News of armed regional conflicts around the world distorts the truth of local crime. That truth? Crime in developed countries continues a long plunge into lowly rates unknown for decades.
As Vanessa Barker notes in her research, criminology has no idea why. Frank Zimring’s book on the The Great American Crime Decline does say why criminologists can't figure it out:
“The knowledge gap in current social science understanding comes almost equally from the unavoidable weakness of a non-experimental discipline and from avoidable provincialism and ideological blinders.”
Crime plummets in places where police are underfunded, like the UK, and in places where police enjoy copious salaries, like Toronto.
Crime plummets before, during and after the Great Recession (kind of puts the lie to the idea that economic downturns trigger it or abundant times stop it). It plummets with or without mass incarceration, like the US versus Canada.
It plummets where security is abundant (vehicle immobilizers, gated communities) and also where security is scarce, like my own city where lighting is poor, gates are rare and burglar alarms a luxury.
THE MEDIA WEIGHS IN
The Economist Magazine says the reason crime plummets is that today’s crime-prone cohort, young males between 18- 34, are more civilized:
"Young people are increasingly sober and well behaved. They are more likely to live with their parents and to be in higher education."
Really? Well, in Better Angels of Our Nature psychologist Steven Pinker does suggest something similar he calls the civilizing effect.
The Toronto Star quotes government statisticians who stir new police practices, reduced alcohol consumption and inflation into their causation broth in a frantic search for an answer. Ultimately they have no idea.
THE SOCIAL COHESION EFFECT
Through it all, two social cohesion ingredients persist:
The truth is crime has always concentrated in inner-city neighborhoods. It stands to reason improvements in the inner city - better housing, improved infrastructure - magnify the power that neighbors have to control problems through social ties, watching over each other and so forth (the social side of defensible space that Oscar Newman wrote about).
Then add aging demographics together with the civilizing effect and neighborhood redevelopment and you have a workable recipe, a one-two-three punch in prevention practice.
The social cohesion effect is good news in the 21st Century city, especially considering the persistent plague of urban homelessness, gangs and drugs. It’s especially positive for SafeGrowth practitioners and those who practice targeted community development such as LISC. It points the way forward.
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
Reading studies on crime and place I was recently struck by a mystery among environmental criminology researchers who study CPTED, particularly territoriality (the wall) and natural surveillance (the window).
It brought to mind other concept errors in crime and place research, specifically crime generators, permeability, cul de sacs, and the Achilles Heel within routine activity theory. This time the mystery cycles around guardianship.
Here’s the storyline…
Researchers regale the power of natural surveillance to enhance guardianship. Guardianship presumes to increase the risk that offenders will be seen and caught. Natural surveillance has appeal because you can observe whether a space has lighting, sightlines and nearby windows. Because surveillance presumably will produce more preventive action by residents (or reluctance by offenders to show up), you can then measure what happens.
EYES ON THE STREET
Natural surveillance assumes that people who see something out of place will act, thereby providing guardianship. Thus it is “real”. It's an assumption borne out nicely in low-crime, upper income areas but not so much in lower-income, high crime areas where residents are afraid to step outdoors and when they do their presence doesn’t deter anything.
On the other hand researchers question the power of territoriality to enhance guardianship, mainly because they say territoriality lacks "definitional rigor" and it isn’t “real”. Floral decorations or landscaping…is that it? Maybe it’s access control, walls and gates? Even worse, territoriality varies from place to place. Horrors!
They suggest natural surveillance is preferable to territoriality because it seems more measurable. That’s how they solve the mystery of territoriality. They ignore or downplay it, label it with definitional problems and claim it isn't "real".
Historian Howard Zinn warns us about such storylines: “Realism is seductive because once you have accepted the reasonable notion that you should base your actions on reality, you are too often led to accept without much questioning someone else’s version of what that reality is.”
Consider this: If territoriality isn’t real, then how is guardianship any better? And why shouldn’t territoriality vary from place to place? “The real world,” says Zinn, “is infinitely complex and constantly changing.”
