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Can good (or bad) design influence crime in a neighborhood? Urban planners have long known that street lighting, pedestrian walkways, cameras and other design features can deter certain crimes. Conversely, many high-crime areas share similar architecture and design traits. Architect and Washington Post columnist Roger Lewis joins us to explore how design can create safe or dangerous spaces.
- Roger Lewis Architect; Columnist, "Shaping the City," Washington Post; and Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Maryland College Park
MR. PAUL BROWNFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Paul Brown, sitting in for Kojo. They're the spaces in our neighborhoods we avoid by instinct -- the low-lit corners of a park or parking lot, the side street with broken sidewalks and no traffic, places where we feel unsafe, vulnerable --whether or not the crime data say we should.
MR. PAUL BROWNArchitects and urban designers have long known that street lighting, sidewalks and other design features can deter certain crimes. And many new building projects across our region are integrating those insights into their layouts. But sometimes, bad design can have the opposite effect. Consider the case of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year-old who was killed in a Florida gated community back in February.
MR. PAUL BROWNOne editorial recently speculated that the physical layout of that suburban community may have contributed to the tragedy. So can good design or bad design actually influence our behavior and the way we see our communities? Here to discuss that with us today, Roger Lewis, a professional architect and "Shaping the City" columnist with The Washington Post, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Roger Lewis, good to have you with us.
MR. ROGER LEWISThank you.
BROWNAnd, by the way, I'm Paul Brown from NPR News, sitting in for Kojo, happy to be with you. If you would like to call and contribute to our conversation -- and I hope you will -- here's the number. It's 1-800-433-8850. Or you can email us at email@example.com, or get in touch with us through our Facebook page or by sending us a tweet, @kojoshow. And, once again, that phone number, 800-433-8850.
BROWNWhat makes you feel comfortable in a community? What makes you feel uncomfortable? What would you like to see in the place where you live? What's important to you, walkability, being able to see around corners? Call, let us know. So, Roger Lewis, to get started here, you know, architects and city planners have known for a long time that certain types of city streets and streetscapes can create safer environments and really very much their own environments.
BROWNWe take it on one extreme end. For example, you can put up a wall or a fence or a gated community somewhere. On the other end, you could have a very open layout of streets with better lighting, good sightlines, streets that kind of steer pedestrian traffic through certain pathways and arteries. How can architecture change people's behaviors and perceptions in the outdoors?
LEWISProbably the most commonly accepted notion about public safety -- we should say this as a preface -- may have less to do with architecture than whether people feel that people are paying attention, surveilling, watching. Are there police around? I think we ought to just always keep in mind that that there are constraints or limits to how much the physical environment actually deters or encourages crime. With that being said, you've already touched on, I think, a couple of really key points.
LEWISOne is, is making building environments in which visibility, in which what is going on is evident and visible and seen by people who are both traversing an area or living in it or working in it, what's called eyes on the street, to quote -- I think it was Oscar Newman who used that term. Having a lot of eyes in the street, there's no question that deters crime. We should point out, of course, that if there are a lot of eyes on the street, if you've got a mob of people, that's also potential cover for a purse-snatcher or somebody who's doing something they shouldn't be doing.
BROWNBut, basically, a neighborhood that either has a fairly high residential component or people out on the street is potentially a safer place to be.
LEWISYes. And I think, psychologically, people feel safer when there are other people around. I mean, I've -- there's no question that I'm -- in my own experience, I've -- I was in the Peace Corps for two years in Tunisia, after architecture school. And I remember learning from the get-go that there were certain things we needed to, as designers, to avoid, such as creating niches or little alcoves or places where someone can hide or lurk. That's an architecturally-controlled condition.
LEWISAnd, again, the idea was to make everything as exposed as possible. It won't -- again, it won't deter crime for someone who's intent on grabbing your cellphone in front of the Metro station. And I think we ought to recognize that sometimes bad behavior occurs in places where there are lots of people, such as Metro stations. And one of the ones that we all have read about occasionally is the Gallery Place Station, near the Verizon Center, which is very busy, very active, lots of pedestrians, lots of traffic, yet there have been incidents there.
BROWNRight. So when you plan for a -- you know, say, you start with a clean slate. You're going to redevelop a block or several blocks, or you're actually going to plan a new community within an urban space. What do you look for? What do you try to create in terms of spaces based on what we've learned over the years about what neighborhoods tend to be safer, more comfortable and more welcoming to people who want to walk? What do you put in? What do you keep out?
