The quote above is from a 14th Century poem by Dante in which the first part is called Inferno, a hell in which the author makes his way past unimaginable, underworld horrors towards salvation.
In urban parlance Dante’s Inferno is an allegory for skid rows, ghettos, and high crime neighborhoods where drug dealers and gang bangers rule like medieval war lords.
I spent the past week in a pretty rough neighborhood – it doesn’t matter where since it could be any large city. I was working with an amazing community group to transform their neighborhood into something better.
Part of our week included visiting one portion of that neighborhood, for all intents an Inferno of open-air drug markets, among the worst anywhere. It is always sobering to visit such places, though sober isn’t the right word to describe the hundreds of addicts who call it home.
Surely a place strewn with heroin syringes, dense with garbage and litter, and blighted with the effluent of a drug shooting gallery is not a place for children. Yet there they were, coming home from school, walking past their drug dealing older brothers hanging on the corners of dilapidated sidewalks, waiting for inevitable customers from both far and near.
So many violent deaths from deals gone wrong! So many indigent addicts testing out some new strain of heroin while indifferent dealers wait nearby to see if their latest product kills or turns a profit.
Unlike other parts of the neighborhood, residents in the Inferno barely eke out a living. Many are afraid but haven’t the means to leave. Crime is rampant, but rents are cheap.
To the emergency doctors, beat cops, paramedics, social workers and community development specialists who work in such places, Infernos are a workplace where they learn the full measure of frustration.
To the addicts, homeless, and poverty-stricken trapped in the deprivation and disparity that replaces life with survival, Infernos are the prisons that shame the modern democracy.
To the drug dealers, their handlers, traffickers and their cartel overlords, and all the criminal parasites who pocket the urban fabric like the boils of the Black Plague, Infernos are their retail store and, in some ways, their prison too!
Traveling through Inferno, Dante discovers that sin is a product of desire – an irony here given the preponderance of drug addiction. But eventually, through hard work and a wise, caring guide, Dante is led out of Inferno.
The labor of my colleagues this week was inspiring. Their goal is to guide their community with wisdom, courage and hard work, away from Inferno and toward something better. They live the words written by Dante 700 years ago; “and we came forth to contemplate the stars.”
Given the unsustainabity of sprawl, the persistence of crime hotspots, and the unending call for a stonger sense of community, there is a thirst for on-the-ground examples of cohesive, safer and resilient neighborhoods. Cohousing is one.
I’ve been visiting cohousing projects around Denver over the past few months and working with a group establishing an art and culture oriented cohousing community. Here is what I’ve learned.
Cohousing is not for everyone. Some prefer towering condo apartments. Others prefer remote homes hidden in the bush. Those, of course, are legitimate choices.
However the overall trend is in the opposite direction. Over 80% of the developed world lives in urbanized cities. The UN says the majority of the world is now urban. More people migrate into cities than ever before. The truth is, cyber-creep notwithstanding, we are urban and we are social.
I’ve been following the cohousing movement for 20 years. I described cohousing here 5 years ago - Avoiding a wire-esque future and Fernwood Urban Village in Victoria, BC.
Most cohousing projects look like 25-35 unit condominiums with private residences and amenities similar to those anywhere. Yet cohousing communities are designed differently because they are designed by and for residents themselves in collaboration with architects. Cars are kept to perimeter parking and pedestrian walkways, gardens, and common greenspace areas are in the center.
Cohousing governance is painfully democratic, intricate, and based on extended friendship networks. Those networks emerge from things like carpooling, shared childcare, sharing tools and common facilities like workshops and community gardens. Networks emerge from regular training in conflict resolution, mediation, and governance methods - the latest version is sociocracy. In the cohousing group I work with we are offering training in emotional intelligence skills.
Cohousing architecture includes a central common house with a library, guest rooms, play areas for kids and a large dining/kitchen area for community meals a few times a week.
A few years ago the Cohousing Association of the United States funded a national survey of the cohousing phenomenon. How successful is cohousing and how does it differ?
Here is what it found:
In my experience, cohousing has lower crime and a greater desire for collaboration on difficult problems. They live more sustainably with shared gardening, recycling and ride sharing. And at the very core of social sustainability, they seem to call police less frequently to solve most problems that they instead solve themselves.
There are still issues to resolve in cohousing. For example internal conflict is lessened but it is not absent. But on whole cohousing is the most cohesive, safe and resilient neighborhood design I've seen yet. It’s a model worth considering in the 21st Century city.
An antipode is the spot on the other side of the world from where you stand. If you stood in Washington, DC and tunneled through the Earth you’d emerge near Perth, Western Australia (well, more or less).
And since the White House last year released their vision for police reforms, Report on the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, that tunnel will have many advantages aside from 4,000 fewer surface travel miles.
Following months of anti-police violence and racial discord on American streets, the Task Force report responded with a far-reaching call for police reform. Given similar, albeit less dramatic, calls for reform elsewhere across the globe, this report is an oracle for a better future in many countries.
FROM WARRIORS TO GUARDIANS
The Task Force wants to transform police culture from warriors to community guardians. Problem-based learning (PBL) and the field training equivalent called PTO were two ways it recommended getting there. This delighted those of us who developed and wrote those programs for the COPS office and the Reno Police a decade ago.
That is where the Washington-to-Perth tunnel comes handy.
My colleague Gerry Cleveland and myself spent last month working with curricula developers and instructors at the Western Australia Police Academy north of Perth. Coincidentally these were major steps that accomplished many of exact recommendations in the Task Force report.
A BETTER 21ST CENTURY
Walking onto the WA Academy you admire the beautiful ultramodern architecture. It reminded me of a futuristic Star Fleet Academy from the sci-fi Star Trek series. The physical impression is that forward-thinking training makes sense here.
We certified a number of staff in PBL and emotional intelligence (EQ) skills, the very lifeblood flowing through the Task Force report.
Of course the WA Academy is building upon work already underway elsewhere. For example the academy in South Dakota has a significant head start. They too have trained their staff in PBL/EQ and made major steps into that same future.
If you read our recent book, You In Blue, about this education reform movement, the progress in South Dakota figures prominently.
Similarly at the LAPD academy, PBL trained instructors have made changes to curricula. In the late 1990s the Royal Canadian Mounted Police academy was among the first to experiment with PBL.
ADVANTAGES DOWN UNDER
But Western Australia might have three advantages.
[Note to Washington - A Tunnel-to-Perth might be helpful right about now.]