'If you don’t have safe streets, all the light rail lines in the world aren’t going to save your city'

Columbia Heights on the night Oscar Fuentes was gunned down

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.)


Greetings From Most Dangerous City in America

As a New Urbanist I focus most of my attention on redevelopment of my hometown, Camden, N.J, where I lived for 32 years, until my neighborhood and childrens schools became unsafe.Three days ago Camden was named most dangerous city in the U.S.A. again. (FBI stats.)I spent a good portion of this past year working in New Orleans, which, until 3 days ago, held title to America's most dangerous city.

But the contrasts between the two cities could not be more different. Despite being at the top of the FBI's most dangerous cities list, New Orleans, even after Katrina, is still one of the most desirable and interesting places to live in the U.S. in my opinion. The difference I think is in the architecture. The dazzling architecture in N.O. attracts a large and diverse vibrant population which fills the air with creative energy and a strong sense of community.

N.O has many beautiful, safe, self-sustaining neighborhoods. Camden on the other hand has none. Unlike New Orleans, there is no appreciation within the population of Camden or it's government of the value of good urban design or asthetics. New Orleans designation as most dangerous city had no discernible effect or impediment on the quality of life there,in the number of visitors to the city or the public dialogue regarding the city's future. Camden officials on the other hand, continually cite this recurring designation as an excuse for their failures.The design of N.O is irresistable.It's architecture and layout sustains its viability,even after the most destructive storm in history. (The stress of which no doubt got N.O. its FBI top spot.)

Camden has no irresistable architecture nor does it take advantage of its near perfect grid, transportation assets or proximity to the culture of Philadelphia, only one subway stop away. You are right,"'If you don’t have safe streets, all the light rail lines in the world aren’t going to save your city'

Camden's history of redevelopment is that any development is good development, which of course is not sustainable, and only increases the need for further redevelopment over time.

All cities have had to deal with the legacy of racist policies and customs of the past. Racism, as far as ethnicity and color have been pretty much overcome in this country. I don't know any white people who would mind living next door to Michael Jordan, Ophrah Winfrey, George or Jennifer Lopez. It wouldn't surprise me even if a majority of voters in this country elected a Black President! (Oh, I forgot, we just did.)

The legacy of racism in the inner cities is poverty and it's pathologies; crime, depression and mental illness due to the constant daily stress of trying to survive in a capitalist society while personally, constantly short on money. Drugs and alcohol to alleviate stress and depression; effects of depression / mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction preventing ability to "Mainstream" and be gainfully employed or interact properly with mainstream to create bridging opportunities for one-self.

Criminal violence and theft is a certainty where mental illness and poverty are concentrated. Normal, legal business cannot be conducted in such an environment, so theft and abnormal illegal business fills the employment void.

These areas have no tax base to finance decent education. And the pathologies are inherited and seamlesly generational, with virtually everyone exhibiting these pathologies born to someone who is deep into them. So there are few adults in these areas capable of raising children properly. Most babies in Camden are the product of illegitimacy.While having an illegitimate child often dooms the mother to a life of poverty, illegitimacy may doom her children to far worse: prisons, fostercare homes and homeless shelters.

"An illegitimate baby is three times more likely to fail at school, three times more likely to commit suicide, and from 20 to 33 times more likely to suffer child abuse than are the children of low-income married parents. His prospects in later life are just as grim: 70 percent of long term prisoners, 60 percent of rapists, and 75 percent of adolescents charged with murder grew up without fathers. No urban reform could have a greater effect, if successful, than attacking the culture of single parenthood." - Heather Mac Donald

For "context sensitive" developers, there is your inner city context.

For one, I think any community that already has 20% or more subsidized low-income housing should be forbidden to allow anymore.Allowing unlimited low-income housing is what creates poverty concentrating ghettoes. I think developers would be more willing to move into an area that has reached its cap and is alleviated from low income set-asides.Let ( or force ) all municipalities to do their fair share.

Another thing that bothers me is CNU's distaste for gated communities. In some areas, that may be the only thing that can work. ( And what is a luxury high rise with a doorman and tight security if not a vertical gated community?)

If you are still here after all this rant, let me just say we all know that enough good urban design and architecture can create an attraction large enough to create a healthier population balance and mainstreaming opportunities for the underprivledged close at hand, as well as weather the greatest storm. Large, safe isolated pockets of abandoned areas exist in Camden that can host some fair sized sustainable development. And although these pockets are isolated, there are ways to link them into one contiguous development. Safety is the prerequisite for successful development in Camden, America's most dangerous city. But the opportunity is there.
And if you analyze Camden's assets and potential, you just may decide it deserves a spot on CNU's top ten list for implementing New Urbanist projects.

Michael McAteer

"Urbanists need to broaden movement..."

"Environmentalists and urbanists need to broaden our definition of what our movements entail."

Now may be a good time to have that discussion, since talking about development, that is any new New Urbanist or real estate development of any kind actually being built in this economy is merely academic; impractical and irrelevant.
It wil take at least five years if not longer to clear the inventory glut. (Unless CNU innovators can come up with new affordable designs in our new economy, which I don't think is a recession but the early stages of "the new normal" of scaled down living standards.)

Also, with CNU 18's health oriented theme this year,the pathologies of poverty and violent crime as health issues may be very relevant topics. Addressing these issues may help prep difficult inner city areas,( our future sprawl mitigators,) for the day the market turns around and we can look toward actually building again. For the time being, the economy is and has been of late more effective at curbing sprawl than CNU ever was or could hope to.

Very provocative comments,

Very provocative comments, Michael. Thanks for taking the time, and keep up your good work.

"Urban" in New Urbanism will remain a bit of a misnomer.

Kaid, thank you for your kind comments. Today's NY TIMES touches on the connection between poverty and mental illness. I think the pathology of poverty / sociological context of inner cities is the wall that NU runs up against, and has been unable to break through, that still associates New Urbanism with "green-field" development in the minds of the public, rather than urban development. Until NU can break down that wall, I think the "urban" in New Urbanism will remain a bit of a misnomer.




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