LEWISI think one of the key things that urban designers and architects try and achieve is a clear delineation between what is the public ground, the streetscape, the cart way, the sidewalks, that area that is truly public that is well demarcated and surveilled, really, 24 hours a day versus the very private space that really belongs to either an individual building or an individual resident and that is very much the domain of that owner or the property owner or that occupant.
LEWISAnd what -- where we get into problems, I think, are when we create ambiguous spaces. When there's -- for example, one might argue that building in a city, in an urban situation, buildings that are set way back from the street, with a front yard, as if you were in suburbia, might not be a good idea because, even though that property might be privately owned, it's sort of an ambiguous territory between what we see as the public realm, the street and the sidewalks. And I'm talking about sidewalks that you can really use, including places somewhere in that cross-section for bicycles.
BROWNNow, I've noticed in recent years in the D.C. area that anytime a building with a large parking lot, for example, out front, is demolished that -- well, not anytime. But a lot of the time, the replacement winds up on the sidewalk. In other words, it's a different type of city architecture, and the street almost becomes a more welcoming room, if you will, than it is when you're walking along the sidewalk and there's a vast expansive parking lot out to a supermarket or a store.
BROWNWhat's going on there? I mean, I've noticed this is a real change, that when these places come down, they don't go back up the same way.
LEWISWell, the answer's that we've sort of rediscovered how to make towns and cities. I mean, we -- that used to be the way almost all cities were done, whether you were in Tunisia or a country in Europe or places in the United States built in the 19th and 18th centuries. That is, buildings, houses and other buildings generally came to the edge of the right of way, to the sidewalk.
LEWISAnd the -- again, private space was always in a courtyard or in a backyard space that was clearly separate and under the control of the owner. We got away from that, particularly after World War II, as we built more and more suburban-type developments. And I think what you're describing now is essentially a desire to not only bring -- make the street more intimate, more well defined as a public urban space, but, of course, it serves retailers.
LEWISThey prefer having their storefronts, their shop windows right next to where people are walking. And that is probably an arguably a safer condition. Again, if there's some guy on the loose who wants to grab your cellphone, it may not make much difference.
LEWISBut those are places where the -- in effect, a little more congestion adds safety, a little more pedestrian, a little more -- a few more people, eyes on the street is generally a positive.
BROWNWhat do we know about how people feel about these environments? Is there any research out there that tells us, you know, a lot of people like neighborhoods where there's significant foot traffic and the spaces are a little bit smaller? Or is -- are we just basically guessing here?
LEWISNo. I think there's been -- I think there has been evidence in recent years that more and more people are appreciating what I would call the -- a kind of urban context or an urban condition where, in a streetscape, you can walk comfortably, you can bike, you can park a car, you can -- all of these things coexist in this space. And, again, the -- I think most people, psychologically, see that as a safer area than walking along, let's say, a street, as you mentioned earlier, lined by parking lots or parking garages.
LEWISBy the way, parking garages right next to a sidewalk are killers. They're dead spaces. That's very bad urban design to put a parking garage directly next to a sidewalk. That's something we're trying to avoid. There's still the element of policing. I mean, I think we shouldn't overlook the fact that in any physical environment, it's still reassuring for most people to know that every so often there's a policeman or a policewoman looking over the scene.
BROWNYeah, someone you can see. Let's put the question out there again. Are there public spaces in your neighborhood that make you feel safe or unsafe? And how does architecture and the environment around you contribute to your sense of security or your sense that you belong in a space? We'd love to hear from you. The number, once again, 1-800-433-8850. And let's go to Steven in College Park, Md. Steven, you're on the air. Steven, are you there?
STEVENYes. Can you hear me?
BROWNYes, we can. You're on the air. What's on your mind?
STEVENOK. Well, I just want to say it's a great topic. And while you're looking at it through the lens of crime and safety, I think there's also a health element. So here's my question. Within a one-mile radius around the University of Maryland-College Park campus, there are neighborhoods that are devastated, that have no sidewalks, where the kids who want to walk to school are literally walking through the woods unsupervised.
STEVENAnd if they make the wrong turn, they end up on the parkway, very dangerous. And I want to know what your speaker has to say about redesigning existing space when you have these kinds of problems that make the neighborhood less safe, people afraid, and it affects their mental health and their willingness to even go out and be physically active and exercise because they have no sidewalks.
BROWNWell, let's hear from Roger Lewis on this, Steven. Roger, what do you do when you've got spaces of the sort that Steven describes and it's really time to do something about it, to redesign them?
LEWISWell, it's a great question for me. I spent 38 years at College Park teaching at the University of Maryland. And I know that territory very well. I think it's an extremely astute observation. The -- one of the things that urban designers today advocate very strongly is interconnectivity of pathways, again, not just streets, but sidewalks, hike or biker trails. There's no question that we have millions of acres, if you will, of urbanized and suburbanized landscapes in the United States where we don't have that, where we have dead ends, cul-de-sacs, streets without sidewalks at all.
LEWISThis has been an issue in Washington, D.C. I -- we did a show, in fact, once about the controversy -- a lot of people here in Washington have streets with no sidewalks and are opposing the city's -- the Department of Motor -- Transportation putting in sidewalks. I think that that's a -- I think that's a very important part of the discussion.
BROWNRoger, when they oppose it, what are the reasons? And that really surprises me, I have to say.
LEWISOh, I think it's a combination of nostalgia, feeling that they live on a -- what is a kind of rural road, or they believe it's a rural road...
LEWIS...and that having a sidewalk of any kind suddenly makes it an urban road. And...
BROWNBut, you know, there are a lot of post-World War II developments that are not really urban, of course. They're not really rural. They're suburban. They don't have sidewalks. Would it not be hard to think of them as rural? They don't feel rural.
LEWISWell, of course, they're not rural.
STEVENCan I make a comment? Can I make a comment?
BROWNSure, Steven. Yeah.
STEVENWell, you know, the other thing about is when, particularly, you talk about the resistance, some of that is to keep people out. They don't want the connectivity. These neighborhoods I'm talking about within this one mile radius are poor. These neighborhoods are minority, black and Hispanic. And all of a sudden, you see this great divide reflected in the absence of these amenities that we're talking about. But the consequence is very, very devastating for these neighborhoods, to be living in the shadow of our great institution.
LEWISWell, Steven, you read my mind because that was my next sentence. That was -- I was about to say the hidden agenda, the thing often not mentioned when people oppose putting in sidewalks, is exactly that. It's the fear of the "other," of having people being able to move into your neighborhood or pass through the neighborhood who are not residents of the neighborhood. There is no question that is a factor in some of this opposition.
LEWISAnd it's also one of the reasons why since World War II, and particularly in the last 30 years, we've seen the rise of gated communities. And we should probably talk a little bit about the psychology of that.
BROWNAnd I wanted -- let's do that right after the break because we've got a question regarding that. Steven, thanks very much for your call. A lot of good ideas here, very interesting ones. We've got a number of other folks waiting on the line. So stick with us. We'll be right back after the break here on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
BROWNWe're back with "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Paul Brown from NPR News, sitting in for Kojo today, and with us, Roger Lewis, talking about cities and making them safe, spaces that allow you to feel good. Are there public spaces in your neighborhood that make you feel safe or unsafe? How does the architecture and built environment contribute to your sense of security? And, Roger, I wanted to look at a specific case, one that's been in the news a lot lately. This would be the case of Trayvon Martin, the young man -- teenager, unarmed, shot and killed in Sanford, Fla.
BROWNAnd we've come across some articles and editorials, speculating that the design of the community in Sanford, Fla. might have contributed in some way to Trayvon's death. Now, we want to be very, very careful here. We're not saying it did. We're not saying that there are any studies that say that, that it did. We're just saying there's -- there are questions out there. Had this community been designed differently, might this event possibly have been prevented?
BROWNThe Boston Globe, for example, observed that only 1.2 percent of residents in Sanford walk to work so that the mere presence of someone walking in this community could have been perceived as odd, maybe even suspicious. And George Zimmerman, the man who's now charged with killing Trayvon Martin, spoke to 911 and talked about his suspicions. We've got that on recording.
BROWNMore broadly, Architecture magazine -- Architect magazine, that is, observed that the types of gated communities where Trayvon Martin was shot are designed, as Steven said earlier who just called a few minutes ago, with a very specific idea of privacy that some people say breeds suspicion and fear, maybe even paranoia into some public interactions. What do you think about these ideas?
BROWNAnd if there's some credence to them, what do we do as we go ahead into future months and years planning architecture and planning communities? What do we do to prevent those sorts of feelings from being engendered by the environments that we build?
LEWISWell, first of all, we probably should consider outlying gated communities. I mean, what we have...
BROWNGood luck on that.
LEWISYeah, I mean, it was -- and I've -- in 1995, I wrote a column about gated communities, and you can go to the WAMU website and see the cartoon that accompanied that column. The reason gated communities exist has already been implied by the previous comments, that is to say people of a certain socioeconomic status feel more comfortable if they are living together with people just like themselves. That's number one.
