Communities of all sizes, from cities and towns to villages and hamlets, will experience more secure and less secure times over the centuries. A securable place is one where the most vulnerable parts of the urbanism (such as the interior of a block) can be secured during those perilous times without impairing the major functions of the city, like the ability of people to travel the streets, and to use the civic spaces.
The ability of a place to make itself more secure when times become less certain is good, but that works best when built upon a foundation of a city and a society that dwells there which are more immune to trouble to begin with. The conditions below are those which set a more secure baseline for the community, so that making the community more secure when times turn uncertain isn't such an extreme makeover. Places need to keep a close eye on the indicators of which way things are trending so they can get busy with a toolbox of techniques known to move places toward peacefulness.
These things must be understood within the framework of the nature of the threats. Perils to peacefulness today come mostly from within the community, at least in the more stable developed nations. This was not always so, as threats from antiquity to medieval times often came from armed bands from towns nearby looking to expand their tribe's possessions or maybe even their territory. And with the escalation of social unrest and the increasing flow of climate refugees, it is not possible to say exactly what the landscape of risks will entail, so the best tools will be those which are most adaptable, resilient, and antifragile.
The conditions that follow are found in great places around the globe, so we should be working to achieve these conditions in new and existing cities, towns, villages, hamlets, and the neighborhoods within each of them even if secure and peaceful conditions were not high on the list of concerns. But with the uncertainty we see in so many parts of the world today, often including in our own regions, these foundations of peaceful places should be at the forefront of decisions made about the places we build and where we live.
There are two senses in which a neighborhood can be close-knit: the spatial sense, and the social sense. And the spatial reinforces the social because a spatially close-knit place gives people more opportunities to happen across each other and get acquainted.
There are sweet spots of the closeness of the knit, but the factors on which those sweet spots depend are too varied to allow blanket statements. Experts of several stripes make proclamations about the minimum density they consider sustainable, but for every such metric there are places that have been sustained for a long time which disprove the metric. Instead of metrics there should be tests: Can someone make a living in this place if they choose to? Can someone living in this place walk to the grocery? Because if they can do that, they'll be able to walk to other daily needs as well, which tend to be located near groceries in traditional urbanism.
Another important test is this: what percentage of your neighbors do you know? In the subdivisions of sprawl, people know few others beyond their next-door neighbors and the ones across the street because the houses and yards of sprawl are designed to keep neighbors at a distance. Early in the sprawl era this was accomplished with large setbacks so the distance was physical. In recent years as sprawl developers have adopted the smaller setbacks of traditional neighborhoods of a century ago and New Urbanist places of our time, stockade fences around back yards sprang up, allowing people to have even greater levels of privacy than setbacks allowed.
And to be clear, we all need privacy. A person can only be highly sociable if they can also be highly private at other times. The key to a close-knit neighborhood where neighbors know many other neighbors is not having people living "on top of each other" where they're forced into constant interaction, but rather having places where they can put themselves out there for social interaction when they choose, and withdraw to privacy at other times. One such place is the front porch, where someone on the porch might have a conversation with someone walking by who was previously a stranger. Another is the Third Place where, like the Cheers tagline is a place "where everybody knows your name." Civic spaces such as parks, greens, squares, plazas, and playgrounds can play this role as well, with varying degrees of interaction possibilities according to the intensity of the civic space.
It seems counterintuitive that a neighborhood that opens its arms to people of varied races, ethnicities, religions, and/or politics, and across a broad economic range should be more securable than one dominated by a single demographic. And neighborhoods like this are definitely the exception, not the rule. Because they're relatively rare, it's important to understand the chain of cause and effect. We've all seen strong individuals who are more open to others than weaker individuals. Neighborhoods perceived as strong places likely behave in a similar way. They first become strong, and then that strength leads to them becoming more open because people unlike the original core constituency aren't seen as a threat. Understanding that, it is easy to see how a strong place is a more securable place than a weak one.
