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Crime Has Been Lost in Urban Discourse. We need to bring it back.

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Seattle is a model of urbanism. The City scores high in the walkability rankings, and they pioneered many urban policies that other cities have followed. Houston Tomorrow actually brought a speaker in from Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, to see what we could learn from them. But last week video surfaced of Aiesha Steward-Baker being brutally attacked in one of Seattle’s bus tunnels.

The relationship between urbanism and crime is not new. Oscar Newman wrote “Creating Defensible Space” in 1974. Jane Jacobs talked about it even earlier. But nobody seems to talk about it any more. I searched for ‘crime’ on two of Houston’s urbanism websites. Houston Tomorrow had just one article that directly addressed crime and urbanism. NeoHouston had an article with a picture of Andrew Burleson climbing a fence. A Google search was a little more fruitful, but not much.

In the absence of educated discourse, people have developed pretty far-fetched ideas on crime and urbanism, and cities have stopped listening to neighborhood crime concerns.

The far-fetched ideas aren’t worth going into. But neighborhood crime concerns are. A perfect example is happening in Northeast Houston. The City is building a bridge to connect the Songwood and Wood Bayou neighborhoods. People in Wood Bayou support the bridge. It will unite the two neighborhoods and make them both more walkable. People from Wood Bayou will have easier access to Brown Park. But people in Songwood are fighting the bridge because they fear it will bring crime to their neighborhood. Nobody is working on ways to help with Songwood’s crime concerns while also giving Wood Bayou the access they need. They’re just building a bridge.

We could change this if we bring crime back to our discussions on urbanism. Aiesha Steward-Baker was attacked in a bus tunnel in one of America’s most forward-thinking urban cities. If that isn’t reason enough, what is?

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You also seem to ignore the fact that this was a about some sort of personal grudge and has nothing to do with "urbanism."

That and two security personel who had their hands tied and were more concerned with CYA than the victim.

Try again.

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Correlation does not equal causation, and all that jazz...

Suggesting crime is a byproduct of urbanization is as absurd as suggestion rural living is a relative utopia. And that just ain't true. Crime is a result of many things, examples of which include (but, as always, not limited to) education standards, poverty, reproductive rights, policing priorities and the economy at large. Crime may be exacerbated by human proximity related to urbanism, but it in no way is caused by it.

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Correlation does not equal causation, and all that jazz...

Suggesting crime is a byproduct of urbanization is as absurd as suggestion rural living is a relative utopia. And that just ain't true. Crime is a result of many things, examples of which include (but, as always, not limited to) education standards, poverty, reproductive rights, policing priorities and the economy at large. Crime may be exacerbated by human proximity related to urbanism, but it in no way is caused by it.

The notion that urbanization causes crime is one of the far-fetched ideas that I didn’t want to repeat. You’re absolutely right that crime is a result of many things. A personal vendetta. Poverty and Desperation. Mental Illness. The list goes on….

Criminals will commit crimes. But what makes a criminal choose one location over another?

Usually criminals like to be out of the way, and in the dark: where they think they won’t be caught. They like easy access: to get in, commit the crime, and make a clean getaway. They don’t want to be confronted by alarms, barking dogs, or concerned neighbors. Criminals don’t want real police officers around, because they don’t want to be arrested.

The trouble is that urbanists have lost sight of these concerns. Jane Jacobs’ vision for cities grew out of crime prevention. When’s the last time anyone talked about that? Everyone assumes we’re “Creating Defensible Space” in streets and public spaces. But are we really?

This was a about some sort of personal grudge and has nothing to do with "urbanism."

Seattle's urbanism didn't cause the attack. But since Seattle is a model for urbanists, maybe the attack will shock them into a newfound concern for public safety. This is really what I'm hoping for.

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Few subjects pertaining to large cities, also known as "urban areas", have been studied, discussed, researched, dissected, funded and generally been the top concern of residents as crime and its prevention. To suggest otherwise is to simply ignore the overwhelming amount of information on the subject. And, to use one isolated incident in one city as proof of your assertion is beyond absurd.