LEWISAnd, number two, in a community which is -- which is separate, which is clearly separated from the rest of the urban or suburban fabric in which this is situated. Now, this creates, of course, immediately the problem that, Paul, you just alluded to, which is as soon as someone is doing something that's looked at as abnormal, they're immediately suspect. This is exactly what happened there.
BROWNDoesn't matter what it is.
LEWISDoesn't matter what it is. So someone walking in this community in Florida looked out of place. I mean, in fact, that's the reason they looked out of place because...
BROWNAnd I've got to tell you, I've noticed at various times in my life, you know, I've lived in quite a number of places. For example, down south, especially in the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, as more people obtained cars in rural areas that had been relatively poor, fewer and fewer people wanted to be seen walking, OK? It was a status symbol in a way to -- that you did not have to walk, that you could ride.
BROWNAnd what I found, oftentimes there, was that when I was out walking or running, which was not very popular in the day back in those locations, that I was very likely to be shouted at or have things thrown at me from moving cars, usually, you know, young people. But I really came to believe that it was simply because walking wasn't the thing. And if you were walking or running, you were odd and possibly a suspect, just as you say. I could feel it. It was palpable.
LEWISYou know, I grew up in Houston, Texas, and every time I went to school, elementary school, I walked. It was walking distance. Today, we live across the street from an elementary school in D.C., perfectly walkable for probably 75 percent of the people who come there. Unbelievably, a very large percentage of the kids that come to that school are driven.
LEWISAnd it's what's driving this, if I can use that -- if I can make a pun, is fear. I mean, there's no question. A lot of people just are afraid that, especially with kids, that letting them walk to school or go walking off to the drugstore or whatever, even if it's only a few blocks away, puts them at risk. So getting back to the gated community concept, the notion is, you know, build an enclave.
LEWISPut a wall or a fence around it. Don't let anybody in who hasn't been cleared or invited. We -- in a way, we have this already in apartment buildings these days. I remember when I used to be able to go visit people and I didn't have to sign in and...
BROWNWhy do you think gated communities should be done away with?
LEWISWell, I think the -- I don't want to impinge on civil liberties. Obviously, we can't outlaw it.
LEWISBut I think it gets back to -- at the top of the show the original question about how we're designing communities today. I think most of us in this profession believe that the healthiest places are diverse. They're diverse in their demographics and the people who live there. They're diverse in the modes of transportation that are available, diverse in the kind of uses, land uses, that are in an area.
LEWISWe think that ultimately is the safest way to build habitation in the 21st century for people who don't want to live in the country. And I think that we're, in a way, at a point of flux between a country which, for, really, half a century after World War II, went wholly suburban, totally automobile-driven, as you mentioned.
LEWISI mean, most of our streets are designed for automobiles, not pedestrians.
LEWISWe're trying to get away from that and get back to designing streets that are -- that work for vehicles but also for pedestrians...
BROWNFor bicycles, mm hmm.
LEWIS...and bicycles and strollers and people in wheelchairs and that are safe.
BROWNLet's go to Anne in Washington, D.C. Anne, you are on the air.
ANNEThank you for taking my call. I have a concern. I applaud your show for pointing out the discriminatory nature of the way the communities are designed and the fact that they could lead to suspicions and to innocent people being harmed. But I think that there are some other factors that need to be considered in Trayvon Martin's case, and I just want to raise them because, unfortunately, some of the things you're saying could be construed as a possible line of defense for George Zimmerman.
ANNEWe have to remember that George Zimmerman was told by the police not to -- when he called, not to follow the "suspect." Secondly, we know that the scream from the phone, help me, help me, help me, help me, were those of the young man. And his girlfriend says that he was actually pushed, and the cell phone clattered while she was on it with him. But the other...
BROWNWell, there's been some -- there has been some dispute about those actual sounds...
ANNEOK. OK. So let me just follow up.
BROWN...and what they represent. But I just want to get that in and then allow you to continue.
ANNEThe point is he shot to kill rather than shooting to wound. And I think that if you study patterns of police arrests, there have been numerous scandals in Pennsylvania, other states, where usually young black men were pretty much framed up on charges by the police. There was a disregard for black life. And it's predicated on the idea that if this young black person doesn't commit a crime right now, he's going to in the future.
ANNEAnd so the police with good conscience will just haul in a black person. And I think we can't leave out the real prejudice that existed with Zimmerman. In this case, he was told not to follow this young man. I think it was more than just a predisposition to suspicion.
