Saturday, December 16, 2017

Rise of the robots, Revenge of the Homeless

Security robot on patrol - Video Washington Post
Luddite: (adjective) one of a group of early 19th century English workmen destroying laborsaving machinery as a protest; broadly: one who is opposed to especially technological change - Merriam-Webster

By Greg Saville

The story of the Luddite resonated last week with word from San Francisco about a controversy surrounding the  K-5 Security Robot. The K-5 was featured a few years ago on this blog: “On the threshold of a robotics revolution."

Since then the journey of the security robot has not been straight; it has been drowned in a Washington DC fountain and it has mistakenly run over a toddlers leg at a Palo Alto shopping center.

And last week, according to Newsweek, the security robot was removed from duty after deterring homeless encampments near the San Francisco SPCA. Apparently homeless people vandalized the SPCA robot, angry about being singled out by the SPCA and the security robot.


The issue is layered. On one hand, security robots are the latest technology and like all new technologies they can be applied in ways both sacred and profane. There are places, like underground parking lots, where an automated security patroller with surveillance tools can keep vigilant watch and help make isolated places safer.

In the San Francisco case, SPCA representative Krista Maloney says“staff wasn't able to safely use the sidewalks at times because of the encampments… since the SPCA started guarding its facilities with the robot (known as K9) a month ago, the homeless encampments have dwindled and there have been fewer car break-ins.”

But beneath the surface lurks a darker story.

There must be a better way. Photo Wikimedia Commons


This blog has reported on the so-called hostile architecture movement, especially CPTED tactics used to dehumanize places to exclude certain groups over other groups. Dealing with homeless encampments, which by definition means dealing with homeless people, with a security robot, is a questionable tactic. And the homeless have been outraged. Since the security robot began patrolling in front of the SPCA, the Washington Post claims it has been "allegedly smeared with feces, covered by a tarp and nearly toppled by an attacker."

Are there better, more humane, solutions? In some communities, temporary housing called Housing First programs, seem to work. In fact, the Canadian city of Medicine Hat, Alberta claims to have eliminated homelessness with the Housing First strategy. Why isn’t San Francisco helping the SPCA and the homeless with such a program?

Thursday, November 30, 2017

When walls speak - Socio-political graffiti in Ljubljana

STOP ISLAMOPHOBIA - A negative graffiti tag transformed into a positive message

by Mateja Mihinjac

Many walls and underpasses in the city of Ljubljana are covered with graffiti. A great number of these are considered non-artistic forms of graffiti or tagging. But there is another perspective worth considering.

Crime prevention and CPTED thinking teaches us that graffitied walls signify poor maintenance and lack of ownership thus contributing to crime and fear. In many western cities, authorities counteract this by legitimising the visually appealing forms of graffiti and containing them to particular areas of cities.

However, while the question of vandalism versus art has received much traction, the intended messaging behind graffiti has been neglected or discredited as acts of vandalism and youth misconduct.

Ljubljana graffiti with political message for social equality 


Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, has had a long history of walls covered in socio-political messages. Following the 2nd World War, graffiti has been used as an important avenue for sharing political views and resistance to occupational rule. Today, graffiti is still used as an important medium for expressing dissatisfaction with the current system, and as a form of political activism calling for public protest and social justice.

As a bottom-up form of political activism, some scholars consider graffiti the most democratic medium for expressing personal opinions publicly. Graffiti can express values while at the same time encourage a dialogue about conflicting social issues. This has been especially popularised in the work of the famous British graffiti artist Banksy.

Social justice graffiti with a message

Through graffiti, young people can also become more active in expressing their political opinions while marginalized groups use it to publicly voice their concerns and respond to criticisms. Despite the view of law and society, graffiti can be one of the most inclusive mediums of public discourse.


The messaging behind graffiti in Ljubljana demonstrates these points. It communicates several contentious public issues, for example, some graffiti expresses dissatisfaction with the political system and government decisions appearing during the 2007/2008 financial crisis. Graffiti were used throughout the city to call for social change and entice civic organisation to join the protests to preserve social protections threatened by reforms. Graffiti were a form of resistance calling for collective social action.

Anti-LGBT graffitii transformed into positive message by social graf writers

More recent graffiti reflect an increase in homophobic messages regarding a same-sex marriage referendum and also ethnic-nationalist sentiments concerning the European refugee crisis. This graffiti appeared in response to unfounded community concerns.

Realising the powerful effect of forming public opinion through graffiti, graffiti activists have found a way to transform these hate messages. Graffitists do this by rewriting over an existing message or adding to it thus neutralizing negative messaging or transforming it into a positive public debate. This type of graffiti promotes tolerance and counteracts the damage that intolerant messages have on society.

