Saturday, December 31, 2022

Community hotspots and digital fasts - A wish for 2023

Seeking authentic human connections in a digital age - photo by israel palacio on Unsplash

by Mateja Mihinjac

I rarely watch TV, however, in the spirit of holidays, I was recently drawn into watching one of those predictable Hallmark Christmas movies. Set in a small town where everyone knows each other, idyllic streets and small family-owned shops were decorated in a festive spirit. And there would be no Hallmark movie without a romantic twist of the two protagonists who find each other despite all the obstacles in their lives and live happily ever after.

However, despite a predictable happy ending and the idyllic small-town living that is often far from reality, one takeaway from this movie was the notion of a community hotspot.

This community hotspot is not a hotspot in a digital sense where you connect your smartphone. It is also not like a crime analyst’s high-crime hotspot. In this film, it refers to a long-standing town cafĂ© where local residents from all walks of life regularly meet, both intentionally or accidentally. 

Northley Street Organic Market, Brisbane.
This open market provides ample free opportunities for informal socializing 

In a blog this past summer Tarah referred to such places as “third places” — places where people come together, meet and socialise.

In today’s digital era we hardly ever associate a hotspot with anything else than digital connectedness. In truth, connecting online through our devices rarely creates a true and authentic sense of connection. 

What if we intentionally created “community hotspots” and “community hot-times”, designated places and times away from digital devices and purely focused on in-person human connection? What if we intentionally adopted digital fasts as a way of restraining ourselves from digital devices (especially social media), for a specific period of time in favour of real human connection?

Old's Cool General Store, Toronto.
This convenience store opened up the sidewalk with tables and umbrellas as a meeting place

My wish for all of us is that we enter a new year more intentionally and reflect on what brings us closer together with others. For me that includes spending time in nature, connecting with people in real life, and less time staring at dopamine-generating/energy-draining digital devices. 

A true hotspot should be about community and it should bring us closer together, not further apart.

Happy 2023!

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Night safety in Sebring - street & sidewalk advocacy

Sebring, Florida - sometimes, getting residents to start working together on street safety begins with a lighting contest and decorating docks for a Christmas boat parade

GUEST BLOG: Jason Tudor is an urban planner and SafeGrowth practitioner living in Florida. Jason was a facilitator of the successful SafeGrowth project in the Hollygrove neighborhood of New Orleans. He is also a co-author of SafeGrowth: Building Neighborhoods of Safety and Livability. In this blog, Jason describes Safety Audits and street activation in his home city.

When I participated in my first safety audit with the SafeGrowth team in 2009, I felt the same thrill many first time SafeGrowthers feel when rational analysis of a space replaces the fear of it. Safety audits have appeared in this blog before. 

For many of us who do not have an academic or professional background in criminology, crime and the fear of crime are so overwhelming that one feels helpless to do anything about it. During a safety audit, you dissect what might seem like a dark street corner with shadowy figures and analyze the lighting, territoriality, and social cohesion. The audit helps residents apply an analytical tool as a way to help them see that crime and fear are not insurmountable.  

I recently leveraged tools like the Safety Audit to help organize my neighborhood in Sebring, Florida.  


Sebring is in the center of peninsular Florida about an hour south of Orlando. It was developed in the 1920s and it is one of Florida’s most rural cities that services acres of surrounding ranches and orange groves. After moving to Sebring in 2020, I quickly learned the town was still traumatized by the 2009 financial crisis. Half-built neighborhoods and closed shopping centers were common throughout the county of about 100,000 residents. 

Although my immediate neighbors were friendly, Sebring is very insular. It is planned around a large circle and the city radiates out on an arterial spoke system. Residents kept to themselves but were not shy about sharing their bitterness about a town still economically ravaged while Miami, Tampa, and Orlando were booming. Sebring is also still reeling from a mass shooting at a local bank in 2019 in which five people were murdered.