A simple measure of an open neighborhood is when the people on the street resemble the people in the town at large to a fair degree. In other words, how much of the town is welcome here? The people in this picture are quite representative of the mix of the city in which this place is located with one exception, likely due to cuisine: there are no Oriental people at this pizza parlor, but they're probably just across the street at the Thai place, as they often have been when I've eaten there.
But because most neighborhoods don't resemble the mix of the people in the city as a whole, there are obviously impediments to openness. It is tempting to attribute lack of openness to economic factors, focusing on places like gated subdivisions inhabited almost entirely by a single demographic. And while economics certainly play a role, a more useful lens is that of threats. If a community feels threatened in some way, they're much less likely to throw their arms open to people not like them.
Economic threats certainly exist, and at both ends of the spectrum of prosperity. When wealthy places close themselves off, their motivation is usually to protect their wealth, whereas really poor places can be unwelcoming without being gated because people not like them are the ones they feel have been exploiting them. Communities with poor education often feel threatened because other types of poverty often follow poor education, which leaves the young feeling like there's no way out. Cultural threats are different in that places with a lack of culture beyond that served up by pop culture from outside do not entice outsiders to come and experience the blandness. Wellness threats can take many forms, from contaminated water or other pollution to a built environment that contributes to sedentary lifestyles that lead to obesity.
Issues of self-perception are complicated; if there were easy solutions, many mental health issues would no longer exist. Nonetheless, there are some things we can do to help neighborhoods become stronger, more open, and more securable. And this list has changed over the years; two centuries ago it would have been substantially different. Today, the most important thing is to build educational strength because the first thing most parents look for when relocating is the quality of the schools serving the neighborhood into which they're considering moving. A close second is the economic strength of the place they're considering. Increasingly, as the Company Man era has receded into distant memory and a regular salary is increasingly supported by side hustles, the ease with which one can start their own business in a place has gained importance. The identity of a place is often tied to some element of its local culture, such as its music, art, and food scenes, its craft community, or elements of its surrounding natural environment that shape the character of the place. A century ago, wellness would have been nowhere on this list because physical activity was a much greater part of everyday life, and the foods eaten by those generations were less processed and more nourishing, but we're now growing in our understanding of the things we need to do to live healthier in today's world. Build the strength of these four things in a place and you'll build the strength of the place itself.
In those inevitable less secure times in every city's future, it is essential that decisions made about the security of the community be made at a small enough scale that people feel that they have a voice. Christopher Alexander makes the case for a community of 7,000 in A Pattern Language, and there is wide agreement that the maximum community size in which people feel they have a voice is somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people. Hamlets and villages do not exceed this range, and depending on how towns are defined, all but the largest towns fit in this range as well. Within cities, it becomes a question of neighborhoods. The classic Perry neighborhood is a quarter mile from edge to center, or 160 acres. At 10 homes per acre and 2.5 people per home, one Perry neighborhood could have around 4,000 residents, so decisions should be made by at most two neighborhoods together for people to feel they have a voice, although it would be better for each neighborhood to make their own decisions. At the scale of the 15-minute city, and if those minutes are measured on foot, the land area is 1,440 acres. At the same number of people per acre, that's 36,000 people, so decision-making definitely needs to be made at smaller increments of the city.
Decision-making is only half of the Securable area scale question; the other half is the substance of those decisions. How will the people decide to make their community more secure? What seems the most obvious, which is severing connections between a community and the outside world, is also the most treacherous, and it's all about scale. And not only physical scale, but also on the scale of time. In our 17 years as citizens of Miami Beach, we saw a number of closures of causeways leading onto the island when tourist events became unmanageable. These lasted for hours or sometimes a few days. The most famous severed connection on the time scale was much shorter. Early in 1982, the US government closed US1 to tourists because of the drug trade through the Florida Keys, severely damaging the tourist trade in the Keys. Key West declared itself the Conch Republic and declared war on the US... for one minute. They then surrendered and applied for billions in foreign aid. Still, "where others failed, we seceded" gear can be found throughout the Conch Republic, all in good humor. While the Conch Republic saga was tongue in cheek, other issues on the time scale are serious.