Perhaps social science research methods are too simplistic to tell us anything complex? Perhaps it is guardianship that has a definitional problem, especially given territoriality’s much longer provenance.
What provenance? Consider Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, Robert Ardry’s The Territorial Imperative, Edward Hall’s The Hidden Dimension, Oscar Newman's Defensible Space, and Alice Coleman's Utopia on Trial. And all that territorial work still continues today such as Kevin Leydon’s study on walkability and social capital.
CPTED practitioners seldom complain about such things because context always comes first.
For example in SafeGrowth practitioners and residents use a Risk Assessment Matrix for surveys, safety audits, site visits, and asset maps. Together they create a profile of the neighborhood and what residents feel about it. Only then do they determine to what extent designs enhance territoriality.
Overcoming "definitional rigor"?
Simple: Ask the residents and work with them to discover what they feel enhances their territorial control, a method known as action research and action learning. Mystery solved.
Judging by recent e-traffic, my last blog struck a chord! Especially the contention that community engagement in policing has been a dreary failure. I conclude that, except in problem-oriented policing or when mentored by non-profits (see below), it seems a lost cause.
Truth is, aside from trite historical footnotes (“the police are the public, the public are the police”) most police-community engagement today is little more than political optics. Of course, as in all polemics, that isn’t true everywhere.
I was impressed to discover the Dallas Police Community Engagement Unit. Then I read it is three policing teams who do evidence-based analysis, work with apartment owners to deal with crooks, and attend community meetings where they "gather information first-hand that can be relayed to other teams in the department."
MORE THAN REPORTING CRIME
There’s nothing wrong with asking the community for information on criminals. That’s good police work. But let’s not pretend it is community engagement.
Ultimately I don’t think any of this explains our engagement flop, at least not the version where residents take an active role planning and working towards their own public safety. Perhaps police are not the best agency to do that anyway.
Governments hardly do any better. National Crime Prevention Councils rely on national "night outs", neighborhood watch schemes, or education about existing crime prevention programs. In other words walk around at night, watch out for crooks and call the cops.
I know I’m simplifying and yet a critical thinker must ask, Who is really "engaged" when that engagement amounts to little more than walking around, calling the cops, or going to meetings?
CPTED history offers some hope. Consider Oscar Newman’s dictum in Creating Defensible Space; Always include grass roots participation in prevention planning!
We use a similar approach in SafeGrowth though our message is conveyed in a different way. For example, one lighthouse shining brightly on community-policing partnerships is the LISC - CSI SafeGrowth programs.
THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE
When the message is engagement we need a messenger who is appropriately staffed, resourced and most of all, trained in engagement tactics. The last time I checked the Engagement Toolkit I counted over 60 tactics. That messenger must master them all.
Who is that messenger? Probably a non-profit like LISC or AARP, a philanthropic organization, a municipal planning department (as in Saskatoon), and an active community association. It will require municipal executives, particularly police chiefs and city managers, who know how to advocate for and implement such a model. They must be properly trained how to do that.
Every time I’ve seen successful engagement in places like San Diego, Milwaukee, Saskatoon, and Philadelphia I get the feeling that is the shape of the future. At least I hope it is.
In the file under pathetic behavior, a video came to my attention this week. CPTED creates defensible space by dividing space into semi-private and private zones. Occasionally this is done with fencing. I've blogged on fences before.
Some think fences are signs of mutual respect. Robert Frost's famous poem "Mending Wall" re-popularizes Plato's and later Ben Franklin's phrase "good fences make good neighbors". At the end of his poem Frost asks, "Why do they make good neighbors?"
One blogger I've read believes good fences represent the equality of neighbors while protecting the independence of each. For him keeping fences in repair is good citizenship. Another contends fences "maintain the fabric of community."
It's true the fabric of a community is maintained by mutual respect with minimal ambiguities. But if only a fence can do that then how much "mutual respect" really exists? Can't neighbors reach a respectful, reasonable agreement to balance privacy with communal sharing?
The bulldozer-caper in the video above suggests the answer: No! (At least for the ill-tempered or the insane). Fences, apparently, don't make good neighbors. Good neighbors make good neighbors.