BROWNI think that may have been, and I have no problem with that idea. And that's why we're trying to be so careful with this discussion. But, with that in mind, and understanding that that -- that those issues are out there in this case -- and it's a very good thing to have them out front, once again, Roger Lewis, is there -- thank you, Anne -- is there any possibility that in a case of this sort, that, once again, the architecture of the community, the outdoor architecture would lead someone to feel more suspicious or more threatened seeing a person walking?
LEWISWell, I think it's not so much the architecture per se because one can imagine taking a gated community, pulling down the walls and the gates, and you could take those buildings in that landscape and put a different set of people in there, and it would be a perfectly safe place or a place where it wouldn't be unusual to see people walking. So I think we have to be careful not to overstate the role of architecture in either deterring or promoting crime. I think, in fact, perhaps, I should, I mean, I had to quote myself.
LEWISBut, you know, at the end of this article I wrote back in '96 about defensive space, I said, in fact, much urban crimes stems from dysfunctional economic and social conditions about which architects, planners and police can do little. So, in effect, that -- and I think the caller, Anne, is saying the same thing. The deepest roots of crime are deprivation and desperation. So let -- there's...
BROWNYou know, D.C. used to be one of the most, if not the most, segregated communities in the country. How were these things handled then back in those days? Did architecture contribute to what was going on? Were people kept out of certain neighborhoods? What happen to them when they went into neighborhoods where people felt they should not be?
LEWISWell, I think it's always been a problem. But I think it's, again, related less to the physical fabric, in many cases, in D.C. than to what people's perceptions were about the human beings that occupy that fabric and inhabit that fabric. So, for example, when they tour down southwest, this historic neighborhood, to build in the day of urban renewal, again, the hidden agenda, the unstated motivation or among the other motivations was the people here don't matter. Let them go fend for themselves. They don't vote.
LEWISThey don't have money. You know, it was -- there's no question that that was -- that had nothing to do with the architecture. But the architecture was the symbol, you know, the broken -- the whole theory of broken windows. Crime goes up when people perceive that a neighborhood, no matter how well built the houses might be, if it's running down, if it's in any way derelict, that's -- somehow that's associated with bad behavior, criminal behavior.
BROWNAnd the idea that the authorities, government, the police maybe just don't care that much to begin with.
LEWISOh, exactly. That was absolutely part of it.
BROWNIt was James Q. Wilson's thesis, wasn't it? As -- and Rudy Giuliani made that very famous in New York City when he started patrolling neighborhoods, fixing windows, fixing buildings, washing and cleaning away graffiti, all that sort of thing. And many people say that it improved the quality of life in New York, and crime did go down. Other people said, you know, this guy is a fascist.
BROWNI remember because I used to -- I had a sister who lives there and a lot of friends. Some people really, really couldn't stand what was going on. And others said, look, the place is safer. It's easier to get around New York. It's better maintained.
LEWISWell, and we're seeing now with all the foreclosures, we're seeing neighborhoods in places like Detroit or other cities where, because abandonment has occurred, crime has gone up because these empty houses invite vandalism.
BROWNPrince George's County, similar problems with houses that are abandoned. Jay from Alexandria, Va., let's go to you. You're on the air, Jay. What's on your mind?
JAYYes. Christopher Leinberger, several years ago, wrote an excellent book called "The Option of Urbanism." And he talked about how, in the future, the suburbs could become more slum-like and the urban areas, I guess, more safe. So could you -- your guest, Roger, talk about that?
LEWISWell, Chris and I, in fact, were on a -- did a Kojo show not too long ago. And, certainly, we're seeing -- we are seeing evidence of that now. We are seeing, as I just mentioned, subdivision housing in parts of the United States that are dysfunctional, that are troubled for economic reasons, and, as a result of that, there is more crime and pilferage and vandalism.
LEWISWe are seeing on the -- at the same time, more and more people, particularly younger people and retired people whose kids are grown, moving into more urbanized communities, places where they, in fact, can -- maybe only need to own one car and don't use that very much 'cause now they can walk, use transit, get on a bike. So I think Chris' prediction and observation echoes much of what we've been talking about.
LEWISI think there is a growing -- an increase in the health, if you will, of urban environments, which may ultimately approve more healthy statistically than some suburban environments. Now, again, in fairness, there are lots and lots of suburbs in the United States that are still quite safe and, you know, where crime is not an issue. I mean, all you have to do is look even in Washington where the crime rate in Ward 3, much of which is fairly low density, is much lower than it is in Ward 7 or 8.
BROWNAnd in defense of gated communities, you know, I've got an email here from one our listeners who says, "Your guest suggests gated community is linked with socioeconomic status, but it's important to note that gated communities are a dime a dozen in Florida. And they run the gamut from trailer parks to higher-income developments."
