/ by Greg Gallinger

Are muggings an urban planning problem?

Excerpt from Crime And Urban Environment: Impacts On Human Health

The most widespread problem concerned the lack or inadequacy of a natural vigilance system; there were no urban facilities (such as benches, terraces, kiosks, etc) which would have enabled the users of that space to remain there for a few moments, and participate, albeit unconsciously, in the process of natural vigilance. Also on the subject of natural vigilance, it was found that there was a weak relationship between the interior and exterior of buildings: ground floor windows were frequently protected by bars, and commercial establishments did not have display windows giving visual access directly onto the street. This characteristic is quite possibly a consequence of the feelings of insecurity experienced by residents, who close themselves up inside their buildings (the paradox of “perceived security”).

Last night I was jumped by a group of teenagers after making a stop at the Sherbrooke Inn beer vendor and headed to a friends house on Balmoral St. All that was stolen from me was a twelve pack of beer. I somehow managed to convince the thieves to let me keep my messenger bag and wallet. Despite threatening to “shiv” me I managed to get away from the incident unharmed.

Some people’s immediate reactions would be anger, and prejudice feelings, however the incident got me thinking about the design of the area and how it contributes to crime.

After posting about the incident on twitter I received a lot of replies mentioning how “sketchy” the area is. I think most people are referring to the perceived threat of neighbourhoods with low income housing and provincial housing projects. Subconsciously I believe they are also reacting to the design of the neighbourhood which seems to enable opportunity crime.

I was walking East on Westminster between Langside and Yonge St. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the area here’s a shot from Google Streetview.

Screen Shot 2012 02 05 at 4 21 30 PM

You can see that during the day it’s actually a really nice street. At night though the trees make for a dark walk. They create almost a tunnel of darkness for pedestrians. The fence around Balmoral Hall’s playground also doesn’t help as it creates a barrier between pedestrians and the open park, making it easy for a mugger to block you from escaping, especially when they are working in a small group. Across the street is an apartment building that from the side stands as a massive brick wall, offering no protection in the form of possible witnesses.

This particular strip of sidewalk could be improved by thinning some of the trees that grow against the fence, removing the fence or moving it back several meters so it doesn’t border right on the sidewalk, and improving the lighting situation by adding more streetlights. If the apartment building had a better street level (either an open area with more windows or street level commercial space) it would improve the natural vigilance of the area.

I see crimes like this as bigger problem of public planning rather than a policing problem.

Unfortunately most people’s reaction are to attack the minority groups, the poor that live in the housing projects, and screaming for more police presence.