From the streets of Mexico City to the streets of Montreal. A modern megalopolis sprawling on the plain of an ancient volcano that, a millennia ago, held a population larger than Imperial Rome. A beautiful island city larger than Manhattan and nestled in the St. Lawrence River, re-settled by Samuel de Champlain in 1611 from the original native inhabitants.
There's nothing quite so jarring as culture-jamming from one country to another, the biggest shock being the weather; cool, mild evenings in one, winter's first snow in the other.
One day I watched 1,000 demonstrators protesting working conditions in Mexico City. A few days later I watched 20,000 students protesting tuition hikes in Montreal. They are a world apart in sensibility and logic.
Then there's crime. Both cities have pernicious corruption epidemics, though lately Montreal's mob penetration of the construction industry probably tops Mexico City. Murder rates are similar, slightly higher in Mexico City with over 2 per 100,000 compared to just under 2 in Montreal. Taxis are riskier and poverty much more prevalent in Mexico City. Drivers, in both, are crazy.
In spite of the differences these cities prove that vast differences in demographics and urban form cannot determine, or prevent, success. Both have lively, exciting and safe downtowns, streets teeming with young and attractive fashionistas, cell phones growing from their ears as they bleat Spanish or French versions of "what...ever".
City culture, it seems, can pacify and amuse even the most skeptical observer - me being the perfect example.
Friendy gangs, stealing kisses and music addicts. Now that's my kind of crime.
Thanks to Coca Cola, the band Supertramp and my ever-astute friend Paul Cleveland (who sent this video), here is another way to view security cameras.
It's proof of something cops and prevention folks forget; For every ugly act caught live by CCTV, there are many more beautiful acts that rarely make the news.
What is impressive about a gravel trail with painted stones?
I've been reading reports from SafeGrowth teams in Connecticut. One struggle I hear is how to engage community members.
Last week, I was in Monterrey, Mexico, site of the 2011 narcoterrorist attack on a downtown casino where over 50 people were murdered. Engagement should be more difficult here than anywhere. I was taken to a poor community on the outskirts of the city near the construction site of a master-planned community.
It was unlikely residents in this poor community could afford to live in the new development. My guides, a dynamic Monterrey CPTED team, showed me the poor community and a rocky ravine beneath a highway overpass with an elementary school on the other side. School kids had to walk across this unsafe stretch to go to school. A gravel trail had been built connecting the community with the school.
Residents, school kids, the developer, and volunteer construction crews had come together to build the trail. The Monterrey CPTED team ran a painting day when school kids painted stones. They then used the stones to mark the trail edges.
The visible part of this project was simple - a gravel trail, painted stones, and construction volunteers. It was the invisible part that caught my attention – engagement!
The kids and their parents enthusiastically showed me their trail and the stones, from one end to the other. This was clearly a source of pride. Discussion focused on expanding the trail and adding play areas.
In other words, residents with few resources had built their own solution to a neighborhood problem in a region of Mexico not far from one of the most violent narco-gang wars in history. By partnering with others they were making their community a better place, stone by stone. Those actions are community-engagement seeds starting to grow.
Not just a gravel trail and painted stones. Much more.
It's humbling to walk in a city with the population of Australia and a million more than New York City's metro. In North America it is The Giant!
At over 21 million people Mexico City, where I am this week, is by some counts the world's 3rd largest and the most densely populated. It is impossible to define. For lovers of cities, it is irresistible.
Consider this: Insane traffic chaos, easy winner of the Graffiti-City-of-the-Year award, a profusion of public statues of every artistic bent, evocative architecture and buses with women-only safe seats. There are thousands of street vendors clustering around subway entrances and they create lively, unplanned street markets that are both pickpocketing bonanzas and part of Mexico City's financial boom.
Speaking of crime...
Mexico city is considerably safer than cities like Houston, Washington DC and New Orleans. True, there are thugs mugging folks, especially in poorly regulated taxis and in nasty neighborhoods (Note to self: Crime Prevention 101 - Don't get drunk and wander aimlessly at night in nasty neighborhoods!)
However, as elsewhere, staying safe boils down to simple street smarts.
What about the epidemic narco-violence we hear about? Crime maps show it is clustered elsewhere, like in the north of the country. Maybe Mexico City is a neutral zone? Maybe the pervasive police, security and military help? Or maybe the government is cooking the stat books, just like the NYPD during the Compstat Caper? Difficult to say.
Ironically even the intellectually vapid press lauds Mexico City's success. USA Today and CNN suggest perceptions about crime are worse than the truth.
I don't know the truth. What I do know is this: walking the streets of a few neighborhoods has been safe and fascinating. People are incredibly warm and easy-going.
A CPTED CONFERENCE IN MEXICO
I also know there are impressive ground-up, practical crime solutions underway, like CPTED. Last week I attended a conference of the Latin American chapter of the International CPTED Association at Mexico City's IberoAmerican University.
There were 500 delegates from around the world, over 60 different sessions on dozens of new approaches. I saw some remarkable Mexican (and Latin American) creativity for building safer communities.
Then there was the children representing youth programs throughout the country, many whom participated in the conference. My favorite was young musicians who entertained conference delegates. Pretty inspiring stuff.
As for Mexico, I'll be back.
GUEST BLOG - A previous blog on LED lighting introduced the concept of blue street lights and emerging research about crime. Ivana Dankova is a designer from Slovakia currently studying for her MSc in Medialogy in Denmark. In 2011 she completed graduate design research in Scotland on Glasgow’s blue light project. Here Ivana offers this blog on her research. A longer version will appear in the upcoming issue of CPTED Perspective, the ICA newsletter.
A new innovation in street lighting has appeared in Glasgow, Scotland. In 1999 blue streetlights were installed in order to improve the overall aesthetics of the area as a part of a city enhancement program. During my design research for a graduate dissertation I investigated whether blue lights have any effect on people and if so, how they affect them.
As with prior research in CPTED, my hypothesis is that the environment in which we live can influence our behavior. It can inspire us to act in certain ways. My Glasgow case study offered the chance to experience the unique atmosphere of a blue-lit street. Some sources mentioned that the crime surprisingly dropped after blue lights were installed. However, since I could not find further statistics on blue lights in Glasgow, I decided to explore it on my own.
Even though crime reduction was not the initial purpose behind the installation, the street appeared to have a much calmer effect than surrounding streets with traditional sodium yellow/orange lighting.
One possible theory explaining this effect is that since short wavelength blue light produces serotonin in the human brain (which is a calming hormone) it is possible this creates a calming impact on pedestrians. My observation is that people react positively to the lighting. The overall atmosphere is unique and feels more peaceful, calm, as if time moved slower.
I also learned following the Glasgow example, similar blue lights were installed in Japanese train stations. The number of suicides at Japanese train stations was high and increasing, but after the blue lights were installed the number dropped noticeably.
This reduction in suicides due to blue lights is spreading to other locations due to its positive results. Blue lights definitely provide a new tactic for designers looking to calm outdoor locations.