EDIT: I should probably point out that my response is not an indication that I believe that crime prevention, both in educating residents and in urban design, is not a laudable goal. It is simply a statement on your over-wrought introduction to the subject, as well as an indictment of your laying of blame for one assault at the feet of the un-named and un-defined 'urbanists'.

Edited by RedScare

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Seattle's urbanism didn't cause the attack. But since Seattle is a model for urbanists, maybe the attack will shock them into a newfound concern for public safety. This is really what I'm hoping for.

And do what? Implement some new reactive policy that doesn't solve any core problems? Talking about crime in terms of development seems counterproductive and a waste of time. Crime is an issue that goes far beyond urban development and the construction of a bridge, and putting the desires of one community over another less economically advantaged community in the city reeks of elitism. You may as well institute an unwritten rule that the po' folk can cross the bridge to work as house servants and to toil in the fields, but by sundown they'd better be back on their side of the bridge or else.

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Few subjects pertaining to large cities, also known as "urban areas", have been studied, discussed, researched, dissected, funded and generally been the top concern of residents as crime and its prevention.

Your lack of citations proves my point. Everyone just assumes that since crime is such a big issue, urbanists must be discussing it.

I believe that crime prevention, both in educating residents and in urban design, [is a] laudable goal.

The problem is that crime prevention has been lost in discussions on urban design. Law enforcement and criminal lawyers (naturally) still talk about crime, but they’re not the ones designing cities.

Talking about crime in terms of development seems counterproductive and a waste of time.

Urbanists need to talk about ways to make public spaces less attractive as locations for crime.

Don’t misunderstand. I am not saying that crime should be the only thing urbanists discuss. I am certainly not saying that urbanism is the only thing that affects crime. Nor am I saying that urban design could ever eradicate crime from the City. I am only saying that we need to bring crime back into the conversations we have about urbanism.

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The problem is that crime prevention has been lost in discussions on urban design. Law enforcement and criminal lawyers (naturally) still talk about crime, but they’re not the ones designing cities.

What urban planners actually do is develop a piecemeal framework (that is codified and enforced by lawyers) within which architects and developers can design and build individual projects. Though a common conceit, it's a fallacy of composition to say that urban planners design cities.

Edited by TheNiche

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The problem is that crime prevention has been lost in discussions on urban design. Law enforcement and criminal lawyers (naturally) still talk about crime, but they’re not the ones designing cities.

lol....it's getting chilly.

Urbanists need to talk about ways to make public spaces less attractive as locations for crime.

Don’t misunderstand. I am not saying that crime should be the only thing urbanists discuss. I am certainly not saying that urbanism is the only thing that affects crime. Nor am I saying that urban design could ever eradicate crime from the City. I am only saying that we need to bring crime back into the conversations we have about urbanism.

remember bill white said there was no problem.

Edited by musicman

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Urbanists need to talk about ways to make public spaces less attractive as locations for crime.

And ruralists need to make trailer parks less attractive as locations for meth production.

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And ruralists need to make trailer parks less attractive as locations for meth production.

Some areas have Crime Watch signs. But you know you're really in a shady area when you start seeing Meth Watch signs.

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So are you endorsing some sort of prescriptive code on bldg public security?

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And ruralists need to make trailer parks less attractive as locations for meth production.

Precisely. People designing public spaces in rural areas should design spaces to be less attractive to crime, too. (And also people designing public space in suburbs; and those designing public space in exurbs....)

My post was never intended to instigate an urban versus rural cat-fight.

So are you endorsing some sort of prescriptive code on bldg public security?

If it comes to that through study and research, then yes - it could be part of the building code.

Before that, though, we need to ask the hard questions on crime in urban design. And we need to demand real answers from the urbanists. They can't keep saying 'oh, crime isn't a problem - now let's talk about how cool our Livable Centers are gonna be.'

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I'd love to participate in this thread, but there are two problems. One, who are these 'urbanists' of which you speak? You keep denigrating their work, yet you have neither identified them nor their work. And, two, can you point to at least one instance where 'they' have said that crime is not a problem?