BROWNSo that's an interesting commentary on this whole idea of, you know, are gated communities automatically bad things? Not necessarily, this listener is saying. And, Jay, thanks very much for calling. We appreciate hearing from you. Let's go to Daniel, who's been waiting for a while, in Northeast D.C. Daniel, if you're there, you're on the air.
DANIELI'm very pleased that you're beginning to address the health of the urban environment. We're confronted here in this section of D.C. with just that issue. The 25-acre McMillan Sand Filtration plant that was a park and designed as part of an emerald necklace of parks through this section of the city is being developed by the city into a 50-building, cookie-cutter, mixed-use development.
DANIELThe youth of our community need parks, parks for them to have recreation, performance, art culture, train to learn how to do trades and to grow into healthy people, develop children. That's how we're going to reduce crime. And we're trying -- in the community, we're trying to get that 25 acres returned to us as a park. It was designed by Olmsted. Only D.C., in this section of town, would have fenced it off and let it get overgrown for 27 years.
DANIELThe preferred section of town in Northwest has Rock Creek Park, trails, woods, horse stables, nature center. And this section of town is being given the message: You don't deserve parks. You don't deserve recreation. And, right now, we're trying to get Kwame Brown, the Council chairman, to stop the demolition of McMillan Park and return it to recreational use for our community. Think about Glen Echo. Think about how healthy it is in Montgomery County for the parks and activities that go on 365 days a year.
DANIELWhy did they deserve a park like Glen Echo? They just put tens of millions into Glen Echo. And we are used as a commodity for the developing -- the developer community instead of developing our young people here in healthy ways, in healthy outdoor places. That 25 acres was warehoused, fenced off for decades. Mr. Lewis, where is the consciousness of the D.C. government and the development community and architects like you?
BROWNLet's get Roger in here, Daniel.
LEWISWell, I've -- I'm somewhat aware of what Daniel is talking about 'cause I've been constantly receiving emails and notices about the McMillan site, and I understand exactly what his concerns are. And I have not explored it. I think, actually, the best thing for me to say at this point is that we should probably do a show at some point on the McMillan reservoir because I know exactly what -- I know the different points of view.
LEWISI'm aware of how it's being seen by different people. I'm sympathetic with Daniel's point about the fact that there are parts of the city that are less well-equipped, if you will, with places for kids and parks and so forth. So I think it's a subject for another show, really.
BROWNDaniel, thank you very much for your call, made your point there, and I appreciate your calling. Let's take a brief break. We'll be right back on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Paul Brown, filling in for Kojo, with Roger Lewis here. We'll be back in just a moment.
BROWNWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Paul Brown from NPR News, filling in for Kojo today. And we have with us Roger Lewis, our resident professional architect and "Shaping the City" columnist with The Washington Post, here to discuss urban issues. He's professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland at College Park. And, Roger, maybe we'll give you a chance to put on that hat as we go to John here in Kensington, Md. John, are you there? If you are, you're on the air.
JOHNYes, I am. Hi. I have been driving and listening to the conversation and just found it very interesting. And one aspect of the conversation that I thought about was that I was thinking about the great urban planner Jane Jacobs and her ideas about the importance of having public spaces and that -- how that created communities and also, you know, was a deterrent to crime. And it just seems like her book -- I don't know if I have the name exactly right, but "The Life and Death of Great American Cities," I think, discuss those issues that you all have been discussing.
LEWISWell, Jane Jacobs, I should first say, she wasn't an urban planner. She was a journalist. And -- but she was very astute.
LEWISShe was a very -- and it was "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." They -- she put death before life. It's a -- it was a landmark book, as I think a lot of listeners probably know. She was a keen observer of what was going on. Her -- the book was written, it's worth noting, in response, in part, to the plans to sort of run freeways through Manhattan. There were -- that's a -- we could do another show just about that.
LEWISAnd, basically, her book said, look, a lot of these older neighborhoods that we see, like the one she lived in -- she lived in Greenwich Village, Lower East Side, all these Manhattan neighborhoods where, again, buildings were close to the street. The ground floors were full of retail, local merchants, et cetera. People were always out, whether sitting on the front stoop or walking. She said, this is what makes a city vibrant and good and valuable.
BROWNAnd I have to tell you, Roger, I -- when I was a young man, I lived in Greenwich Village for a while and in Yorkville in Manhattan, both. And they were great old-time neighborhoods. I was in trade school at the time to be an upholsterer and about 20, 22 years old something like that. Fantastic. As you say, people out and about all the time. I probably met more people in the two years that I was there and came to know people as friends and neighbors than I have in any other neighborhood where I've ever lived for the rest of my life. It was a tremendous experience.
