What makes a neighborhood safe?

Dear neighbors, 

When we talk about the increase of crime in Fargo, it’s sensical to point to the increase in the use of hard drugs as one of its causes. Follow this thought, and logic would lead us to cracking down on drug crimes and, eventually, growing the police force to combat this destructive aspect of our city’s culture. 

Truth is, I’m right there with anyone who wants to support our police force. In fact, I want all of our civil servants to have all the tools and compensation necessary to adequately serve our community. The fact that we have approximately 1.3 officers per 1k citizens (a lower ratio compared to other cities) and salaries that aren’t competitive are factors that need to be addressed within our local law enforcement. 

But, in addition to a well-equipped police force, I am beginning to ask:


What makes a neighborhood safe? 


Environmental Design 

My belief is that strong neighborhoods lead to a great city overall; the whole being the sum of its parts. So, when I consider crime in our city, I look to environmental factors in neighborhoods that may create more or less opportunities for criminal behavior to take place. I believe that the environments we build, and how we care for them, are what create a vibrant and safe neighborhood, or not. This is where environmental design comes in. 

Environmental design looks at a handful of elements that influences the places we inhabit, and it ultimately impacts policy, architecture, and urban planning. I believe that thoughtful engagement in this design process can directly curb criminal activity. 

I firmly believe that crime occurs where crime can occur – empty parking lots, inactive places, areas with few people watching over them. With this in mind, I think our response to rising crime in Fargo should be confronted from upstream by positively shaping the environments where it is happening. This could include: 

  • Activating neglected spaces
  • Beautifying our streets (which attests to stewardship of a public space)
  • Encouraging accountability over our shared spaces 

 

Broken Window Theory

You may already be familiar with the Broken Window Theory – a policing technique implemented in New York City in the late 80s that was eventually credited with significantly decreasing urban crimes nationwide. One of the main tenets of this theory highlights the ways in which environmental factors – specifically, allowing homes, public spaces, streets, boulevards, and personal property to be neglected or fall into a state of disrepair (hence the broken window title) – can encourage and/or discourage people from committing crimes. 

As I consider the recent crimes in Fargo, I think about the design of the neighborhoods where they occurred. I wonder if they are environments that encourage belonging, communal stewardship, and pride in place. Or are they “broken window” environments? 

To make this idea even more basic, ask yourself: Would you be more or less likely to litter in an environment where there is already trash on the ground? Perhaps you know that you’d never be the littering type, so instead ask yourself: Would you be more or less likely to pick up trash where there is an abundance of it strewn about?   


The Broken Window Theory and its corresponding experiments are leading me to believe that crime occurs where crime can occur. And this belief implies that one of the ways to address crime is not only by increasing the number of police on the streets but also by simply caring for the streets themselves. 

 

How can we create environments that discourage crime?

One way of “combatting” crime in our neighborhoods could simply be a matter of maintenance, activation, and surveillance. 

Maintenance: If we take better care of our public spaces, buildings, and homes – it tells everyone in that environment that the space is watched over, protected, and cared for – then potential “criminals” may be influenced to become stewards of their city rather than exploiters of it.

Activation: By activating neglected spaces, finding uses for empty parking lots or forgotten public spaces, we can turn areas that are theoretically prime from criminal activities into places where community can be built among residents. 

 

My company, Folkways, is working with the Horace Mann neighborhood to turn this former service station into a community event space and urban park this summer to create activation in a space that is mostly unoccupied parking lots. 

 

Surveillance: Think Neighborhood Watch. Citizens who take ownerships of looking after their environments help to prevent crime in those areas. By increasing “eyes on the street”, we uphold the sense of risk a would-be offender should feel when they consider committing a crime.


I care deeply about the future of Fargo and want to do everything I can to ensure that its neighborhoods are safe and vibrant. I think that the collective accountability we assume over our shared spaces is what will make this one of the greatest cities to live in. 

I’d love to know what you think. 

Best,
Joe

PS: If you’d like to read a more in-depth article on the Broken Window Theory, I recommend this one published in the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic.