Last year, I attended a two-day workshop in New Orleans about SafeGrowth, which is, essentially, a pithier term for a concept known as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). The workshop, which was sponsored and hosted by the AARP, focused in large part on the work currently being done in Hollygrove, a particularly violent and blighted neighborhood in New Orleans. Greg Saville, a criminologist, former law enforcement officer, and urban planner based in Washington State, led the workshop. Mr. Saville has written extensively on SafeGrowth on his blog, appropriately titled SafeGrowth, and he has worked with neighborhoods and communities across the nation, conducting what he refers to as “safety audits” and advising them on intervention policies and practices.

Obviously, Mr. Saville can explain these concepts much better than I can, but I’ll give it a shot. In basic terms, SafeGrowth is about recognizing and understanding the ways in which the built environment can create conditions that contribute to criminal activity. The term Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design was coined in the 1970s; it is a multidisciplinary discourse that has been a part of American urban planning ever since. I personally prefer the term SafeGrowth, primarily because I think it’s an easier and more approachable term.

Urban planners like to talk about “eyes on the street,” for example, and recently in Louisiana, there has been a push, driven by the Center for Planning Excellence and others, for communities to encourage the development of homes with front porches. The concept is simple, and it works: More “eyes on the street” means more people, literally, watching out for their neighborhood.

But I should be clear: Encouraging homes with front porches does not and should not mean incentivizing or mandating such. In America, thankfully, we have an array of property rights, and if you’ve lived in Louisiana long enough, you know that people take those rights very seriously, as they should. That said, it is probably a good idea for housing authorities, which rely on taxpayer funding, to follow best practices in residential design, ensuring, at the very least, that government-assisted housing projects are built with an eye toward sustainability and safety.

There are other things that governments can do to encourage SafeGrowth, without interfering with the rights of private property owners. Governments build roads, street lights, schools, libraries, and parks.

When we build neighborhood parks, for example, we should ensure they are well-designed, well-lit, and located in an area that is both accessible and visible. In cities across the country, neighborhood parks are often known as hotspots of crime, particularly at night, and in many cases, parks could actually serve to deter crime, if only they were designed and planned better. When we elect to invest our taxdollars to construct a new neighborhood park, we are making an investment in our overall quality of life; we are creating a safe and enjoyable destination for families, children, and senior citizens. But a poorly-designed, poorly-located, and poorly-lit park can quickly become a hotspot for crime, regardless of what neighborhood it is in.

Street lighting is another obvious example of the ways in which governments can ensure for SafeGrowth. An unlit or dimly-lit street reduces visibility, making it possible for people to actually witness crimes without ever realizing it.

And there are other, less obvious ways we can ensure SafeGrowth: setbacks, street signage, improved sidewalks, public landscaping and plantings, and access management, among others.

What I found most refreshing and encouraging about Mr. Saville’s approach and the work being done by the AARP in Hollygrove is the significant emphasis on community outreach. Repaving every road, repairing every sidewalk, replacing every street light: That’s an expensive proposition that would take years to implement. And there is no absolute guarantee it would result in a significant reduction in crime, though it would likely deter crime from certain areas.  Mr. Saville and the AARP recognize that the most effective way of implementing SafeGrowth in a neighborhood like Hollygrove is by directly engaging with the residents of the neighborhood, providing them with the resources and the technical assistance to build things like a community garden or to form a neighborhood watch association, ensuring that the residents are the principal stakeholders and empowering them to work together on projects that benefit their entire neighborhood.

It is refreshing to me, because often, urban planners believe they can improve an entire neighborhood with just the power of their ideas, and that is simply not true. I should point out that the efforts underway in Hollygrove are not being pushed by the local government, though I’m sure there is involvement on some level (there has to be); it’s being pushed by a non-profit organization and a partnership of residents, property owners, and stakeholders.

Recently, Mr. Saville posted an update on the Hollygrove project, one year after the workshop he hosted. Quoting in its entirety (bold mine):

There are cynics who think nothing changes and nothing works, especially in regards to crime.

