by Mateja Mihinjac
At a time when a rising tide of violent crime infects Philadelphia and so many other American cities, one small pocket in that city has discovered a different way forward. A few weeks ago, community teams from the HACE Livability Academy presented preliminary plans for improving livability in their neighborhood. It was like an early holiday gift to their city and their neighborhoods and I was enormously impressed with their plans.
The HACE SafeGrowth Livability Academy has been underway in the Fairhill and Kensington neighborhoods for a few years and – although applied only to these two neighborhoods and severely challenged by the COVID pandemic – academy classes continued unabated thanks to the amazing work of HACE, the non-profit community development organization.
COVID has made life miserable for community development work. In 2020, we were forced to suddenly transition to a virtual environment that was not conducive to collaborative workshops. But a year later we’ve managed to better adapt to this new reality. Training from afar is not ideal, but the virtual environment does have advantages and we can now reach a wider audience.
WHAT IS THE LIVABILITY ACADEMY?
Over the past two months, I had the pleasure of co-facilitating the latest online cohort of HACE Livability Academy participants.
HACE has been successfully running Livability Academies twice a year since 2018. Last year, the HACE team modified the curriculum to run virtual-only sessions. This year we were able to offer both face-to-face and virtual modalities.
The Livability Academy is a 6–8-week program developed by AlterNation LLC – the company behind SafeGrowth® – in which local residents and community representatives learn skills in community leadership, SafeGrowth and CPTED, community organizing, and project management.
The Livability Academy is an integral part of the SafeGrowth philosophy and it provides a constant flow of community leaders into neighbourhood problem-solving teams to address local issues. I found it empowering to see the kinds of complex issues that the latest cohort decided to tackle in their project work.
During training, participants identify an issue and in work teams they tackle a small-scale, real-life project in their neighbourhood. In this training, the in-person, face-to-face team produced one project proposal while the online virtual team chose to divide into two project teams.
This past week all three teams presented their preliminary plans of the work they’ve done over the past few months. All three teams created inspiring projects directly within their neighborhood and they tackled persistent problems that were made worse during COVID.
Fairhill United for Livability
The first team’s project focused on activating the neighbourhood park to create a space for people to come together and build connections. They envisioned a more united neighbourhood that fosters community pride, strengthens connections between residents, and partners with neighbourhood groups, schools, and businesses to promote livability.
They divided their plan into 3 phases over the next year: outreach, clean-ups, and community celebrations. The goal is to create a movement of people to fix broken social connections, a problem made far worse by COVID. The team concluded with their slogan: “No one can do alone what we can do together”.
Literally Literacy (Increasing Adult Literacy)
This team chose adult literacy as a key liveability issue. They identified low levels of literacy as a key barrier to job access, high earning potential, and access to better healthcare. Illiteracy is one of the major contributors to overrepresentation in the criminal justice system. Illiteracy is an obstacle to personal growth and this team decided to do something. The main objective of the project is to empower adults to seek assistance with reading and increase their self-esteem while eliminating the stigma associated with illiteracy.
The highlight of this team’s presentation was their inspirational personal stories.
They summarized their stories with the phrase: “You can be all that you can be; all you have to do is take the first step.”
This team focused on the struggles of youth that (if not addressed early) can cause long-term damage to a young person’s life and the neighbourhood quality of life. They outlined multiple consequences of trauma such as emotional and behavioural issues, internalised stress, engaging in unsafe behaviours, substance abuse, and mental illness.
They proposed a 6-week program with various topics to address traumatic events. They also proposed creating a safe space with a support group for teens experiencing trauma. Two young team members, who themselves went through traumatic events, were especially inspiring in their quest to help their peers turn a new leaf. The team summarised the objective of their program: “To go from dysfunction to function.”
A HOLIDAY GIFT
I was extremely proud of all three teams for the work they completed within this short time. It is amazing how a group of people who know little, if anything, about each other, were able to take steps together and share the common purpose of improving life in their neighbourhood.