As I met more of my neighbors, I was struck by the comments about how Sebring used to be something, but isn’t anymore. Most Florida towns have had the charm paved out of them by Florida’s Department of Transportation with their ever-expanding highways. The main street leading to the downtown is now a four-lane highway without trees, crosswalks, or bike lanes.  

Sebring Fire Department got in on the community efforts
and lit up their station for the first time

As a planner and SafeGrowth practitioner, tools like the Safety Audit have helped me reframe my thinking about how I interact with space. The feeling of loss and hopelessness in many Sebring residents were the same feelings I saw years ago when I worked in a neighborhood with a violent crime problem. I knew that changing a neighborhood begins with simple steps but what was missing in Sebring was a spark to ignite residents to take action. What was that spark?


My first Christmas in Sebring provided the answer. While driving downtown I saw several men setting out decorations. Within a few days, the little town circle transformed into a sparkling decorated Christmas village. The next weekend I heard boats on the town lake blowing their horns to announce the arrival of the town’s holiday boat parade. The following week the city hosted its annual Christmas parade with crowds along the parade route. These were all volunteer-organized events without any commercial or governmental support. 

Then it hit me! This town loves Christmas, but you wouldn’t know it by walking along residential streets outside the circle. Houses and businesses were dark during the holidays. What better way to meet your neighbors and get more people involved then having a friendly competition to encourage residents to decorate their houses and businesses.  

The following year I met with neighbors and asked if they would help organize a neighborhood holiday decorating competition. Six of us met at the local Elks Club and came up with Light Up Lake Jackson. 

The residents, many of who had never met although they lived in the same neighborhood most of their adult lives, wanted Light Up Lake Jackson to encourage participation through a holiday lighting competition.   

One of the committee members offered to help us contact residents who lived along the main street. Another resident offered to design and decorate postcards, yard signs, and flyers. I built a website and everyone knocked on doors to hand out flyers talking about the competition. In just a few months, six residents had a complete plan for a neighborhood holiday decorating contest.  

The lighting decoration Christmas contest idea took off among residents.
It led to changes in street activation and also roadway safety


The response from the neighborhood was incredible. We got 27 entries in that first year with residents decorating their palm trees, apartment buildings, churches, and docks on the lake. The dark streets of Sebring during the holidays began to light up. The success of Light Up Lake Jackson encouraged the committee members to do more the following year. 

The next year the residents recruited more neighbors to volunteer. Local civic organizations created a calendar of activities to connect existing activities with new ones, activities that included a Christmas market, a Christmas festival, food trucks, and live music. The committee hosted another light-up competition which brought some of the most over-the-top decorating the neighborhood had ever seen.

As residents walked around town to see the lights they noticed how unsafe the streets felt with the four lanes of traffic speeding through town. According to one resident, it was a “shame” we can’t safely cross the street when walking to enjoy the Christmas lights. The neighbors asked to meet with the city to find out how to calm the speeding traffic. This led to the Florida Department of Transportation recommending a speed reduction and prioritizing the street for wider sidewalks, crosswalks, and bicycle lanes.  

The SafeGrowth philosophy is premised on the collective power of activated residents driving change in their own neighborhoods. Getting residents to recognize their collective power is the first step. Finding a reason, like a Safety Audit, to bring your neighbors to the street and see their neighborhood from a different perspective is all you need to do. The collective imagination of residents is a powerful force. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

A post-Ferguson wake-up & recovering lost memories - Part 2


Police patrol cars in New York - crime prevention
is considered a primary goal of policing. 

by Gregory Saville

The problem-oriented policing (POP) model has been around for decades successfully teaching police officers how to solve problems in partnership with communities. As I mentioned in last week's blog, years ago I chatted with POP founder, Professor Herman Goldstein, and asked him: When will police adopt a fundamentally better way to work with the community and solve problems?

The Ferguson riots unfolded in 2014, along with subsequent protests about excessive force and racism in dozens of other cities, but few remembered that POP had already pointed to better police methods. Eight years ago we knew very well there was a better, and proven, way forward. 