LEWISAnd I suspect you felt safe.
BROWNAbsolutely, I did.
LEWISAnd I've been in those neighborhoods. When I was a college student, I used to go down to New York all the time. We thought nothing of walking around at midnight on these -- you weren't alone. There were people on the street even at midnight. I think the -- and now, in Washington, by the way, there are places where I don't mind walking at night. I take the subway often if we go downtown sometimes at night.
LEWISAnd there are places I have no problem. I don't feel threatened at all walking. Now, there are other places, as Paul has mentioned, where I might not feel quite as safe, and it generally has to do with there being nobody around and vulnerability, feelings of vulnerability.
BROWNThat's what it usually is for me. And I walk around D.C. quite a bit, and there are some places that -- where I'm just more careful, especially in the evenings if there are few people around where I'll notice all of a sudden that sightlines are bad. You know, I walk a lot, many miles a day frequently. And sometimes I'll just look around and go, you know, if something were to happen here, no one would see. No one would see me at all. Why is it this way?
BROWNAnd why are these neighborhoods designed this way where, if you go, for example, to the Dupont area or the Adam's Morgan, there are people out, and you can see up and down the streets. And the streets aren't so wide that you feel so you're in this great expanse of space and somewhat helpless. So, Roger, I didn't mean to cut you off there, but I know we've all had individual experiences like this and...
LEWISWell, I should probably mention -- one thing we haven't mentioned that's part of cities are alleys. Think how many films you've seen or television shows where somebody runs into an alley, or there's a chase through it. You know, alleys are always made to look ominous, threatening. It's where -- I think it's probably the favorite place to depict crime being perpetrated.
LEWISAnd, of course, alleys, on the other hand, are considered a device in urban planning, in laying out a city that can be very functionally useful. Again, they have to be designed. And one of the things that you -- if you're going to build a city with alleys, you better...
BROWNOf which D.C. has many.
LEWISAnd D.C. has many, but if you got -- you know, an alley needs to be a sufficiently -- of sufficient width, lighted, windows overlooking. I mean, there -- again, an alley is another kind of street.
BROWNAnd many of them are, I have to say.
BROWNI mean, many of them -- when you walk around in the evening in D.C., many of the alleys are lit. You can see them -- through -- into them fairly clearly. But, you know, last week in the Petworth neighborhood in Northwest, there was a real high alert after the series of attacks on pedestrians. An assailant was involved, using a claw hammer. The layout of the neighborhood influenced the way the police were able to get into that space.
BROWNThey ran into the back alleys and apprehended a suspect. They had to chase him through the alley. So how does D.C.'s layout, do you think, Roger, affect crime and community cohesion? And, John, thank you very much, by the way, for your call. Appreciate hearing from you.
JOHNWell, thank you.
LEWISWell, I think D.C. is actually in pretty good shape. You know, it's -- there's an interconnected grid, for the most part, in the historic part of the city. I think the -- I mean, you can argue that, well, wait a minute, that gives someone who's fleeing from the scene of a crime multiple pathways. But, on the other hand, it also benefits the police who might be trying to catch that person.
LEWISI think that the -- what probably would show up if we did a very fine-grain study, or if somebody did a fine-grain study of crime patterns in D.C., is there are probably some correlations between where the incidents are highest and the nature of the environment where they're occurring. And it might not just be in alleys. It may have to do, again, with places where confrontation is more probable. I mentioned the Gallery Place Metro. Another place I know where there's been some trouble periodically is the Anacostia Metro Station...
LEWIS...right where Martin Luther King and Howard Road intersect.
LEWISAnd it's not a really derelict place. It's not a place that's not adequately lighted. But it happens to be a place where people congregate. A lot of people pass through there. A lot of young men particularly use the Metro or hang out there. And if a couple guys confront each other, you can have a problem.
BROWNRight. Let's go to Michaela (sp?) in Silver Spring. And, Michaela, as I understand it, things may have gotten better for you, and we'd like to hear about it. You're on the air.
MICHAELAHi. I was just calling to talk about, like, your opinion on just the understanding of, like, downtown Silver Spring and sort of the -- I've lived in the area my whole life and have sort of -- my parents work in the Lee Building. And they've had that -- had office there for 10 years. And that's one area, I feel like, we've seen dramatic change in sort of the feeling safer there, like, during evening times because of how they close off the areas around Fenton Street and -- I mean, like, Wayne -- I think it's Wayne or something -- and sort of how they've worked to revitalize that.
