Source: Miami Herald

An article in the Herald this morning sheds light on crime problems in Liberty City’s recently constructed Habitat for Humanity community.
On Northwest 68th Terrace, a street in the heart of the neighborhood with 17 houses, nine homeowners reported having something stolen from their property or had property vandalized in the last month.

The list of stolen property includes: childrens’ bicycles that had been chained up in the backyard, car stereos, tools, yard equipment, plants and light fixtures. Resident Margaret Brown had her Nissan Altima stolen from her driveway.

As you read the article, you’ll notice a general tone of surprise that a lower density, “suburban-looking place” didn’t inherently diminish criminal activity.

One quote in particular really sums up this myth:

Many of the 50 families living in the subdivision off Northwest 22nd Avenue and 68th Street expected it to be an island of suburbia floating in an area known for its hardscrabble ways.

They worked together to plant the trees, paint the houses and popcorn the ceilings. When the neighborhood opened, it was heralded as a ray of hope for the hundreds who were lied to and displaced by the county’s oft-troubled HOPE VI housing program.

Maybe it’s just me, but “an area known for its hardscrabble ways” in the above context sounds like a euphemism for “inner city”, which of course implies “urban”.

However, the fact that suburban-style housing does not magically stop crime should not be a new revelation. This myth that social problems found in urban environments can be solved or mitigated by improved architecture or suburban-style design dates back to the housing reform movements of the early twentieth century.

One of the most popularized examples of this myth actually is the story of a more urban model — the Pruitt-Igoe public housing projects in St. Louis, Missouri. Pruitt-Igoe opened in 1954 as 33 eleven-story apartment buildings somewhat emulating New York City’s public housing. At the time, it was thought that the design of Pruitt-Igoe — impressive modern high-rises surrounded by large open spaces — would on its own merit be a prescriptive solution to poverty and crime. However, within a decade after opening, Pruitt-Igoe’s tower-in-the-park design had done little to curb crime or poverty, as both raged on throughout the neighborhood. As Katharine Bristol wrote in “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth”, published in the Journal of Architectural Education in 1991,

“By placing the responsibility for the failure of public housing on designers, the myth shifts attention from the institutional or structural forces of public housing problems.”

Then in 1972, just 18 years after being built, Pruitt-Igoe was demolished. Dramatic images capturing the demolition were framed to symbolize the destruction of an inhumane place and the failure of urban housing (among other things).

Though the scale and design of Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis and and the Scott Carver Projects in Miami (the public housing demolished to make room for Habitat Homes) are certainly different, the same faulty message has come from the razing of both communities: urban-style public housing is inherently bad and therefore facilitates crime. Of course this leads to the terribly flawed logic that suburban-style housing will somehow make everything all better. Talk about putting a cheap band-aid on a gaping wound.

(Note: I think Habitat for Humanity has a wonderful core philanthropic goal to provide housing for the needy, but its methods regarding architectural and landscape design need to be reevaluated to include better urban design).

Clearly, the suburban-style design of the Habitat Homes have not done much to eliminate crime. The article continues,

Crime data from the Miami-Dade Police Department confirms the Habitat neighborhood is not crime-free: In January, when half the homes were still under construction, the police received complaints about vandalism, burglary and car theft.

Police said updated records of crime in the neighborhood are not currently available. However, an informal Herald survey showed more than half the residents in the community had been victimized.

Whether it’s Habitat for Humanity, Miami-Dade County, or even private developers, the message is clear: suburban-style housing is “benign” and offers “hope”, and therefore should serve as an oasis to the inherent evils of true urban environments.

Judging from this article, however, it doesn’t seem like the major players understand this suburban design myth.

But the nonprofit home-building group has learned something about crime prevention from its experience at Habitat Homes, she said: Habitat leaders will look into putting security cages around air-conditioning units in the future.

Every house in the neighborhood will also get a white picket fence, courtesy of Habitat.

Well that must be the problem, they forgot the white picket fence!

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3 Responses to Lesson for Housing Reformers: You Can’t Escape Crime with Suburban Design

  1. Eli Sokol says:

    I worked on landscaping one of the homes in the Liberty City Habitat for Humanity redevelopment area. I’m sad to see that nicer homes have not solved the problems of crime in that area. This goes to show that pleasing aesthetics do not guarantee a safer environment, though they do provide the illusion of one. If not architectural design, what would be the major factor that prevents these areas from creating a better environment?

  2. Ryan Sharp says:

    Eli,

    You’re right, it is sad to see that the new homes have not improved safety in the Liberty City. Again, I want to say that I commend Habitat for trying to give people better places to live (or a place to live at all), especially in a place like Miami-Dade that has such an abysmal record with affordable housing. However, it’s frustrating for me personally that people still believe that suburban design is key to improving housing and living conditions.

    To answer your question, it will take an awful lot to really see the kind of improvements we all want to see in Liberty City. The barracks-style housing projects certainly don’t deserve any awards, but as poorly as they are designed, it’s not their fault that crime and poverty is the way it is there. We’re talking about deeply entrenched social and institutional problems, the same ones that need to be addressed in cities with design elements ranging from Houston to Hartford, Philly to Phoenix.

    I’m as big a proponent of quality, dense urban design as anyone, but even I can admit that perfect urban design in itself won’t be the answer to Liberty City’s crime problems. I do know that certain forms of urban design facilitate a more pedestrian-oriented environment, with more eyes on the streets and public spaces. I also know that there are serious transportation equity issues in Liberty City. Transit connections to job centers needs to be much improved to the neighborhood, because forcing communities with over 50% of residents with median household incomes below the poverty line to own cars to get access to anywhere is frankly discriminatory. A more balanced socio-economic make up will bring class diversity to the neighborhood, but that isn’t likely to come until the transit does. Of course, transit and the denser land uses that facilitate eyes on the street go hand-in-hand, which is why some form of rail transit should be sought, whether or not it’s in the form of the North Corridor Metrorail expansion.

    There’s many other barriers and solutions, however it’s nearly impossible to address them all here, even if I claimed to have all the answers (and I don’t).

    The topic of improving depressed neighborhoods at a neighborhood-level scale is definitely something we’re pursuing at Transit Miami, and we’d like to encourage those that are interested to email us with your ideas for positive change or how you’d like to get involved.

  3. Eric says:

    Habitat for Humanity is proposing to build a 20 unit townhouse development in my neighborhood. Ironically, this is not a poor or crime ridden area. For example my modest 900 sq. ft. condo is worth about $425,000 even in the current slow down. There are a variety of high tech companies in the area. Be that as it may, I know little of the effects HFH housing and residents have on neighborhoods. Have you heard what effect HFH housing has on non-blighted neighborhoods?

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