The primary issues of the time scale are two: First, how can we build a place in such a way that it doesn't take much time or expense to secure it better once a threat materializes? And if the place is prepared to be quickly secured, it's much easier to remove the security measures once the threat recedes and fully restore the connections. But back to the physical scale...
Countless towns around the world have proven for most of human history that gating a town or city can work because there are enough people there to have a fully functioning economy. Securing at the scale of a block works as well because the streets are open, so a business on a neighborhood street is free to welcome clients or customers from outside the neighborhood.
Securing at the scale of a single neighborhood is problematic unless the neighborhood is really intense, because there aren’t enough potential customers inside to support businesses, so it becomes just a gated subdivision with no mix of uses except a clubhouse and pool, and gated subdivisions have a multitude of problems, beginning with the fact that they're not nearly so secure as they seem to be. The "walk-in-drive-out" has long been a thing, where a criminal hops the fence in broad daylight while people are at work on the 95% of the perimeter that is much softer than near the gate. They then find a house with nobody home except for a car in the garage, which they load with loot from the house, hotwire it, and because the car has a transponder, they just drive out the gate.
But that's just an internal problem. The bigger issue is what a gated subdivision does to the city around it. With 500 houses, the traffic impact is likely a thousand cars or more entering and exiting at one point. And with Americans averaging four trips per person per day and the average US household being 3.13 in 2021, that's an average of over 12.5 trips per household per day, or over 6,000 trips for the subdivision. This means the gated subdivision needs to be on at least a collector thoroughfare or probably an arterial thoroughfare, depending on how many other gated subdivisions are located nearby.
Because those 500 households of over 1,500 people can't shop for necessities within their neighborhood, they predispose services outside the gates to occur at the scale of sprawl. Put another way, both with transport and with services, gated subdivisions essentially force sprawl to occur outside their boundaries, making their environs patently unsustainable.
So a city that can close the bridges or pull up the drawbridges can work, because it's still a fully-functioning city in the hours or days the connections are severed. And urbanism where the block interiors can be secured works as well, because the streets are still open. Just don't do gated subdivisions. But there are refinements. Gatehouses are at least annoying because the person guarding the gate can turn you away, but they're not necessary except in the most insecure places. A gate with a keycard or transponder works fine in most cases, and this is a situation with which most of us are already comfortable. It is no different than coming into a hotel late where you use your keycard to get in the main door, then use it again to get in your room. And there have long been systems where a guest calls a resident at a call box and they buzz them in.
Leon Krier’s Cayala in Guatemala City is the first open community built in Guatemala since the civil war. Anyone can come to the Main Street, but there are discreet entries to residential side streets accessible only to residents and their guests, much like countless condos in the US. Had anyone been able to walk into the residential streets in a nation where militias still roam the streets in pickups with machine guns mounted in the beds of the trucks, the project almost certainly would have been a failure instead of the great symbol of hope it now is.
Gates without guards are really key, whenever possible. Advocate for this.
Stability is an illusion; a place is either becoming more secure or less secure. What we perceive as stability is in fact a trend moving slowly at the moment. But there can be sharp jolts to the trend few saw coming that completely break the status quo. Because things left alone tend to decline into disorder, unexpected jolts are usually toward less secure, not more secure conditions. This is why it's important to keep a close eye on trends masquerading as stability.
The rise of gated subdivisions in a region is a troubling trend, because it is an indicator that people there are feeling less secure there than they once did, when they lived on the open streets of the city or town. Often called "gated communities," they are not true communities for reasons laid out in Connections above. Gated subdivisions remain a warning indicator of darker days ahead, unless the conditions elevating the fear are addressed. Because when there is too much fear, the people will hole up or leave.
