In A Bad Place
Having read the new Malcolm Gladwell book, ‘Talking To Strangers’, I found myself thinking about bad locations. He points out that crime statistics are affected by bad areas (obviously) but not areas as a whole – crime and anti-social behaviour can usually be pinpointed to a single block or length of street, and mistakes arise when the police assume an entire area is homogenously responsible.
The science of pinpointing and changing bad areas has dramatically altered, at least in cities that have the time and money to think about such things. Barcelona has some streets you’d seriously avoid at night, but one corner near me gathered problem drinkers around the clock, many of them tourists who’d come to visit, run out of money, hit the booze and drugs and ended up on the street.
But what brought them here, outside a La Caixa bank on a relatively respectable corner? Several factors emerged; it’s near a park which allows the homeless to bed down for the night, it’s by a liquor store and near public benches (the whole of the city is covered in benches, chairs and drinking fountains) and – the kicker – the bank’s ATMs are in a large open vestibule which becomes a second home to some of the crazier elements of society.
Overnight, the area changed. The bank shut up and moved, the building was renovated. Nothing was taken away from the street people (sleeping outside here is not uncommon because it’s warm) but the corner was restored for everyone’s use.
Contrast this with the second busiest corner in London (the first being outside Leicester Square tube). This section of pavement is the crossing point for half a dozen national public transport routes and five major roads. It’s narrow and short, but in order to get anywhere you have to pass through it.
So the council allowed McDonald’s to open a 24-hour store on it.
Junk food places attract trouble anyway, but placing one where queues have to form onto the street, between bins and tramps and traffic, has so far caused stabbings, drunk fights and garbage. Why not remove the source of trouble and restore the corner? Presumably because money has changed hands with councillors – how will we ever know?
I have a neighbour who passionately believes in reducing bad places. He does it not by moving on the homeless but by planting trees and flower boxes. He does so against council wishes and dares them to stop him. So far he has dramatically improved half a dozen spots in the neighbourhood.
Barcelona does the same. It is pedestrianising much of the city and adding in everything from skateboard parks to chess tables as it goes. In London, Westminster Council can’t even agree on improving Soho after 40 years of discussions, and has left market forces to sort it out.
Small things make big changes. Gladwell agrees that the answer lies in asking why a bad spot appears and breaking down the reasons to find one that can be changed for the good. The book is a fun, fast read that could have been a little heavier for my liking, but worth zipping through.