MICHAELAAnd it's definitely been like a concerted structural effort to make it more people-friendly because, historically, Silver Spring and that area was not, you know, a safe place. Like...
BROWNMichaela, when you say it's more people-friendly, how is it more people-friendly? Are there things that you've noticed that encourage you and people you know to get out a bit more in the streets and to visit with people and to walk?
MICHAELAOh. Oh, yeah. No, I mean, there's a complete area by The Majestic Theater that they close off. And on Sundays, there's, like, a farmers' market there. And there's -- they've added The Fillmore and other sort of music places, so people will -- you know, when they're done with that, they walk around. And there's places to eat, so it's not like you're just aimlessly walking around...
MICHAELA...after, like, a show.
MICHAELAAnd there's also not just, you know, movie theaters. There's restaurants that also -- there are some bars, but there's also places to shop. And so I think it's also the diversity of the kinds of stores and things that are around there. So it's not just, you know, a single-use area. And I think also lighting is an issue. You know, they -- having, you know, light out at night, so it's not, you know, dark corners to hide. In a different way, that would be -- happened maybe 10 years ago there.
BROWNRight. You know, I think probably many listeners have been into that part of Silver Spring. And I would agree with you. It's much more friendly now than it was years ago. It feels good to be in that part of Silver Spring. And, Roger Lewis, what can we say about that area? When you're there, you feel comfortable. You can see over the hill, where the -- Michaela was talking about The Fillmore and the Silver Theatre not far away.
BROWNIt's sort of an enclosed shopping area that does have a number of restaurants, and yet it doesn't feel as though it's a place that you wouldn't want to go into. You feel welcomed going in there in the day or in the evening. What are we looking at there in terms of specific things that were done to make that part of Silver Spring feel good as opposed to feeling threatening?
LEWISWell, I think Michaela -- this closes the loop because, in effect, Michaela, I think, did a great job of answering your own question, describing what it is that, in fact, makes you feel comfortable and makes you want to be there. I had a little bit of a role in all that. I was the professional adviser for the design competition for the Silver Spring Civic Building and Veterans Plaza with the ice skating rink in it. I'm not crazy about the canopy over that ice skating rink...
LEWIS...but otherwise -- no, I know the area very well. I have -- saw it transform. I mean, I think that it is -- it works because -- for the very reasons you cited, the many, many uses, the mix of uses, the density, the transparency of the sidewalk-facing buildings that they're -- again, you've got the significant open space of the plaza, but otherwise it's been made into a city. I mean, I think downtown Silver Spring, like parts of downtown Bethesda, has become urbanized in the most positive of ways.
LEWISIt has a sufficient -- a critical mass of activity, of destinations, cultural destinations, restaurants, all the things you mentioned. I think you answered -- really, you described very well an environment in which, I think, a lot of people would be -- feel safe, comfortable and enjoy being in. And I think the -- it's not rocket science. I mean, you know, they're -- you don't have blank walls next to sidewalks. You have stores, restaurants, places that you want to look into, walk by, window-shop, eat, et cetera.
BROWNSo, basically, you're saying that it is possible to retrofit an older neighborhood.
BROWNAnd there are specific things that you can do. Yeah. Michaela, thanks very much for your call. It was great to hear from you, and glad you brought up the area of Silver Spring. If you were planning a new downtown neighborhood, Roger, what would you do in terms of street width and the way buildings are placed? If you were starting from scratch, how important is the width of streets, and how important is the placement of buildings? What would you do to make a new community welcoming?
LEWISI think that, again, there are lots of models, and we don't have to look very far. I think that we know that streets like K Street as it exists now in downtown Washington or Rockville Pike, these are not necessarily the most pedestrian-friendly environments. I mean, Rockville Pike -- I know the city of Rockville is trying to do a retrofit, redesign the Rockville Pike area. You know, that's what you would not do.
LEWISI think what you would ideally do is create a pattern of streets and blocks, interconnected streets, streets that aren't dead ends. I think you would put the retail activity. You try and intensify the retail activity on those streets where people would want to walk. I think you'd make it easy for people to cross streets line by retail activity. And by retail, I include all of the above: restaurants, movie theaters, et cetera. And I think you would probably want to ideally have not just retail and commercial activities, but residential, people living over...
BROWNOver the commercial establishments.
LEWISYeah. So they're all -- they can walk.
BROWNGreat conversation today. Roger Lewis, professional architect and "Shaping the City" columnist with The Washington Post, thanks so very much for being with us again. Always interesting to talk with you. Thank you, everyone, for your calls. Much to discuss. I'm Paul Brown, sitting on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks for listening.
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