'If you don’t have safe streets, all the light rail lines in the world aren’t going to save your city'
Environmentalists and urbanists need to broaden our definition of what our movements entail. First, my friend and frequent collaborator Lee Epstein posted a thoughtful guest entry on my NRDC blog on urban education and its effect on middle class families' housing choices and, thus, on suburban sprawl. This week, I've had several occasions to think about that other elephant in the smart-growth room: personal safety.
The CNU audience knows more than most that, to slow the spread of development willy-nilly across the landscape, we need to repopulate our central cities, many of which lost population in the latter half of the 20th century. We're starting to make some real progress on that but, to grow that progress and make it stick, we need to get serious about crime.
That was certainly one of the strongest messages to emerge from the residents of Indianapolis's Smart Growth Redevelopment District, which I visited a couple of weeks ago. They know better than anyone whether their community is safe enough to flourish. And then on Friday I ran across a thoughtful but troubling blog post from Indianapolis resident and Urbanophile Aaron Renn, about all sorts of things, but concluding with some notes about a shooting in a revitalized section of his city (not the redevelopment district I visited).
Here in DC, there was a recent, tragic murder of a 9-year-old child in his own home, in our city's trendiest success story of revitalization, Columbia Heights. As Petula Dvorak wrote in Friday's Washington Post, "Oscar Fuentes was killed there by a gunshot through the front door of his apartment. He was looking through the peephole at the commotion outside. Someone had tried to rob his family members as they walked home along Columbia Road, and the women ducked inside to get away." This is almost unbelievably heartbreaking to read, yet Dvorak's main point is that the other kids in the neighborhood don't consider it all that unusual.
These are our showcase neighborhoods. Yeah, I know and applaud the statistics showing that city crime has gone down a lot since the worst days of the 1970s and 1980s, while suburban crime has gone up. And I know the statistics about how personal risk from car accidents in the suburbs make them just as unsafe as the city, in their way. But I also know that most of the people who cite those stats are bold, creative-class types who love urban living anyway.
Renn is right when he says that this sort of random gunfire is much less common in newer suburbs (and he's a city-lover, too). This is a real problem, and we wish it away at our peril.
So, what to do? I don't pretend to know, really. But maybe we start by being honest about the problems that linger in our cities rather than sweeping them under the rug while we celebrate the virtues of urban bikesharing, streetcars, and green roofs.
Rummaging around on the topic, I was pleased to learn that the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), whose track record on inclusive, affordable urban smart growth is impressive (and with whom NRDC is beginning to partner on revitalization), has a Community Safety Initiative that "has helped establish police/community partnerships in over a dozen cities nationwide." Other LISC projects specifically target parcels where crime is taking place for renovation and adaptive reuse.
Among other strategies, addressing vacant properties (not much of an issue in Columbia Heights or Fountain Square, perhaps, but a significant one in the Indianapolis Smart Growth Redevelopment District and elsewhere) may help. Writing last week on Smart Growth America's blog, Mara D'Angelou cites research finding an increase in total assaults in a given set of blocks by 18.5% for every additional vacancy. And the design of redevelopment can help, too: Seattle has a good summary of "crime prevention through environmental design" that explains how natural, passive surveillance of an area ("eyes on the street") can be enhanced with lighting (not glaring "crime lights"), window placement, porches and balconies, landscaping, and right-size fencing, among other things.
It's a start.
(For those who are interested, I have a longer version of this post, with more quotes, links, and photos, on my NRDC blog.)
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