Thursday, November 30, 2023

The case for walkable neighbourhoods

Fun outdoor activities and safe walkability - keys for liveability

by Mateja Mihinjac

As I was going about my midday nature walk this week I was listening to a podcast on the importance of everyday movement and physical activity. In that podcast, walking was presented as a basic form of activity that humans have evolved to do. This resonated with a number of recent consulting projects in our SafeGrowth Network related to unwalkable streets, pedestrian fatalities, and unhealthy outdoor environments.

I am lucky to live in an area where I can access a nearby forest or complete my errands within a 15-minute walk. Many people in other places do not have this opportunity and this drawback has serious physical and mental health implications.

Playful design encourages playful outdoors


Many studies over the past decade have shown a connection between walkability and health. For example, a Belgian study showed how more walkable neighbourhoods promoted better health outcomes for older adults than those lacking walking infrastructure.

A Canadian study demonstrated the importance of built environment that supports walkability for promoting fitness activity and consequently health outcomes. In Japan, researchers found a link between cardiovascular mortality and neighbourhood walkability. One Malaysian study showed how living in a walkable neighbourhood contributes to higher levels of perceived quality of liveability compared to those living in less walkable neighbourhoods.

As we describe in our 3rd Generation CPTED theory, with easy access to green infrastructure, walkable neighbourhoods also create positive mental health effects. One such example is the Japanese practice of deep relaxation in the forest or forest bathing, especially welcome in hectic city environments. 

Physical health is related to positive mental health

In this era when we are so concerned about mental health and crime triggered by mental illness, we must build cities that encourage walkability and movement. Humans are meant to move and be active and motivation for movement needs to be clearly integrated into urban design.

Fortunately, some cities have attempted to encourage movement by gamifying physical activity – consider the famous example of the piano stairs in Sweden. Additionally, new city-wide initiatives have emerged for redesigning cities, that build on this movement concept, such as the Parisian “15-Minute City” concept.

Walkability takes place above and below ground


Carlos Moreno, the main author behind the “15-Minute City” suggests that cities need restructuring so that they offer access to amenities within easily accessible distance. He suggests achieving this through increasing the density of people and services, close proximity to activities, diverse populations and land uses, and digitalization in line with Smart City developments.

The steps recognise the importance that the built infrastructure plays in promoting walkability and physical activity. These steps also closely relate to the principles of holistic and integrated neighbourhoods in Third Generation CPTED and SafeGrowth.

Yet, despite the difficult-to-refute importance of integrated, dense and walkable neighbourhoods, the 15-Minute City has met resistance. Some criticize the concept as a conspiracy to prevent people from moving freely beyond their neighbourhoods. Others claim it is a socialist concept with an intent to restrict personal freedoms and to control the population.

Positive outdoor activities at night - sometimes colourful lighting helps

Many of these conspiracy claims were conflated with COVID restrictions that coincided with the popularisation of the 15-minute city and it remains a sore point for many. 

Another criticism of neighbourhood walkability is voiced by those who claim that walkable and liveable neighbourhoods are elitist and promote displacement and gentrification.

It may equally be true that those who voice such concerns are more worried about increases in housing prices and land values. 

Street furniture, too, plays a role in walkable cities


While these concerns should not be disregarded, they should not dissuade us from moving forward towards walkable, integrated and liveable cities. It is irresponsible to ignore walkability options given all the evidence related to public health, mental health, and environmental sustainability.

If we are to enhance public health and reduce mental stress, city planning must be part of the answer. It should be well thought out and tailored to specific neighbourhoods to integrate walkability. 

In SafeGrowth we strongly believe the pathway to do this successfully resides in partnerships with residents during the planning process. After all, it is in their neighbourhoods where they are walking. 

Friday, November 24, 2023

A bird's-eye view of safety - Urban morphology and crime

Astronaut Tim Kopra took this night photo of Chicago from space. Beginning in the 1920s, Chicago became a center of research into morphology as a crime factor - photo courtesy NASA

by Gregory Saville

The promise of scientific discoveries never guarantees positive results. That is up to us and the wisdom of our choices. But without rational thinking, data and evidence, and decent research on the problems of our day, we cannot expect to reap the rewards that proliferate in the sciences. This especially applies for city building and crime prevention.

