Every now and then a meme comes along over which it is worth getting stoked. This week the Dancing Traffic Light went viral. It is such a meme.
Lisbon, Portugal is among the oldest cities in Europe known for its magnificent Gothic architecture, world class museums, and cultural festivals. Drug laws are decriminalized and it enjoys one of the lowest crime rates in the world.
Yet even a successful city has problems like traffic! Pedestrians risk life crossing congested intersections and dangerous jaywalking results in injury. The Dancing Traffic Light solves that!
Lisbon's Dancing Traffic Light cuts pedestrian intersection jaywalking 80%. It is from a PR campaign by the Smart Car Company to "discover our mind openers – urban experiments for a better future for the city".
It brought to mind the bottle bank or the piano stairway projects from Volkswagen's Fun Theory. It's also similar to the Say Something Nice project in New York.
Is this is what Capitalism 3.0 meant by responsible corporate citizenship?
Beautiful places and streets attract people. They put eyes on the street, a basic principle of urban safety. I was recently reminded of a master architect of beauty, the award-winning Arthur Erickson, an architect the New York Times called Canada's pre-eminent Modernist architect.
While in Vancouver this week I spent time with Erickson's closest colleagues and friends, an impressive group who just like Erickson were concerned about both social equity and aesthetic beauty.
Modernism has not always had a good rap. Arguably, CPTED would not exist if not for the modernist planning and architecture that Jane Jacobs so bitterly attacked. Inappropriately applied modernism led to the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe social housing in 1960s St. Louis, the project dubbed indefensible and crime-ridden in Oscar Newman's Defensible Space.
Arthur Erickson showed another way; modernism done right! An example of his work appeared here previously regarding Vancouver's Robson Square.
The first Erickson building I ever entered was the Canadian Pavilion at the Expo 67 fair in Montreal in 1967, a kind of inverted pyramid. At the time I had no idea about architectural modernism. It just looked cool.
Later I studied at the Erickson inspired Simon Fraser University atop Burnaby Mountain in Greater Vancouver, a kind of spaceship in the sky. It too was very cool and futuristic - a fact not lost on film directors who have filmed there (BattleStar Gallactica, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Underworld Awakening).
Erickson taught it is the work quality, not the theory, that matters most in constructing beautiful places. The problem arises when modernism is done badly and applied inappropriately. This is the case in Pruitt-Igoe, Chicago's Cabrini-Green, Toronto's Jane/Finch, and the Chichy suburbs of Paris. Unsurprisingly, crime festers in such places.
The takeaway? Build sensitively and in social context. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yet too many new architectural forms do the latter and too few architects do the former.
In Erickson's own words:
"…the reaction to the bareness of ill conceived modernist buildings was to revert in the 80's to a revival of historicism in the guise of "post-modernism"… That Dark Age is thankfully over but cultural insecurity is always there, hidden in the basement of our psyches - ready to spring out whenever brave confidence falters.
It lingers in the gated communities where make-believe has become an adult panacea. It lingers with the developers who promote kitsch because it sells. It lingers with the newly rich and the establishment who need to consolidate social standing with class accepted standards. It lingers in every shopping centre, multiplex, restaurant, Vegas casino where illusion is needed to disguise the emptiness within."
- Arthur Erickson, 2000
This week I spent time with new friends at the Designing Out Crime (DOC) center at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia (UTS).
Criminology can be plodding and stagnant. This is no doubt surprising to outsiders like journalists who turn to criminologists for answers to the latest crime spree. Too often outsiders are fed stale abstractions with no real-life angle. Not so for the DOC centre in Sydney. In fact, even the architecture in and around the UTS campus, as the photos here show, reflected cutting edge thinking.
The sad fact is much academic criminology is very far from the cutting edge. Conference themes regurgitate the same tired issues. Researchers complain about a lack of evidence-based this or that (and funding that supports them).
On the flip side I have written about DOCs in London and Sydney. They breathe new life into an old story. Consider Laneway Chic in Sydney and Magic Carpets in the UK. This was the first time I got up close and personal visiting the Sydney HQ at UTS, meeting the DOC team and hearing their stories.
What fun! What a relief.
Design Out Crime theory has been around for awhile as an offshoot of CPTED, tinkering with security and target hardening. The DOCs, at least those I'm familiar with in London and Sydney, take a quantum leap forward. They innovate with a collaborative, action-based method. Their website describes how they "evolved towards transdisciplinary crime research…to improve the quality of life for law-abiding users of public spaces (and) adopting a broad approach to crime prevention."
I love this transdisciplinary approach. I first wrote about it in 1991 in my work on the Toronto Subway Security Audit. More complicated than consulting or advising, it is action research incarnate.
The transdisciplinary, action research method, along with DOC's real-life, community-partnering angle, is an important crime prevention breakthrough. Finally...some fresh air!