Thanks in advance.

Oh, and having watched the video of the assault, I'd like your opinion on what should be done to solve THAT problem. I have my ideas, but I'd like to hear yours, in light of your urbanist rants.

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I'd love to participate in this thread, but there are two problems. One, who are these 'urbanists' of which you speak? You keep denigrating their work, yet you have neither identified them nor their work. And, two, can you point to at least one instance where 'they' have said that crime is not a problem?

Thanks in advance.

Oh, and having watched the video of the assault, I'd like your opinion on what should be done to solve THAT problem. I have my ideas, but I'd like to hear yours, in light of your urbanist rants.

In all fairness to WAZ, it's true that urbanist monologues (and I use the term "monologues" because discourse on the subject is consistently framed from the perspective that urbanism is above reproach, question or doubt) rarely bother to tackle crime as an issue in lieu of addressing what I like to call "puppy issues" such as walkability. He has a valid point that crime is largely swept under the rug by this bunch.

If there are any doubts, browse through a few ULI magazines.

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In all fairness to WAZ, it's true that urbanist monologues (and I use the term "monologues" because discourse on the subject is consistently framed from the perspective that urbanism is above reproach, question or doubt) rarely bother to tackle crime as an issue in lieu of addressing what I like to call "puppy issues" such as walkability. He has a valid point that crime is largely swept under the rug by this bunch.

If there are any doubts, browse through a few ULI magazines.

Perhaps these "urbanists" feel crime is beyond their purview or their realm of expertise. Perhaps they feel crime is a policing issue (or an educational issue, or a blah blah blah, etc) and that they'll stick to designing urban space for walkability and other puppy issues that fit within their realm of expertise.

Then again, as Red pointed out, the "urbanists" are been left largely undefined. Are they city planners? Are they architects? Are they development financiers? Are they a consortium of all of these and more? What role do the urbanists play? Is there anything they can actually do to prevent or eliminate crime? My past studies lead me to conclude crime is far more complex an issue than can be solved with the design or placement of a building. Crime is a social problem, not an architectural problem. Walkability on the other hand... that can be determined by the design and placement of buildings.

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Perhaps these "urbanists" feel crime is beyond their purview or their realm of expertise. Perhaps they feel crime is a policing issue (or an educational issue, or a blah blah blah, etc) and that they'll stick to designing urban space for walkability and other puppy issues that fit within their realm of expertise.

More accurately, I think that urbanists would generally rather sweep the entire issue of crime under the rug. From a PR perspective, they know that they can't overcome the perceived notion that urban areas automatically translate to a higher rate of crime. Trying to talk about how crime relates to urban form reminds people that crime is part of the urban form. And that's not good PR; it doesn't advance the urbanism movement.

There are exceptions. It emerges on occasion with respect to special issues such as subsidized housing, and even got a little press with respect to the reconstruction efforts in New Orleans and Galveston.

(Btw, I didn't use the word "puppy" in my last post. I used a similar word that in fact has very little to do with even half of the population of puppies.)

Then again, as Red pointed out, the "urbanists" are been left largely undefined. Are they city planners? Are they architects? Are they development financiers? Are they a consortium of all of these and more? What role do the urbanists play?

Urbanism is a movement; those that ascribe to the movement are urbanists. Urbanism was not originally the purview of architects. It mostly had to do with city planning, which was professionally and academically removed from architecture. But since architects have a god complex, they have largely co-opted the movement under the heading of "landscape architecture" and other bogus terms. Architecture also has its tentacles embedded in fields such as sociology and economics, much to the detriment of everybody involved.

Urbanists can be found in many professions, most notably urban planning and architecture. But professions ranging from developers to bankers to structural engineers to city councilmembers have had some significant level of exposure. The extent to which individuals in these professions buy into it is largely dependent upon their perceptions of how urbanist design principles will be received by consumers, clients, or constituents. But the general public is largely ignorant of such issues.