That brings me to what social geographers call urban morphology. Urban morphology is the scientific study of the macro geometry and physical form of cities and towns, such as street patterns, land uses, and population densities – basically modern urban land use planning. It was during my university classes in urban morphology that I first learned why architects and urban planners think so differently. 

An architect might design building windows facing the street to improve natural surveillance and decrease crime. But a traffic engineer might design a wide, one-way street to speed vehicles from one region of the city to another. Speeding cars make a street inhospitable and unwalkable, in which case no one bothers to look outside. So much for natural surveillance. 

Many times I have been asked to look at street crime and noted empty sidewalks, loud vehicle noise from speeding cars, and high vehicle speeds on a wide, one-way street. Morphology matters and recent criminological research confirms it. 

The traditional suburban cul de sac - Photo by Michael Tuszynski on Unsplash


Take the cul de sac. Some criminologists claim that cul de sacs are the safest places to live because we get to know our neighbors which leads to territorial control and that cuts crime. Having lived on a cul de sac, I often questioned those assumptions. Were those assumptions actually based on scientific data or were they just a pocketful of anecdotes? 

In environmental criminology, I learned that cul de sacs were places of lower crime due to limited permeability, controlled access, and increased territoriality. Some studies supported that hypothesis.

Then new research challenged that hypothesis. One South Korean study showed how cultural factors can exacerbate, or mitigate cul de sac risks. Another study by Mateja Mihinjac in her criminology graduate research also challenged the cul-de-sac-is-good hypothesis. Her research indicated they had no impact. All this, of course, is how science is supposed to proceed:

Hypotheses are tested --> old theories fall --> new theories emerge.

Then I read the work of civil engineer, Charles Marohn, someone with decades of experience designing roads and streets. 

Marohn and his colleagues examined the fiscal side of street designs, including cul de sacs. They looked at the street engineering of cul de sacs and compared the fiscal costs of construction, maintenance, replacement, asphalt, and extruded curb costs, with other types of streets. The results were not encouraging. 

Cul de sacs were envisioned as safe areas
- Photo by Stephen Andrews on Unsplash

Another urban planner re-examined Marohn’s hypotheses and studied cul de sac street design costs in his own city. His research too was shocking. 

It turns out that cul de sacs make no fiscal sense. They are expensive to construct and difficult to maintain. Cities end up in the red when they attempt to cover costs. Tax revenue from residents does not come close to paying for cul de sacs. Costs for maintaining cul de sacs balloon as they age and they will eventually need huge property tax increases or federal subsidies – neither of which is likely. So not only are cul de sacs not exactly the crime panacea first thought, they are also fiscally unsustainable.


This research is a product of the Strong Towns movement. Strong Towns researchers raise all sorts of important morphology questions that pertain to crime. For example, what about all the excessive parking lots in cities and their contribution to safety, crime, and fiscal sustainability? 

Many modern cities have excessive parking, mostly unused

In Dallas, Texas 25% of the entire downtown land use is for parking cars, often the same empty parking lots where people are assaulted and cars are easily stolen. When Strong Town researchers dug into the municipal costs to cover car parking, the result was alarming. These are costs that could be better spent on housing the homeless, responding to toxic street drugs, or better public transit. 

The Strong Town advocates have some intriguing design answers. Installing curbside patios to replace downtown parking spots is one type of repurposing that can help. For example, Toronto instituted curbside patios and found they produce 49 times more money than the street parking spots they replaced  – again, money that might be tapped for better livability results.

Street patios are inexpensive, bring more fiscal returns than parking spots,
and provide a popular livability option 

Charles Marohn is the president of the Strong Town movement and his book, The Confessions of a Recovering Engineer is a must for those interested in city design and SafeGrowth.

It emphasizes the role of scientific research and evidence in urban planning and design if we are to reap the kinds of successes in crime prevention that we see in other branches of science. 

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Who you gonna call? An appropriate response to people in crisis - Part 1

Calling 9-1-1 for all situations is not ideal - photo Creative Commons

GUEST BLOG: Beth Dufek is a writer and marketing strategist for clients improving the built environment. She runs her own consulting firm in the Pacific Northwest. Previously she worked with the LISC non-profit organization, facilitated SafeGrowth projects in Milwaukee, and later worked with neighborhood groups in Seattle, Washington. She was named one of the Milwaukee Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 for her commitment to civic engagement and her ability to build trust in communities. As a member of the SafeGrowth Network, she teaches SafeGrowth in cities across the U.S. This is Beth’s first blog on responding to people in crisis on the street.