Novices to CPTED sometimes see things with a clarity others lack. Jennica Collette is a planning student at the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. She and fellow students recently completed their first CPTED study. In this guest blog she summarizes their findings and comes to similar conclusions as reported by Harvard University design students in March.
As part of a University of Waterloo social planning class, a group of fellow students and myself wanted to know how urban form influenced safety, both actual and perceived. We chose university campuses, a context that was relevant and familiar, and compared our suburban campus at University of Waterloo to the urban campus at University of Toronto. It was our first CPTED experience.
We started by familiarizing ourselves with CPTED lingo including Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space Theory and Jane Jacob’s "eyes on the street". We looked at reported statistics and charts as well as perceived safety through site visits and random interviews. The results weren’t what we expected.
Initially we assumed the University of Toronto was less safe. Why? Perhaps the strong association between large urban centres and crime or the idea that people who don’t necessarily “belong” at the University can wander through the campus freely and easily. But during interviews we were told both campuses felt safe. Other than identifying some areas of concern, like poorly lit loading areas in Toronto or a woodlot trail in Waterloo, there were rarely moments where students felt like they were in any danger.
When we crunched the numbers we discovered, on a per student basis, there were more crimes at the University of Waterloo than the University of Toronto. Granted, both of these campuses experienced very few serious crimes, mostly petty theft and mischief, but there were simply more of them in Waterloo.
One of the most significant differences between the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo was the presence of people. Even during reading week Toronto’s campus was bustling with activity. In Waterloo, during the weekends and evenings, you could count the people on one hand.
Toronto’s safe environment can be attributed to a combination of multiple uses, permeable grid form and high densities. The Royal Ontario Museum, the Ontario Legislative building, and Queen’s Park all lie within the campus boundary and the grid form makes the campus as much a waypoint as a destination.
In Waterloo a ring road topped off with berms surrounds the campus. We were told buildings were oriented with crowd control in mind rather than legibility. All this makes the campus particularly unappealing for a visitor.
Does built form influence actual and perceived safety? Our first CPTED experience confirmed it does. What we found mostly is that there is so much more to safety than movement predictors and improving lighting (though that is part of it). From a planning perspective a large part of making environments safe is activating spaces and activating communities. It turns out that is also the conclusion of Second-generation CPTED.
Whether it a campus or residential neighbourhood, the key seems to be having people present who are engaged in their environments.
There is a great article in the latest issue of The Atlantic, Brasilia - A Vision of Concrete. It reminded me of a story years ago from my planning classes on modernism.
At 3pm, March 16, 1972, CPTED was born in the death of architectural modernism. That's the date of the first explosion to demolish the Pruitt-Igoe public housing projects in St. Louis. Built in the finest traditions of modernist theory, Pruitt-Igoe soon decayed into a crime-ridden ghetto and festered for years with low vacancy. Demolition was the final epitath for a concept ill-suited to social housing.
Those explosions began less than a year after C. Ray Jeffery's book CPTED and the same year of Oscar Newman's book, Defensible Space. It was Newman who described the social damage to livability from Pruitt-Igoe’s bleak modernist buildings, acres of no-man's land and blight. It’s a story of how not-to-do planning.
Except not everyone listened.
Almost decade after Pruitt-Igoe started, another modernist architect planned the city of Brasilia, Brazil. Controversial from the beginning, Brasilia stands today an icon to modernist architecture and rational planning.
While the Atlantic article caresses the architecture of Brasilia, it brutalizes it's planning. "The city is quite correctly regarded as a colossally wrong turn in urban planning." And now, in time for Brazil's World Cup in 2014 and the Rio Olympics in 2016, it's due for a make-over.
It's hard to say whether crime in Brasilia arises from the modernist nightmare that infected Pruitt-Igoe, from Brazil's epidemic gang violence, from 9 million unregistered firearms, or something else. It was probably all the above.
But if we've learned anything from Pruitt-Igoe surely we’ve learned SafeGrowth-style organic neighborhood design and collaborative planning is integral to safer streets!