By Ryan McGreal
Published February 05, 2008
You may have seen last week's Hamilton Spectator article about the new consultant's report on how to make downtown safer.
The report, prepared by Public & Private Security Management for the Downtown Cleanliness and Security Task Force, a coalition of city departments and BIAs and titled, "Protecting the Future: A Safety and Security Audit of the Downtown Improvement Project Area", offered a somewhat disheartening list of recommendations for improving "the perception of cleanliness and security of the Downtown Core."
The report has not yet been presented to any city committees and has not yet been approved by the Task Force, but it is already generating interest and commentary.
It was based on background research in Hamilton and other areas and interviews and questionnaires with stakeholders, including downtown street-level businesses (174 business owners participated) and neighbourhood associations, and sought to answer two questions: how to reduce crime, and how to reduce the perception of crime.
I was going to write about it today, but then I read Tom Cooper's column in today's Spec and realized that he explains what's wrong with this report better than I could:
The report's overall tinge is disquieting. It seems to be attempting to appease faulty perceptions. It looks for quick fixes while glossing over the underlying issues that underpin the reasons why those problems exist in the first place. The not-so-trivial issues of adequate incomes and affordable or supportive housing for the vulnerable are not addressed in the recommendations.
The report seems heavy on blame around issues of downtown deterioration and lack of security, but lacks any sense of societal responsibility.
Some of the recommendations are certainly worthy of discussion, but those conversations must take place within the right context. From a process perspective, the report misses the new, successful models of collaboration in Hamilton.
Those exercises - the breaking down of silos and building partnerships across sectors - have allowed the community to move forward on a number of fronts, the Roundtable for Poverty Reduction and the Hamilton Civic Coalition being two prime examples.
This report seems to backtrack on those approaches by compartmentalizing solutions instead of building up community capacity: There is very much an "us versus them" theme at work.
In short, it's a top-down, law-and-order approach that seeks to deal with the homeless and marginalized by displacing them rather than by addressing the complex roots of homelessness and marginalization.
To be fair, it makes some noises about promoting "opportunities for the marginalized", but the bulk of the report is concerned with reducing the impact of street people on others.
In last Friday's column, the Spec's Andrew Dreschel touched on this same argument when he suggested that downtown's troubles are based as much on "fears and perceptions of danger" as by real risk.
We know that in many cases, the "weirdos" and "freaks" who inhabit the downtown streetscape, the dirty and dishevelled, the people who twitch and mutter, are actually the innocent casualties of chronic psychiatric disabilities who have turned the core into their wandering grounds.
However, he still accepts the conventional wisdom that the way forward lies in "diluting" the proportion of homeless and mentally ill people wandering downtown by "growing commercial and residential activity in the core".
Finally, even in the context of dealing with homelessness by dispersing the homeless, the report still reveals some bizarre assumptions about how to make streets safer.
Some recommendations are non-controversial - indeed, oft-repeated no-brainers - like enforcing property standards more aggressively and providing incentives for owners to invest in their buildings.
Others are frighteningly authoritarian, like the recommendation to expand the network of security cameras including an increase in live monitoring.
Now, I've heard all the arguments that the cameras increase people's perception of safety, but when did we become a society willing to submit to constant video surveillance?
I remember, as a child in the 1970s and '80s, hearing about the totalitarian Soviet Union, in which citizens had no privacy and the state simply assumed a high level of encroachment into people's personal lives. When did we come to accept the same high level of encroachment?
Still others betray a profound antipathy toward the underlying logic of the urban environment. One recommendation actually recommends replacing the grass in Gore Park with low growing bushes, which "will act as a barrier and deterrent for those using the space as a congregating area."
For another example, the report spent a fair amount of time on increasing safety in surface parking lots (of which there are plenty downtown), but never asked whether it's a good idea, in terms of either safety or perception, to give an entire city block over to surface parking in the first place.
By eliminating both sources and destinations of pedestrian traffic and breaking line-of-sight for those few pedestrians walking to and from their cars, block-busting parking lots are inherently unsafe.
As I wrote a year ago, "It's deeply disconcerting as a pedestrian to try and navigate a landscape with no placeness".
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