Gateposts with no gates are often indicators of a place that may have been less secure at some point, but where more peaceful conditions ensued to the point that the people behind the gates felt that the gates were no longer needed. There is a second possibility, which is that the place may have been designed to be securable, but the gates have never felt necessary until this day. Both are indicators of good: either good improvement or good preparation.
Children being allowed to play in public is one of the very strongest indicators of the perceived safety of the place, like these two girls playing hide-and-seek. When child's play disappears from public places, on the other hand, that's an indicator that confidence in the safety of the place is declining. The greater danger signal is when children are not allowed in the public realm at all, unless held tightly by their parent's hand.
Free range children are an even higher indicator of a place perceived as safe than children playing in public, because parents or other guardians are assumed to be nearby the children playing in public. But free range children are free to play in various ranges of the neighborhood, depending on their ages and neighborhood conditions. For example, the youngest children are first given free range in places like rambles, which are mid-block parks ringed by a rear lane. Here, the traffic is least frequent and slowest, and because a ramble is just across the rear lane from home, it's the closest public play space from home. Parents let their children play in rambles years before letting them play in the street. The highest standard of the free range is the coming-home time. When I was a child, the rule was "when the street lights come on, head home." Parents who allow this much freedom clearly trust their children and trust the place.
Yes, this is just an industrial metal building in New Orleans' Bywater neighborhood, but it is one upon which someone has bestowed some love. Tony Goldman, originally famous for the remaking of Manhattan's SOHO beginning in the 1970s, began the transformation of Miami's Wynwood from a gritty 1-story concrete block industrial district in an unloved part of the city with the thinnest of reskins: painted murals by serious artists. Today, it's the coolest place in Miami.
I asked a developer in Houston noted for redevelopment of properties rendered nearly worthless by disinvestment and crime into mixed-use, mixed-income places people loved what originally gave him the idea in the beginning that he could actually pull it off. He said "I've long observed that those of ill intent gravitate to places nobody cares about because they can carry out their criminal activity there and get away with it. But when I build something people can care about, the criminals soon move away, and by the time construction is complete, regular folk from the community and from outside the community are happy to move in because the threat of crime has greatly reduced."
So look for signs of care in a place. If most of them are old and decrepit, like a fountain that no longer works on a plaza paved with long-cracked and broken conrete, that's an indicator things are moving in a less secure direction. But if the signs of care are fresh and relatively new, those are good signs for the place.
The speed at which people are traveling is a great indicator of the perceived safety or risk of a place. When most people are walking briskly (except in Manhattan, where everyone walks briskly), that usually means the place is either perceived as dangerous or boring, so they want to get past it as quickly as possible. If, on the other hand, they're just strolling, they're probably enjoying the place. The high standard of a peaceful place is one where people sit down and eat, or even lie down in the grass and enjoy the day in great civic spaces like this one.
Morning's first light in the recovery of a struggling place is often a Maker Space. This is so for several reasons:
Jane Jacobs championed the idea of eyes on the street in the 1960s as a deterrent to crime. People have many reasons to be where they can see what's going on in the public realm. People sitting on a porch, balcony, gallery, or stoop are not only able to keep an eye on what's happening, but often engage in conversation with those walking by, which helps create a more close-knit neighborhood. Those who walk or cycle to their daily needs observe many things along the way from a moving vantage point, while street vendors and food cart or food truck people stand at their point of operation all day long. Mail and newspaper delivery people run their route each day. Patrons at sidewalk cafes can easily sit in the same place for an hour or longer, while European cafe-sitting traditions welcome people to sit all day if they like.
But there's also a creepy side to eyes on the street: when surveillance, whether by security cameras or by neighborhood watch groups, replaces the organic eyes on the street of people going about their daily lives, it feels like an invasion of privacy, and actually makes the place feel less safe. The implication is "if they need this much security, how unsafe is this place, anyway?"
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