Volunteers with Maywood Youth Mentoring tend to a garden at the corner of 17th Avenue and Madison in Maywood during last year’s Village Pride Village Wide event. | File
Wednesday, April 13, 2016 || By Michael Romain || OPINION
New studies recently highlighted by the The Atlantic’s City Lab suggests that “the way we take care of our trees, shrubs, and lawns makes a difference for the safety of the surrounding area.”
“The field of research is still pretty young, but recent studies have found significant associations between green space maintenance and certain types of crime in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Youngstown,” writes The Atlantic’s Julian Spector in an April 13 article.
“The exact mechanism is not yet known, but one theory harkens back to Jane Jacobs’ notion of ‘eyes on the street’: well-kept lawns and community plots encourage more people to spend time outside in those spaces, leading to a greater degree of informal surveillance of the area deterring crime.”
This may all seem just a little too obvious — and it is to anyone who appreciates, for instance, walking the Prairie Path. But it’s far from obvious to many local elected officials.
For at least the last decade, the dominant policy that’s arisen from most local governments’ awareness of the relationship between crime and the environment has been what is called the “broken windows” theory, which suggests that “criminals look for physical signs of neglect when scoping out targets.”
In broken windows, the police are the ultimate arbiters of public safety and there’s zero tolerance for anyone who violates, or goes beyond, the boundaries of decency necessary for maintaining a high quality of life. That means strict enforcement of public indecency ordinances in the form of excessive fines and penalties for seemingly trivial offenses, such as selling loose cigarettes (think Eric Garner).
Locally, broken windows enforcement may translate into zero tolerance enforcement of Maywood’s saggy pants ordinance, for instance.
The problem with this kind of enforcement, however, is that it often requires way more resources than a police department has available to expend. The thought of dedicating the already precious resources and manpower of the Maywood Police Department to surveilling young black men who are wearing their pants too low (as deplorable as the practice seems in public) or chasing after loose cigarette salesmen seems patently absurd when so many higher order crimes like robberies and murders have to compete for the department’s attention.
Another consequence of broken windows is that, while it may help to create cleaner streets and sidewalks, and it may cut down on loitering (which are laudable achievements) — it may earn these achievements by inadvertently creating an environment of fear and intimidation among, and by criminalizing, the very people society ought to be nurturing and helping: namely poor, young minorities.
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Caption by City Lab: Weeds grow around empty buildings still standing from Youngstown’s industrial past, November 22, 2009. | Brian Snyder/Reuters
We have to remember that Chicago’s and New York City’s “stop and frisk” policies are the creations of broken windows.
What this new research coming out of cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore suggests is that there’s an alternative to tackling crime that doesn’t necessarily involve fear, intimidation, police harassment and excessive government surveillance.
The study out of Baltimore suggests that the “most powerful indicators of a decrease in crime were having a lawn, the presence of garden hoses or sprinklers, shrubs, tree cover, percentage of previous area, and the presence of yard trees,” Spector writes.
What researchers call the “cues to care” theory allows residents themselves to become the arbiters of public safety — not the police (this doesn’t take away from law enforcement’s critical role in maintaining public safety; it just means that the police might be freer to pursue more important crimes and violations). The public takes on more responsibility for its own safety — as it should be.
“The level of maintenance of the yard is almost like a neighborhood watch sign saying, ‘We have eyes on the street and we will say something,’” notes researcher Morgan Grove.
“There’s a physical fact, which is that people can see criminals, but also this symbolic meaning that reinforces the social order that people will act upon their own behalf and on behalf of others,” Grove says.
An environment of criminalization thus turns into one of cultivation. The latter, of course, is much harder than just sicking the cops on the bad guys. The difference between broken windows and cues to care is analogous to the difference between using chemical agriculture and organic farming. It’s a lot easier and cheaper to just spray pesticides, but they’ll make you sicker and they’ll end up depleting the soil, among other negative affects, in the long-run.
And there are added benefits to manicured lawns and expanded green space — namely to the environment. These become particularly acute considering the once every two or three year historical flooding that Maywood and nearby suburbs have experienced over the last decade.
When, in 2000, Philadelphia launched a program to “convert roadside gray spaces into vegetated plots that soak up rainwater,” officials discovered that, among 52 sites in the city that were examined, there was a “significant reduction in narcotics possession around the green improvements.”
Experts speculated that the drop in possession might have resulted from “the visible change to the previously paved and anonymous spaces.” They also speculated that city-owned vehicles and equipment near the spaces might have signaled to would-be criminals that “you might not want to hang around there” to do illicit activity.
The green spaces also prevented stormwater from overwhelming the city’s sewers “and spewing polluted sludge into the surrounding the environment.”
A greener environment meant not only lower crime rates and a higher quality of life, but also a potential solution to flooding and some of the epic complications resulting from climate change.
And while Spector’s article doesn’t mention jobs, there’s no reason to rule out the possibility that a bold, comprehensive plan to create and maintain a certain amount of green space in Maywood to deliberately tackle both crime and the effects of climate change — you can add other problems, like the lack of recreational opportunities, in there if you want — would also be a way to create local employment opportunities.
But first, there needs to be some public dialogue about what such a plan would look like in reality, if the community decides there needs to be a plan at all. Whatever solution, if any, arises from that dialogue, at the very least it needs to be had — because the causes and effects of crime don’t exist in a vacuum (nothing does).
So, the solutions to crime (and climate change and unemployment and on and on and on) have to be holistic.
Maywood Encourages Residents To Obtain Free Rain Barrels To Conserve Water
The Village of Maywood is encouraging homeowners and business to use rain barrels as a means of conserving water. The water collected by the barrels could be used for watering lawns, gardening and washing cars, among other things.
Free rain barrels are being provided through a program sponsored by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. Anyone interested in receiving a barrel should apply for one through the village. Residents can also purchase the rain barrels at home improvement stores or online. Prices may range between $60 and $200, depending on the size, style and accessories of the barrels.
“Keep in mind that a 55-gallon rain barrel will fill up quickly,” notes a village statement. “Note that about 600 gallons of water falls on a 1000 square foot roof during a 1-inch rainfall.”
For more information, click here. VFP
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