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What’s a Community? Safe At Home.


“What’s a community?” As someone whose day-to-day work is about making neighborhoods safe, great places to live, I was thrilled to hear this question from my young son over dinner a while back. And I was ready to talk with him about our neighbors, his school, the local park where we so often run into friends, and so many other places and connections that enrich our lives. But his little sister piped up first. “A community is the reason we pick up trash,” she said definitively.

She had a point there. When we’re deciding whether to step up to fix a neighborhood problem, it matters whether we care about the people who are affected. On the other hand, how much we connect with the people around us has a lot to do with how places look and feel. Do I stop and chat with my neighbors, or is my block so littered and dark that I hurry home with my head down?

Nowhere is the interconnected nature of social cohesion and the physical landscape more important than in neighborhoods struggling with persistently high crime. While overall crime rates have been on the decline nationwide for years, some communities haven’t improved, or have seen troubling increases in violence. Many of these communities are the same places where untended, overgrown lots and vacant properties are lingering reminders, block after block, of the foreclosure crisis or earlier disinvestment. This kind of blight fuels crime, as vacant homes become drug houses and patches of weeds become stash points for shared guns.

When those conditions are part of your daily reality, fear is real and justified. Hope may also be in short supply, especially when prior efforts to address problems have failed. All of this adds up to a lot of disincentive to engage in civic life – to play outside, to get to know neighbors, and yes, to pick up trash.

Experience has shown us that piecemeal responses to these complex conditions are likely to have limited effect. In particular, there is now widespread recognition that we can’t arrest our way out of crime problems linked to such a mix of environmental, economic and social issues, a point highlighted in the report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing earlier this year.

We need more comprehensive solutions that bring people and institutions together to tackle blight and other physical and economic problems of communities, and build social bonds in the process. In high crime neighborhoods, such efforts are more effective if they are integrated with community policing and strategic law enforcement.

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This has been the basis for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation’s investment in partnerships between community groups, housing developers and local law enforcement for more than 20 years. It is also at the center of work underway around the country through programs like Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation (BCJI), a comprehensive crime reduction initiative of the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance that is active in 60 sites nationwide.

Through BCJI and similar programs, residents of high crime neighborhoods are weighing in about what’s happening at persistent “hot spots” in their neighborhoods. They are at the table with police officers, city leaders and researchers, figuring out how their knowledge and the input of their neighbors matches up against data points about crime incidents, reentry, housing vacancy and blight. That process helps everyone identify which actions are most likely to disrupt entrenched patterns of crime. It also builds relationships between neighbors and professionals looking for more effective solutions, and maybe a chance to be part of something transformational.

In San Antonio, a team of residents and public agency leaders is now implementing a plan they developed together to address crime and blight in the Eastside. In July, 400 people turned out for a block party that kicked off a project to close alleys, clean up vacant lots and beautify a troubled area using the principles of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. Violence plummeted with zero incidents since the project’s launch. As it wraps up, neighbors can now see the results of collective action and a process that honored their voices alongside those of local officials.

Also this past summer, young people in Kansas City, Missouri helped to reduce blight along the Prospect Corridor in an effort that complemented the work of the No Violence Alliance, a multi-agency effort to reduce violence in the urban core. Drawing on their own experiences and neighborhood history, local youth worked with adult mentors and artists to create plywood murals that are being used to board up vacant houses. The project layered crime abatement efforts with positive social and artistic expression, changing the narrative in a neighborhood on the move.

It is efforts like these that can serve as a model as we seek to improve safety in troubled places and build “community” at the same time. Just as the roots of the problems are intertwined, so must be the solutions.

This article is written by Julia Ryan of LISC Community Safety Initiative

Photo Credits:

Lowell Police Photo by LISC
Omaha Police Photo by LISC


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