I’m not sure how to approach this topic, because I really don’t have any proof of what I’m about to suggest, but suffice it to say that I believe that if an urban environment, home, or any place embodies a bad vibe, that it will more likely induce criminal acts.
Certainly ‘bad areas’ mean that less people will feel safe and therefore won’t travel them, making those areas perfect for dealing drugs, etc. But more than that when a place doesn’t feel good, people don’t feel good and they are more likely to want to lash out… at least this is my feeling.
If I had the means, I would love to take many individuals who ‘don’t have it’ and provide them with nice housing, integrated with other homes to create a sense of community and unity. By integrating people of all walks of life, children who might not have the knowledge of maintenance and care of one’s surroundings might learn it through example. I believe that given time they would begin to love where they live and would forget about the notion of crime as a way to a better place.
So, this doesn’t mean that in poor areas everyone is a criminal, no, no way… but many obvious criminal activities do occur more publicly in poorer areas. I think this might be because criminals feel more comfortable ‘hiding’ their criminal activities in areas that look transient rather than in neighborhoods that look and feel established and maintained. If maintained, one can deduce that ‘people care’ and ‘people are watching their surroundings and taking note of them, making improvements and maintaining as required.’ Certainly criminals do not want to operate in the spotlight, but rather in the shadows so as to not be caught.
That said, I also believe criminal behavior is a reflection of the lack of opportunity. That if someone has no options for viable work, they turn to crime. I knew of a person who was a drug addict, had lost their teacher position and was un-hirable thus resorted to break-ins to maintain their financial stability. This aspect should obviously be addressed socially because no matter what one does contextually someone hooked on drugs could care less and will do what they must in order to ‘survive.’
But, for the vast majority of people, they go to jobs, have families and are trying to make a living including finding affordable housing. These people all deserve a reasonable neighborhood to live in. With this in mind, no matter what state a particular neighborhood is in, one can analyze the neighborhood to determine what visually is harming it the most, and what characteristics are ‘strong’ and should be built on. For instance, if all homes are white clapboards homes but there is one that has been converted to a junkyard, one can suggest that the uniformity has been broken. This is not to say there can not be variety in neighborhoods reflecting the individuality and uniqueness of people, but that broken, run-down, mis-used, mis-assigned, damaged, littered and other negative characteristics can literally affect the whole street ‘vibe.’
The most destructive forces to the characteristic of neighborhoods are: telephone poles and wires (which affect one’s field of vision and ‘color’ the buildings beyond); garage services (which should be in appropriately zoned areas and not integrated in residential zones); broken fences, stoops and cornices (which can be repaired as a community effort); use of inappropriate colors (some colors should not be used, like brown, often used to ‘be like a wood color’ but rarely looks good in relationship to brick); painted brick (which can spall, split and degrade the brick as well as peel off within a couple years creating a very unsightly look); poor roads, sidewalks, curbs and painted crosswalk lines (better repaired ‘on-mass’ by the city); lack of street trees, shrubs and perennials (this has the opposite effect of telephone poles and can seriously improve any neighborhood as it ‘hides’ unsightly homes as it unifies a streetscape; built by the city with full tree pits and border fences).
Further, street repairs can be incredibly disruptive to streets and neighborhoods. Typically, even if they are able to perform their work within a short period of time, the scars of that work remain marked on the road way. Therefore, we need a more robust underground network (much like a subway tunnel) which can be accessed at common points and maintained underground, rather than continually and perpetually digging up the road. This idea is part of a larger idea for future cities, where all city services are underground, that is, trash collection, mail delivery, electric, gas, sewer, water, construction debris and material delivery, etc., all served off a single tunnel that is accessed via trolley-like vehicles, thus removing large polluting vehicles from the road above. This would also help unclog traffic and allow the city to function in an highly efficient manner.
The city also must recognize that providing on-street parking has had a direct effect on the safety and visual blight of our neighborhoods. Many city functions have been allowed to simply ignore zoning requirements for parking, including most police stations, fire stations, schools and other facilities using the excuse that it is too expensive to purchase the land and build the parking structures, but, like it is for any developer, it is both the law and the right thing to do.
