A recent walk in some urban laneways brought to mind mystery stories of Sherlock Holmes’ chasing murderers lurking in dark, foggy alleys.
In real life, laneways are a hidden and complex urban landscape we seldom consider in our formulations for safer cites. We write about them in our stories, but not until the New Urbanists reintroduced them as a modern feature of their residential street design did we refocus on them as a crime location.
Most experienced beat cops walk downtown laneways, especially at night, because that is where things happen. Burglars frequent them because they offer easy access to the rears of homes. And kids vandalize and steal from cars in them because laneways are traditionally hidden from view.
As I compared some lively laneway designs with others that were not (the top photo), it was obvious poor laneway design is not inevitable. Laneway research is emerging revealing other options. I have posted blogs on laneway life, laneway chic, and permeable fine grain design.
One Australian study on laneway crime suggests designers pay more attention to width/length, visibility from the ends, and the number of residences.
But our work in SafeGrowth, and my recent walks, suggests something different: laneway activation is much more than physical size and shape. It is also about creatively figuring how to retain car parking and trash disposal uses, while at the same time creating interesting places for socializing.
That might sound unappealing at first. Yet the cool laneway in these photos features streetscaping, decorative lighting, a community garden at the end, and rear door porches to encourage laneway socializing. If designers provide an interesting option that residents need, they will use it and also keep it safe.
Public housing is an enigma in the fabric of the city. On one hand, most public housing is decent, safe and important. It provides an invaluable service offering affordable housing to those who, for various reasons, are left out.
On the other hand, far too much public housing results in the projects, unsafe warrens of drug dealers and crime.
In some ways, the worst side of unrepaired and ignored public housing emerges as a shadowland across the modern city, places that breed gang activity and fear. Our early SafeGrowth work began in such a place in Toronto.
The original defensible space writing of Oscar Newman was based on public housing in the 1970s, much of that in New York.
I recently spent time working in New York City. Anyone who studies or practices crime prevention will know the work of Oscar Newman, a Canadian-born, New York architect who created defensible space theory - also known in some circles as crime prevention through environmental design - CPTED.
Jake Blumgart’s Next City article about public housing in New York highlights the work of Newman with the New York City Housing Authority. It discusses his early conclusions about design flaws and crime opportunity - the basic principles of 1st Generation CPTED.
It also describes Newman’s conclusions about the larger role of social structure of public housing - concentrating poor residents in one project, youth-to-adult tenure policies, and percent tenants on welfare. Those familiar with the Second Generation CPTED will recognize those as the Capacity Principle. Second generation strategies in public housing have had considerable promise, as reported by DeKeseredy.
COMMUNITIES OF INTEREST
A careful reading of early Newman’s Defensible Space, and especially his later Community of Interest reveals that he always considered design only one part of the crime opportunity equation. He was saying this as early as 1976:
"Research on residential crime patterns in 150,000 New York City public housing units has established that the combined effect of the residents' social characteristics and the projects' design affects the crime rate."
Still, I doubt that Newman really calculated all the complicated shadowland equations of public housing. There is much work yet to be done.
Today is America's Independence Day - the time for celebrating a government by and for the people. Local governance seems a long way off this election season. So for solace, I turn to local governance on the street in the form of placemaking.
There are plenty of amazing street designs, laneway experiments, and examples of tactical urbanism that enliven and activate the street. The more people who walk and enjoy what Jane Jacobs called the street ballet the easier it is to humanize our neighborhoods and reduce fear and crime. This is the magic that is placemaking.
But did you ever notice how some versions of placemaking seem too expensive for the average person? Who has the time or money to redesign a laneway or install fancy lights, landscaping and pavement treatments?
LOOK TO THE LOCALS
An answer surfaced on recent trips to Toronto and Colorado Springs. The former took form in a small corner convenience store in a Toronto residential neighborhood.
After suffering a burglary last fall and installing window bars, the owner decided to explore some inventive placemaking of her own. She transformed the front and side of her shop into a mini-market and outdoor gathering place.
Inside the store she brings in local artists and artisans with samples of their work. With a vested interest in seeing their own work, and the chance to visit with others, locals and families frequent the corner store and create their own neighborhood nexus with very little cost to the storeowner.
Another answer appeared along a downtown laneway in Colorado Springs. In this case locals used color and paint to enliven an otherwise dead space.
Rather than an alley with dead spaces, poor lighting and droll walls, these shopowners painted walls, installed local art, and used overhead colored LED lights to bring some energy to the space. When a few people located their shops along the alley, the space turned into a social gathering place.
It really is not difficult to trust locals and work with them in coming up with ways to turn spaces into places. Jacobs said it 50 years ago: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because and when, they are created by everybody.”