Proposed mixed-use development of offices, shops and apartments in Dallas, TX

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Studies uncover pros and cons
of efforts to revitalize US cities

By City Mayors’ Special North America Correspondent

6 October 2010: Three recent studies on mixed-use development, resident satisfaction with their neighborhoods, and community gardens offer insights into the effectiveness of some of the most widely-used urban revitalization strategies of mayors in the United States.

| Mixed-us | Residents satisfaction | Community gardens |

Mixed-use or multi-use development is the linchpin of efforts to restore distressed downtowns and neighborhoods in US cities of all sizes. Newton, Massachusetts Mayor Setti Warren, for example, created a Multi-Use Task Force in his city of 84,000 residents to ”consider ways to create developments that will balance economic benefits with the impacts on surroundings and create places for people of all ages and interests.” Mayor Cheryl Cox of Chula Vista, California (population 228,000), endorsed an Urban Core Specific Plan which lays the basis for zoning changes to create green building standards, walkable neighborhoods, and mixed-use development. In June of this year, Ron Sims, Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development invited the 30,000 members of the US Conference of Mayors to become partners in a new federal initiative to integrate transportation and land use, specifically through the construction of mixed-use developments and affordable housing and the re-use of older buildings.  

In addition to the economic benefits of bringing new workers, residents, and pedestrians to lagging areas, mixed-use developments were assumed to reduce crime. Mayors frequently propose mixed-use projects by asserting that the additional “eyes on the street” will deter criminal activity. A new study tests this assumption.

The study of neighborhoods in Columbus, Ohio suggests that density is indeed a factor in the occurrence of crime. The study looked at violent crimes “because they are generally more likely than some other crimes to occur in public spaces where eyes-on-the-street may play a role in stopping their occurrence.” The exception is robbery -- a strategic crime -- which may be easier for a criminal to hide from potential witnesses.

During the study period, violent crime increased in low-density neighborhoods, despite the presence of one or two new mixed-use developments. The authors of the study surmise that the few new businesses may have brought in strangers, but not a critical mass of eyes-on-the-street. As density levels in neighborhoods reached the average for the city as a whole because of several new mixed-use developments, violent crime began to drop, with the highest-density, mixed-use neighborhoods experiencing the largest drop. The increase in density and mixed-use had little effect on the rates of robbery.

Significantly, the findings were the same for both distressed and affluent neighborhoods, suggesting that the creation of mixed-use development is a sound basis for the revitalization of an entire city – if properly planned.

The overarching lesson for cities, according to Christopher Browning of Ohio State University, lead researcher for the project, is that a city “can’t develop a mixed-use community in a limited way, with just a few businesses in one corner of a neighborhood. You need enough business and enough housing to have a vibrant pedestrian community.”

Browning, Christopher R., Byron, Reginald A., Catherine Calder, Lauren J. Krivo, Mei-Po Kwan, Jae-Yong Lee, and Ruth Peterson. 2010. “The Criminal Consequences of Commercial and Residential Density: Land Use Patterns and Violence in Neighborhood Context.” Journal of Research on Crime and Delinquency 47: 329-357.

Residents satisfaction
While crime is a powerful determinant in how satisfied people are with their neighborhoods, it is not the single most important factor. According to a study of neighborhoods in Ohio – which the authors call “the first of its kind to examine the differences between neighborhoods that are rated satisfactory and unsatisfactory” – general appearance is the major concern for both affluent and distressed neighborhoods.

Over the past two decades, US urban mayors have focused on community appearance as they have adopted, almost as catechism, the “broken window” theory of law enforcement. It’s the idea, first promoted with great fanfare by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, that a broken window or litter or graffiti does no great harm to a neighborhood if promptly cleaned up. But ignored, it sends a signal that no one cares about the neighborhood; that it is a safe place to break things, to litter, to vandalize; that those who engage in such behavior will feel safe there. And once these minor scofflaws have become well established, perhaps it will seem a safe enough neighborhood in which to be openly drunk or beg for money or extort it. In short, the smallest symptoms of antisocial behavior will, left to fester, breed greater and greater crimes, all the way to murder.

Beyond appearance, the study found that people in different neighborhoods use different criteria to rate their surroundings. In fact, people living in neighborhoods that they rate as satisfactory have almost an entirely different set of major concerns than people who rate their neighborhoods unsatisfactory.  

Residents in highly-rated neighborhoods focused on the level of city services and distance to work. They were significantly interested in access to recreational opportunities, housing densities, and social interaction, that is, the ability to spend time with neighbors and participate in neighborhood activities.

None of these concerns were priorities for those living in neighborhoods that they rated unsatisfactory. Residents of unsatisfactory neighborhoods focused on crime levels, behavioral issues of neighbors and visitors to their neighborhoods, proximity to known problem areas, and the amount of traffic.

The study may have value to US Mayors by supporting their decisions to adopt community policing, as well indicating some of the factors which ultimately cause people to buy, rent, or remodel a residence in a neighborhood, or to withdraw their investment from a neighborhood and move away.

Misun Hur and Hazel Morrow-Jones. 2008. “Factors that Influence Residents' Satisfaction with Neighborhoods.’ Environment and Behavior 40: 619-635.

Community gardens
Small flower, vegetable, and rain gardens have proliferated in US cities in recent years, adding green space and beauty to neighborhoods, absorbing storm water runoff, and providing nutritious food for residents. The American Community Gardening Association estimates there are 500,000 community gardens in the US Hundreds of mayors, such as Mayor Denny Doyle of Beaverton, Oregon and Mayor Dave Cielewicz of Madison, Wisconsin, have instituted extensive community gardening programs in their cities. Community gardening got a further boost when First Lady Michelle Obama planted a White House garden. The US Conference of Mayors passed a resolution at this year’s annual meeting urging mayors to develop more edible gardens, especially on vacant lots in low-income neighborhoods.

A recent study looked at the effect of community gardens on property crimes in neighborhoods in Houston, Texas. The study built on previous studies which indicated that the presence of community gardens can attract people with higher incomes to urban neighborhoods, leading to increases in owner-occupied housing and higher rents.
The Texas study found “no crime number differences between community garden areas and randomly selected areas.”

Although community gardens do not impact crime rates, the study found that they influence residents’ perceptions of their neighborhoods as safer and healthier. Residents link the presence of gardens to neighborhood revitalization. They feel that gardens contribute to a decrease in, or elimination of, anti-social behavior, illegal dumping, and drug activity -- confirming the validity of efforts by US mayors to add small neighborhood green spaces throughout their cities.

M.R. Gorham, T.M. Waliczek, A. Snelgrove, and J.M. Zajicek. 2009. “The Impact of Community Gardens on Numbers of Property Crimes in Urban Houston.” HortTechnology 19: 291-296.

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