quarantine, shelter in place, or any other manifestation of physical distancing, experience psychological effects of cabin fever.

Some apartments lack any decent social space



In this new reality, many of us experience mental tension and emotional distress, in some cases resulting from the serious psychological impacts of isolation, including depression and anxiety.

It is no surprise that so many of us are finding ways to alleviate these symptoms through nature. Green urban parks are busy offering refuge for local residents during sunny days. In my own neighbourhood I regularly meet walkers and hikers despite being instructed to stay home. Similarly, people in our coastal towns cannot resist outdoor sun craving while lying on the beach – many were fined for doing so during stay-at-home orders.

Others feared the consequences and remained at home.

Pre-COVID green, social spaces in New York

As I noted in March in my blog on Resilience during COVID, in European countries such as Italy, France, and Spain that practice stricter forms of lockdowns, thousands of residents sit on their (often tiny) balconies to enjoy the fresh air, soak in some sun, and connect with their neighbours on other balconies. Yet far too many citizens are deprived of that opportunity as well.

Those living in city apartments without balconies are stuck between four walls. One example is Melbourne public housing towers where residents are ordered to remain in their small apartments for weeks without balconies to resort to in lieu of green space.

Rooftop gardens offer great social spaces

Unfortunately, similar stories of essential space deprivation are common for those living in socially and economically deprived areas. In these places, people are deprived because their neighbourhoods have the least green space and few places to socialize, which in turn contributes to poor physical, social and emotional health. The deficit of essential green social spaces repeats itself across North AmericaAustralia, and Europe.


We know very well about the benefits of green infrastructure for health and emotional wellbeing. The effect of green space on alleviating the symptoms of mental tension and improving emotional and physical health outcomes is well documented.

Because of their prominence, I consider green spaces essential spaces. Access to essential green spaces is indispensable and should be widely accessible in all cities. 

Nested between apartment towers and busy streets,
pocket mini-parks offer respite


Green infrastructure has even been associated with lower crime and has well-known benefits for building social capital. Green urban spaces will help us buffer the effects of negative social impacts that will ensue from this period and they will speed the post-pandemic recovery.

In SafeGrowth we consider these essential green spaces the linchpin for planning safe and livable neighbourhoods, especially those neighbourhoods already employing advanced neighbourhood governance and planning systems like SafeGrowth. 

My hope is that with the many changes unfolding in post-pandemic cities we prioritize essential green spaces over grey spaces of concrete and asphalt. We owe everyone access to essential green spaces in all corners of our future neighbourhoods.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Uncovering a message from our past

Excavations at the cave of Santa Ana
Photo Creative Commons Mario Modesto

by Gregory Saville

I came across an interesting artifact while digging through some old conference files this week. It brought to mind a story…

He was already a legend when he attended A Crime Prevention Workshop, the 1975 Toronto event that introduced CPTED to Canada. He had been a one-time cat-burglary (until his arrest and prison term) and he was a former Hollywood stunt man on the original Mutiny on the Bounty. University of Alberta’s Professor Gwynn Nettler delivered what must have been the most provocative paper at the event – he questioned how it was possible to do crime prevention with such poor quality science within the social sciences – a topic that would later come back to haunt today’s social sciences. 

By all measures, Professor Nettler, a Stanford trained sociologist and arguably Canada’s most pre-eminent criminologist, was a charismatic, academic iconoclast. Time magazine once called him “a wonderful burglar” and later, the American Society of Criminology awarded him its highest award.

Nettler's classic text: Boundaries of Competence:
How Social Studies Make Feeble Science

In his eulogy, the American Sociological Association wrote he “cherished music, from opera to Ellington, and cut a dashing figure with his presence, the sports cars he drove, and especially the ladies he loved.” He was the Indiana Jones of the criminology world - at least in my quarantine-deprived imagination. 


Nettler often wrote about the impotence of science within social research. “The first part of becoming a scientist…is to be able to recognize rules that merely draw circles and rules that are so phrased that everything that happens confirms them and nothing that happens disconfirms them.” As we outlined a few blogs ago, this is the essential flaw in the Routine Activity Theory of crime. 

Arthur Hughes 1870 painting "Sir Galahad,
the Quest for the Holy Grail" - Photo Creative Commons

Theoretically trained scientists are taught how to recognize the error of logic circles – which is why the holy trinity of a motivated offender/capable guardian/suitable target cannot predict anything with accuracy. And without prediction, Nettler reminds us, it is neither science nor a theory. If we are to move forward in crime prevention, we must have legitimate theories on which to base our work!

For example, it might be attractive to surmise that poor lighting avails criminals to commit strongarm robberies at night when unsuspecting victims walk by. It might – if it were true. But if turning on more lights makes it easier for the crook to locate his victim, (in other words, the motivated offender adapts to the suitability of his target) then lighting provides neither the answer nor the prevention. 

Or worse, as suggested recently in the Black Lives Matter movement, if CPTED controls access into some urban areas in the hope that excluding “outsiders” will prevent crime, it may end up targeting some races and income groups from others. Exclusionary crime prevention theories will not make things better, as we see in today’s racial protests.  

Exclusionary crime prevention?
Even the Great Wall of China didn't work
Photo Jakub Halun


While Nettler described some neighborhoods as triggers for crime, he was sceptical of standalone causes, like poverty and ghetto housing. The Indiana Jones of the 1970s knew enough of science to insist on clarity and reliable observations to support concepts. So what does such a theory look like within the crime prevention world today?

I have insisted at each step in our SafeGrowth work that we seize on a well-established concept of social cohesion called neighborhood collective efficacy

Consider for a moment a neighborhood suffering from poverty, inequity, poor relations among residents, dilapidated infrastructure and housing, and hopelessness. It will be of little surprise that in such places you find yourself facing high crime and victimization risks. Incidents of street violence and fear will outstrip other areas in the city, and demands for social services will produce an exorbitant strain on municipal coffers. Locations like this are not the only place of crime, nor do they house all kinds of crime. But there is little doubt crime concentrates in such places. 

Crime concentrates in specific city neighborhoods

Walk a short distance and you will discover neighborhoods with average incomes, adequate basic services, friendliness among neighbors, functioning infrastructure and decent housing, and some degree of happiness. Here you will uncover a fairly safe place with low crime and victimization. Incidents of street violence will be rare and municipal service providers will rarely visit such places. 

Nettler described such places in his classic text Explaining Crime. Research from the geography of crime shows these patterns all over the world; crime hotspots cluster in the first type of neighborhood, not in the second. The consistency of these observations provides a sound basis to build a crime prevention theory. 

So, we have. 


In SafeGrowth we put this theory into practice through community development and social cohesion. Our work predicts and produces safer and more livable neighborhoods. This occurs from Christchurch, New Zealand and Toronto, to Hollygrove in New Orleans, New York, and in  Philadelphia.

This is a robust theory of crime prevention that comes close to what Nettler described in his search for the building blocks of a good theory. Few social theories of any kind approach the precision of the general theory of relativity in physics. But collective efficacy and SafeGrowth are among those that aim for that quality.  

When the pandemic threats and racial unrest that plague our streets begin to subside, we will search for ways out of our collective mess. Like the archaeologist seeking answers to long lost questions, we will need answers about how to rebuild safe and livable neighborhoods.

We need not look very far.