This is the true spirit of SafeGrowth and the Livability Academy. There is no better holiday gift to Philadelphia, to their community, and to themselves.
As one Livability Academy participant concluded: “It takes the whole village to raise this community.”
by Gregory Saville
The writing on the shop walls and the floating billboards was Anglo-Chinese. On the street, cityspeak combined English, Chinese and Spanish, a vernacular that served the homeless, the marginally employed and the unfortunate. Pollution and environmental collapse led to constant clouds and pelting rain. The affluent traveled to off-world colonies on Mars and elsewhere, leaving the rest of us behind. Bio-engineered, human-like robots called Replicants used their artificial intelligence and rebelled.
That was the horrific world described in Philip K. Dick’s book that became the 1982 sci-fi classic, Bladerunner. I blogged on Bladerunner architecture last year. When I watched Bladerunner in the 1980s it seemed like an impossible future. And it was set for such a long way ahead – 2019!
That's next year! With only a month left, how close is that future?
UNFOLDING AS WE SPEAK
It doesn’t take much imagination to see a Bladerunner vision unfolding. True, we are nowhere near that specific dystopia. We still don’t have flying cars (but we have self-driving ones!). Yet, one wonders...
This week I watched NASA’s exciting landing on the planet Mars. Space X CEO Elon Musk says he’ll get people to Mars within six years. How long before off-world colonies evolve?
This year I watched the fruits of some incredible advances in artificial intelligence and bio-engineering, including the world tour of the remarkable Sophie, the first thinking and speaking robot to attain citizenship. Sophie tells us not to worry; real robots are not like Bladerunner.
Then there is the decades-long Chinese economic miracle and the environmental mess we watch with increasing regularity in hurricanes, wildfires, species extinction and climate chaos.
Philip K. Dick, it seems, was on track. How might we derail that particular future? The usual formula is to rethink geo-politics and create a new macroeconomics. Nevertheless, the maxim ‘think global, act local’ has special relevance here. Take, for example, Philadelphia!
ONE NEIGHBORHOOD’S STORY
Over the past few years we brought SafeGrowth to Philadelphia. We now have some great advocates working for the neighborhood association, HACE. This year they began implementing their latest 10-year 2025 Neighborhood Plan.
For years HACE and friends have been diligently working to transform the blight, drugs and crime into a greener, socially connected, economically vibrant neighborhood. Now their new, SafeGrowth-infused 2025 plan is underway and they’ve been making strides.
They installed new, clean walking trails where garbage was once strewn.
They instituted Philadelphia’s first SafeGrowth Livability Academy, a collaborative on-going workshop with 30 neighbors and police during which they developed problem-solving strategies for their neighborhood.
The HACE plan envisions greener areas, community gardens, better resourced neighborhood hubs, safe intergenerational and affordable housing. HACE has already built over 200 units of affordable housing and leveraged over $100 million in redevelopment and improvements. A host of community-building strategies are already underway.
For example, they, and their partners, shut down a drug infested, homeless camp along a railway underpass. That naturally displaced addicts to street level, resulting in a public outcry (after decades of inaction). Ultimately, that led to a more coordinated city response to treat drug users, expand homeless beds and increase shelters.
There is a long way to go and resources and shelter beds are still scarce (one estimate suggest Philadelphia has 50,000 opioid addicts, many of whom end up here). But at least action is finally underway.
That is the hard community-building work that cuts crime, improves livability, and gets neighbors engaged in shaping their own future.
Too many mayors get caught up in a fear-based echo chamber that makes them vulnerable to peddlers of security technology and promises of a bright, high-tech future.
Too many city leaders act as obsequious errand-boys for the technologists, embracing the faint promise of hostile architecture, public CCTV, automated security robots, predictive algorithms seeking crime, and audio software to track gang gunfire. (Wouldn't it be better to prevent the gunfire in the first place?)
They do this with the ill-informed hope that technology will prevail. But in doing this, they snatch defeat from the hands of successful action-based community projects right in front of them. They invite a Bladerunner future.
May they fail.