They are wrong. Things change and some things work. Case in point – the New Orleans neighborhood of Hollygrove.

A year ago I wrote about Hollygrove where we introduced SafeGrowth. New Orleans balances a famous, and infamous, history. A high crime rate and the Hurricane Katrina tragedy tilt one way while Bourbon Street delights and French Quarter cuisine tilt another.

Then there is Hollygrove – among the poorest and highest crime neighborhoods – a place where a quarter of the population never returned post-Katrina (exacerbating problems of abandoned, boarded-up homes).

I’ve just returned from Hollygrove. I am very impressed.

Much was already underway in the Hollygrove community by the time SafeGrowth showed up. Then my talented colleagues at Louisiana AARP, along with some terrific residents and service providers, thought they’d try SafeGrowth to improve conditions.

What happened?

Early days were difficult with many setbacks – a recent double homicide being the most notable. Obviously much work remains though wins seem more frequent and long-lasting (sustainable) than last year.

Community activities are on the rise. A new walking club is forming and Night Out Against Crime events are bigger than ever. I talked to residents who told me they now clean their own streets and pay for their own streetlights when they cannot get the city to do so (all the more remarkable considering this is an impoverished neighborhood, not a middle-class suburb!)

A few much needed access fences are now in place. The week I arrived residents were celebrating removal of a blighted and abandoned home. New cultural groups are emerging (the hallmark of 2nd Generation CPTED) such as the Hollygrove “Originals” who raise funds for social events in the neighborhood.

This week AARP Louisiana staff helped organize community planning sessions and safety audits. We walked the streets and surveyed conditions with residents, many whom I met last year (their passion and perseverance still continue to impress me). Also present in the workshops were police, clergy, and service providers.

On the final day planning sessions we targeted a central street and some open-space areas. I was amazed at the inventiveness and practicality of the proposals for moving forward.

It takes decades of neglect to sour communities into poor, crime-infested neighborhoods. That’s why rehabilitating them takes time.

It’s clear to me that in high crime communities like Hollygrove, there are three legs of neighborhood turnaround:

1. Coordinated and collaborative help from service agencies
2. Coherent, integrated planning process (e.g. SafeGrowth), and
3. The momentum, passion and persistence to carry on.

Again, what impresses me most about the Hollygrove project is that it’s being built from the ground-up, instead of from the top-down. Equally impressive is the recognition that the local government can only do so much; it can’t force property owners to band together and commit to volunteering their time to improve their neighborhood. People have to decide to do that on their own.

To be sure, as Mr. Saville points out, it took decades for Hollygrove to become blighted and crime infested; revitalization won’t just happen overnight, even if the City spent millions on infrastructure. (And if you’ve ever been to Hollygrove, there is no question that New Orleans should invest in improving its infrastructure).

Regardless, the work being done in Hollygrove should serve as a good model for those of us in Central Louisiana; it illustrates the critical importance of involving both service agencies, like the AARP in this case, and the residents of the affected neighborhood. Collaborations like these can be much more agile and effective than simply relying on top-down government intervention, and I imagine that whenever they are done in coordination with infrastructure investments, their effectiveness multiplies.

8 thoughts

  1. Hello Lamar:

    Congratulations on your excellent blog. I especially appreciate your description of my SafeGrowth work with Louisiana AARP in Hollygrove. After decades in the business of crime prevention, it was my frustration with top-down logjams and academic abstractions that led me out of that miasma and toward SafeGrowth in the first place.

    Your outline SafeGrowth as: Direct engagement, outreach, helping with technical assistance, and creating competent neighborhood non-profits.

    That’s it.

    That is the difference between crime prevention through environmental design and SafeGrowth.

    The former is a program with prevention tactics. The latter is a way to help residents actually do it and sustain it.

    As you note, too many believe they can improve an area with just the power of their ideas. It is true that ideas are an important part of the equation and neighbors can be exceedingly difficult to organize. But when it comes to preventing crime and building safe neighborhoods, there is nothing more important than finding ways to put them together.

    This must be our urban safety and community development philosophy of the 21st Century.

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