I transitioned from architecture into community development in 2006. For a decade I worked side-by-side with residents, business owners, City officials, government agencies, and nonprofits – the proverbial “stakeholders”. Our goal was to reimagine neighborhoods, identify barriers, develop strategies, and create long-lasting partnerships that would deliver thriving communities throughout Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Seattle, Washington. This is what draws me to SafeGrowth. 

In 2011, especially for the Zilber Neighborhood Initiative in Milwaukee, we had a process, but we never called it the 5 Steps like we do in SafeGrowth. We identified achievable projects, brought residents together, and presented a compilation of projects tightly packaged into a plan to an audience we hoped would help us with funding or other resources. The final product was an illustrated asset map, a neighborhood plan format that I love to this day. 

Photo from Lindsay Heights plan - Zilber Neighborhood Initiative

Fast forward to the next decade. In 2020 I joined the SafeGrowth Network, and I started co-facilitating SafeGrowth Trainings with Greg Saville in 2021. It was a natural transition. All neighborhood plans I have ever worked on, regardless of the income status of the residents, start with a safety strategy.  Among the top issues: who do we call when we need help? And with the state of mental health and drug addiction in the Pacific Northwest, this need feels greater than ever.


Case in point: in 2019 I took walks along Seattle’s waterfront. One week, I saw a human completely engulfed in a purple sleeping bag (I assumed it was a human) in the same position for 3 days in a row. The human in the sleeping bag was situated among people who were enjoying the park during sunny days. But they were in exactly the same position for 3 days. My imagination convinced me the sleeping bag was fuller than it was (perhaps a bloated dead body?). This vision played a significant role in my next moves. 

My concern was for the lack of human interaction with other humans experiencing drug addiction and mental health crises. A simple “Are you OK?”, rather than stepping over a human slumped on the sidewalk, took center stage. What if they are dead? Or need help? Who do I call? I tried the non-emergency police. No answer. Seriously. 


I called 911. I pleaded with them not to make a big deal, couldn’t someone just come by? The dispatcher asked me if I could tap the purple sleeping bag to see if they were OK, or alive. I can’t remember. No! I’m not trained to do this! What if I scare them and they attack me? What if they ARE dead?

Seattle Fire Department - Photo courtesy of Joe Mabel

Minutes later a Seattle Fire Department truck came barreling through Myrtle Edwards Park, drove right past me and then called me to direct them to my location. 

“Over here! Here I am! The one who has now disrupted everyone’s enjoyment of one of the 56 sunny days in Seattle because I care about this human … and listen to too many true crime podcasts!” 

I turned to the human near me and apologized and explained a fire truck was not the outcome I had imagined. I had a guy on a bike in mind who could assess the situation and call for additional help if needed. I walked with the paramedic over to Denise. I know her name is Denise because he said, “Oh that’s Denise. Denise, are you OK?” She was very much alive and none too happy that her afternoon sleep was disrupted! 

That made two of us. 

Since then, I’ve been thinking; why can’t all humans have a non-non-emergency number to call just to get a wellness check when they see someone in crisis? 

TriMet Safety Response Team - photo courtesy of TriMet


Through the SafeGrowth network, I found an entire agency that feels the same way. In 2021, the first SafeGrowth Training I co-facilitated was for TriMet, the three-county transit agency in the Portland, Oregon metro area. To date, we have trained 37 TriMet department directors and safety, maintenance, construction, and planning staff on how to use the SafeGrowth method to make staff and community-informed safety improvements along the transit system. 

We just wrapped up Part 1 for our third cohort of TriMet employees and TriMet contractors. This cohort has five members from TriMet’s Safety Response Team. I get emotional just thinking about how impressed I am with what they have done and what they plan to do to help the thousands of humans who find shelter along the TriMet system through their Reimagining Public Safety initiative.

In the next two blogs, I will write about TriMet’s Safety Response Team and the changing roles of transit operators, librarians, and other agencies that find themselves in new roles helping humans. 

But for now, I will be brave and ask, “Are you OK?”