Is there anything they can actually do to prevent or eliminate crime? My past studies lead me to conclude crime is far more complex an issue than can be solved with the design or placement of a building. Crime is a social problem, not an architectural problem. Walkability on the other hand... that can be determined by the design and placement of buildings.

There probably are some prescriptive codes and public infrastructure projects that would influence the types of crime that occur. Case-in-point: I used to live in a garden-style condo complex just south of the Medical Center. It was a neighborhood specifically referred to by Andres Duany, a high-profile urbanist and architect, as being exactly the opposite of how a neighborhood ought to function or be laid out. His observations were based solely on aesthetic issues. The population density in this neighborhood is tremendous, it is one of the few residential neighborhoods with easy access to the light rail, and the crime rate per capita is moderate. But TMC workers park their cars along the streets every single day for free to catch transit to work, and those cars have a knack of getting broken into. It makes sense that those cars would be easy targets. A vehicle is randomly-placed, nobody that lives nearby owns it (and most residents can't even see past their landscaping and fences onto the street), and the owner of the vehicle is a mile away and won't be back until after their shift is over. Take those crimes out of the stats, and what is left is one of the lowest crime rates in the city. And there is a reason for that, too. Each garden-style complex has about 300 units in two- and three-story buildings with one way in or out, video-monitored access gates, and perimeter fences. Most complexes hire security guards. Common areas have long sight-lines, and the effect of such hard boundaries between public and private spaces mean that someone cautious of their personal security can more quickly size up their situational risks. Whenever there is a spree of residential burglaries in the area, HPD easily communicates with the managers of each of these complexes and apartment or condo management would relay information to individual residents, typically using flyers posted over common-area mailboxes...meaning that 100% of households saw it, not just the nosy 'neighborhood watch' crowd. That information typically included a description of the perps and the make, model, and color of their getaway vehicle. And even if you didn't know half of the people that lived in your building, you knew faces and whose cars belonged where. In spite of the crushing sense of anonymity that was fostered by the built environment, suspicious activity wasn't difficult to detect. A single-family neighborhood typically doesn't have either the physical or political infrastructure to be so easily able to communicate crime issues.

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Well, at least you described what you believe an 'urbanist' to be. We still have no idea what the OP uses as his definition. However, your description of what you perceive to be a great layout of dense housing for the purposes of lowering crime, it is exactly this layout that is criticized in high crime neighborhoods, such as the courtyard style apartment complexes in Gulfton (yes, architecture's effect on crime IS discussed, if only one would look for it). The courtyard complexes are fine when the complex is inhabited by law-abiding 'nosy' citizens. However, when the complex declines, those very same courtyards can (and do) become the drug dealers marketplace. Because the courtyard is hidden from street view, passing police cannot see what is going on behind the walls. These courtyards must then be patrolled by foot, at great expense to the residents or taxpayers.

Studies show that it is the hidden areas that breed crime, not the exposed ones. Open areas can be viewed by the non-criminals. This is why courtyards can be troublesome. It is also why street level transit stops are less crime ridden than subway terminals, the front doors are more secure than the back doors. Of course, an open area is not safer if no one is around to watch it, which is a big reason why the per capita crime rate in a dense city like New York is lower than a less dense city like Houston, Dallas or Atlanta. It is much easier to work alone in these cities.

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The courtyard complexes are fine when the complex is inhabited by law-abiding 'nosy' citizens. However, when the complex declines, those very same courtyards can (and do) become the drug dealers marketplace.

Er... so, as I wrote earlier, it has nothing to do with architecture. In this case the architecture is only aiding an already entrenched social more that coincides with the decline of the neighborhood the complex occupies. The architecture and urban design doesn't cause the crime. Having "urbanists" address crime is reactive window dressing. It means nothing but it makes everybody feel warm and fuzzy, like one of Niche's puppies.

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The architecture and urban design doesn't cause the crime.

I don't think that you'll find any thoughtful person that would disagree with agree with that statement. Whether we're talking about something as innocuous as architecture or as potentially destructive as a firearm, these are just objects. Objects don't cause crime. They may enable or deter it, however, which is what makes such objects fair game for policy discussions.

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