For residential neighborhoods that have multiple units on zero lot lines (townhouses) have both an abundance of residences and thus vehicles making parking a serious issue. These neighborhoods should be equipped with city provided parking garages to alleviate congestion and thus double parking. Let’s be clear on this issue, driving a vehicle between two rows of vehicles is dangerous for pedestrians, and for property especially when someone double parks. This ‘streetscape’ would better serve the public if these streets had no parking and instead offered residences a green oasis. So how could that be accomplished? One easy solution is to put parking within the block, located under a common park in everyone’s rear yard. This would not only solve the parking issue (more on alternate side of the street parking forcing residents to move their vehicle multiple times every week with those ramifications) but push a ‘localized park’ up towards the sky thus helping to balance the sense of being in a tight urban area with being in open areas, which is also sorely lacking in cities. Further, this ‘rear yard parking zone’ could accommodate the service tunnel. The result would be a serious removal of traffic on ordinary streets, thus freeing them up from always being straight, in order to serve parking, to serpentine thus accommodating green areas, slower traffic and a greater sense of front yard, neighbors, and community.
While much of this article has the feel of being a city of the future, the bottom line is it eases the burden on individuals who are making our cities work through their own hard work. We all need efficiency and well maintained environments so we can balance that with the stresses of work, in order to be productive and not distracted.
Regarding this requirement for efficiency, what is efficient for a family that has to take their laundry to a laundromat? One has to believe that this and other duties directly affect one’s ability to maintain their own home. That, and the knowledge required of how to maintain one’s surroundings (many do not know how to properly paint for instance), and having the money to do it as most project require some specialized tool or material. Perhaps tools and materials (and thus paint colors used commonly in a neighborhood) might someday be stored in a common street tool shed, accessible by keys that identify which home and what person is using the key (to protect from robbery) to allow those who do not have the means to purchase their own tools a way for them to be a positive force in the neighborhood. This echoes my own belief of the inefficiency of every home owning a lawn mower, pruning shears, rakes, shovels, paint brushes, when the use of those tools may only be required once a year, if that. This ‘community tool shed’ could be located in the rear yard area as a small structure, lockable with other security features, it’s location making it accessible only to residences of that block thus limiting it’s vulnerability to outside criminals, and, if something did happen those involved would be directly accountable to their own neighbors thus reducing the probability of vandalism, etc. So this shed would provide the means for self-improvement and maintenance while remaining secure.
For me, this all comes down to my long held belief that every square foot of this earth is precious. To continue to push our cities outward, thus eating up more land, if just foolish. We do have the means to create highly efficient and beautiful neighborhoods that can accommodate everyone, and thus create the conditions that discourage criminal behavior (in children who as teens and young adults see it as an opportunity, to ‘toughen up’ given their living circumstances resulting in needless deaths and other vandalism behavior, etc.) and instead teach them the value and feeling of accomplishment associated with maintaining and beautifying their own place into their own little paradise.
If all streets and communities had this paradise feeling, certainly rents would even out, because all areas would be desirable, each with their own special characteristic and quality, and children would find alternative activities, often paid maintenance projects, that infuse their own community with a productive positive individual, one who builds as opposed to one who destroys.
These idea and solutions presented here are what I consider total fixes rather than bandaids. Bandaids can be very expensive and certainly at times required, but for the long haul while large expenditures can prevent total fixes from ever happening without them ‘the mess of current systems can become exaggerated and overwhelming in the future with continued stress, to a point where it collapses). There is no doubt that in NYC the street grid was a huge proposal for urban efficiency and growth. We can not stop there and must think of our city environment at a larger scale, to both accommodate larger populations more efficiently but also in a better context. There is no reason why we can’t treat our land better as a result.
Certainly I view these ‘total fix’ ideas as parts of a city ‘machine’, like the human body ‘machine’ all parts play an important role in the functioning of every human. A city can do the same to produce an entity which can accommodate humanity in the future in a way that directly affects their ability to function.