Yet, it seems that POP faded from police planning and development so much that by the time the federal government published the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing a year after Ferguson, there was not a single reference to the POP movement. It is as if the Task Force authors had collective amnesia. It did not mention the successes of POP as a crime-fighting or as a community-building tactic. 

Instead, authors conflated “problem-solving” as a catch-all term under community policing. “Problem-solving” is a ridiculous term that means everything and nothing at the same time. Without a clear definition and coherent steps, the term is meaningless.

Clearly, they lost the plot. 

Finding, and responding to, crime hotspots in parks, apartments, businesses,
and other places is the latest and greatest in police tactics


Why did this happen? Police had already figured how to implement problem-oriented policing. They already knew how to make it part of their regular duties.  And yet the evidence did not sway police leaders and their political bosses. 

Since 1979, when Professor Goldstein first introduced POP, we have seen the emergence of dozens of tactics for police effectiveness:

Each tactic has admirers and detractors, but none have survived the test of time like POP. Many have already been debunked or, at least, challenged on questionable ethics and constitutional grounds. For example, critics claim SQF can exacerbate the crisis of legitimacy and trust. In another example, predictive policing is criticized for “perpetuating systemic racism through the use of biased data”.

Hotspots are often locations where crime opportunities flourish,
such as vacant and unsupervised downtown parking lots

And then there are outright failed strategies like the ‘put-a-cop-on-every-corner’ idea. Consider Philadelphia Police who ran “Operation Safe Streets” in 2002 and put over 200 cops on the worst drug dealing intersections 24-7 in the hopes it would stem the tide of drugs and violence. Like all methods that hack at the branches, it did not go as planned. 

One scientific evaluation put it bluntly: There were no city-wide impacts on drug crime, homicides, or violent crimes. 


Luckily, some approaches like hotspot policing are re-discovering problem-oriented policing. Hotspot policing is not really a prevention strategy. It is not what police do, but rather where they do it. Crime analysts and patrol supervisors locate small areas of repeat crime and violence and then have officers target that spot. By focusing on micro-locations at apartment buildings, local bars, troublesome parks, or risky parking lots, the eventual goal is for crime to drop across the city at the macro level. 

Arguably, the unstated motto of hotspot policing is: start small, finish big. Of course, there is no guarantee small starts will do the trick, but that’s the goal.  

The concept of hotspots in criminology emerged a long time ago. Studies on auto theft in Peel Region and the Minneapolis hotspot experiment emerged in the 1980s, but not until fairly recently did police do anything with that knowledge. Unfortunately, the fact that one of the worst examples of excessive use of force and racial conflict in recent years arose in Minneapolis, suggests that hotspot policing is not really an answer to some important bigger questions. 

Today hotspots are the popular prevention-kid-on-the-block. There is a flood of studies on every aspect of hotspots: how to find robbery hotspots; how to calculate the “hottest” part of a hotspot; or how to find hotspot schools. Criminologists are renaming whole areas of criminology the criminology of place or place-based policing. Perhaps the best review of the topic is Martin Andressen's exceptional book “Environmental Criminology: Evolution, Theory, and Place”.

Simple prevention signs are one preventive tactic in hotspots  

Insightful researchers are also careful to describe hotspot policing as a deployment tactic, not a community crime prevention strategy. Interestingly, in some hotspot projects police use POP with great effect. 


This brings problem-oriented policing back into the limelight and returns us to 
my conversation with Professor Goldstein in the last blog. I don’t know what he would say about this recent bevy of policing tactics. He seldom publicly aired his views about such things without prudent analysis and careful thought. 

I do know Goldstein was enormously proud and impressed by those officers who, through creativity and perseverance, worked with others in the community, used thorough crime analysis, and made places safer with POP. He loved hearing their stories and talking to them about how they found inventive ways to work with communities. 

And that is as good an ending to this story as I can imagine.

The International Problem-Oriented Policing conference for 2023 will be announced on the POP Center website. Watch for it.