REFUGEES WELCOME - Fighting anti-immigrant bigotry with positive messaging


Finding the consensus between graffiti legality and alternative democratic expression is not straightforward. In SafeGrowth we encourage resident empowerment, caring for neighbors, and active citizenship. Such empowered citizens, especially when marginalized, need a suitable medium for expression. Until they find a better solution, they will continue to use walls to speak up.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Pop-up placemaking - activating spaces with locals

SafeGrowth's Brad Vassallo demonstrating how to create pop-up placemaking
near Penn Station, New York
by Greg Saville

We are frequently asked in our seminars how to activate unsafe places with fun, lively and safe activities. In CPTED the generic term used for this is called ‘activity generation’, but that term hardly describes it nor what works in one place over another. For years our SafeGrowth programs have turned to urban placemaking for answers.

Placemaking began, some claim, with the 1970s research of William H. Whyte, especially his book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.

It was Whyte who inspired the development of New York’s PPS - the Project for Public Spaces - still an active placemaking group today. A few years ago we worked alongside PPS in New Jersey and found placemaking directly relevant to CPTED, particularly 2nd Generation CPTED.

More recently our friends at Portland’s City Repair movement have been an inspiration. Members of City Repair attended our first SafeGrowth Summit two years ago and we often feature their guerrilla architecture on this blog.


This week we conducted training for community leaders in New York. SafeGrowth Advocate Brad Vassallo joined our training team and ran a terrific session during our training called POP-up placemaking, which is the process of directly engaging local residents and passers-by at a public spot where place activation may help.

Once one team started unpacking supplies, dozens of passers-by began joining with
their POP-up theme, What are you thankful for?

The public quickly contributed comments both candid and profound

POP-up placemaking has the advantage of requiring few funds and simple planning. Because it will not last long, it may have only short-term impact. However, a regular program of POP-ups may well provide a planner or community practitioner a great tactic to engage locals in a fun and easy way to start the long process of building relationships and reducing fear.

On the streets outside Penn Station in New York, our 4 teams spoke to dozens of New Yorkers, enticed them to use simple materials (blue interlocking rubber tiles, tape, chalk, colored string), and construct some simple and fun placemaking activities. Within minutes people stopped to participate, write, dance, talk, laugh, and co-create spaces around a bus stop, a subway stairway entrance, and along a public wall.

It took less than 30 minutes to complete the entire activity using about $100 of material. Obviously, space activation need not be complicated, expensive, or permanent. In a class exercise, this was simple enough. In a real-life community project, this can launch a transformation. 

One team discovered the simple act of taking out the material and starting to build
was enough to attract passers-by to stop and begin chatting

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Thoughts on researching police

Photo by Oppaints at English Wikipedia (Creative Commons)

by Tarah Hodgkinson

It is difficult to discuss community safety without discussing the police. That means we need unbiased research about how they operate. For example, Jerome Skolnick’s book Justice Without Trial (1966) and William Westley’s 1950s research looked inside the police blue wall. They spent months studying officers as they did their jobs, observing them where they worked and interviewing them in the field - a rare style of research called ethnography.

While much research exists on policing in North America, there are few in-depth ethnographic studies. This is happening at a time when, as police scholar Monique Marks suggests, large scale changes in policing demands in-depth and objective knowledge on how this change is occurring and where it should be headed. She reminds us that most of our understanding of the underlying processes in these organizations relies on out-dated studies.


Why do so few take on ethnographic policing research? This is largely a result of university research budget constraints and the pressure to publish in academia. Ethnographic studies take a significant amount of time and resources, and may only result in a few publications. There is also a concern that police organizations are not open to research, a perception not completely unfounded. However, in my PhD research, that has not been my experience.

Most police organizations I researched rolled out the welcome mat. I was brought in by all levels of management with varying levels of experience. They were eager to hear about my research goals, connect potential research participants and even come in during their vacation to participate.

Toronto bicycle police officers in Yonge Dundas Square, Toronto.
Photo by Ian Muttoo (Creative Commons)

Perhaps the world of policing is changing and with it the players? Police leaders are more educated than ever before and increasingly understand and value the research skills outsiders offer. But it may also be because my research goals appear relatively benign.


In fact, some police organizations are less open to certain kinds of research. One obvious example is research that has potential to investigate problematic behaviour or portray police in a negative light. Unsurprisingly, officers continue to be reluctant to disclose everything to an outside researcher. As one constable stated “We are going to hold things back. If we don’t know you, we aren’t going to spill our guts on the first round. We need to know we can trust you.” 

Trust is essential in the policing world, as characterized by another interviewee who said “you get lied to constantly. Every day! Multiple times a day. You learn to hold back and question everything.”

This openness to research, but only certain types of research, often results in simple and descriptive conclusions that fail to critique or innovate. Much more interesting, and promising, are those able to spend time to build the trust necessary to see behind the curtain of the policing world – and not lose their objectivity in the process.