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.

18 comments on “In A Bad Place”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    Sometimes all that’s necessary for bad to change is for a good person to act. Flower boxes and gardens are tremendously powerful. A friend of mine along with some people that have been gathered up over the years garden an unclaimed area of land under a bridge and near the beach. It used to have abandoned mattresses, assorted trash and what gathered after people had been sleeping under the bridge. Now there is a spreading garden with rose bushes, annuals and all sorts of things. They have access to a set of taps and the Parks Board gives them a load of mulch every year along with the bulbs they dig up from the parks. There is one man who sleeps there by common consent and there is no trash. Dale is now the senior gardener and he told me he met an aspirant in “the office” for an interview. The office is a small table and chairs in a sheltered area, a place that often sports a table cloth, a vase of flowers and a few books. People give them money for plants. You never know what you might start.

  2. admin says:

    There was a play called ‘London Road’ (also a very strange film, through-sung) based on the true story of neighbours who reclaimed their street with flowers after a serial killer had made it infamous.

  3. Jan says:

    They have got the pinpointing of crime hotspots pretty much down to a fine art now. They can show very specifically where crimes are committed, of what type and times etc.

    This can throw up some interesting challenges of its own though. Say you’ve got a cash point opposite say a mainline station in an area which obviously has a lot of footfall lots of folk passing through. Loads of pubs in the area, tons of boozers and clubs with folk later on in the evening desperate to grab more beer tokens out of said cash point. (Often forgetting their cash card in the process) do you eliminate crime or merely displace it by eliminating the cash point?

    I dunno.

    Pub chains letting people pay on card for a round of drinks helps surprisingly well. Then folk need to get home want cash for cabs, other lets say more personal services depending on the nature of the area itself. Crime can only be limited to a point. Flashpoint/ hotspots can be pinpointed but people being naive, intoxicated, or just plain daft at a particular moment well you can’t really stop that so much. Educating folk to the nature of the risks they take will only work to a point. Crime is just a part of life. Sometimes folk flock to particular areas not because they have been sanitised or improved – made to feel safer – but precisely because they don’t. Look at the migration of the young middle classes into certain areas which they define as “edgy” look at the areas lots of folk visit for a good night out. They aren’t there because the area feels comfortably crime free.

  4. Brooke says:

    gladwell on radio 4 series Tallking to Strangers.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    When there is a transit hub in a spot it’s great for business but it draws trouble, too. Our “Skytrain” ends in a suburban centre where a number of bus lines also end/start. A plaza was built to facilitate the moving of large numbers of people, there is a library, eating establishments, etc. All of this should be good, but no, purse snatching, muggings and real assaults have happened and police are concerned about citizen safety. They’re working on it.

  6. Jan says:

    Helen this is anyplace, anytime you can tone it down with hard graft but you can’t n make It go away.. Unfortunately its part of what people do.

  7. David Ronaldson says:

    UK Police recognise a phenomenon known as Broken Window Syndrome”. If a window is broken in a street and left unrepaired, it is very likely that another window will be broken or an act of vandalism will occur.

    Your point about the La Caixa bank confirms the principles of the “Problem Solving Triangle”: if there is crime or disorder, you can resolve it by changing or removing one piece of the triangle, which comprises Victim, Perpetrator and Venue. In this case, removing the bank and cashpoint changed the whole situation. Sometimes it’s as simple as moving a bench.

    Sorry, I slept well last night.

  8. John Griffin says:

    I’m trying to start a community replanting and wild-flowering where I live. The first time three years ago I did one area with a friend’s help. The shrubs and nickable flowers were nicked, last seen in the back of a Range Rover (the person who witnessed it assumed they were planting and didn’t get the number plate; probably the same arse who nicks the winter salt/grit). I’ve now got town council backing so Tally-ho.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Right on, John. The trick is to have an area of herbs and let people cut them. It seems to reduce the nicking tendency.

  10. Ian Luck says:

    John – where I work, had, for years, the remnants of a tar works. In about 1998, all the detritus was removed, landscaping was done, and a nice new secure yard created. The bank around it was planted with shrubs and rosebushes. Imagine my surprise, then, a few days after the planting, to find a car parked up, and people digging up the new shrubs. Shining my torch on them was even more surprising – these were all elderly people, who froze like rabbits in the cone of light. Even more surprisingly, one of them tried to bullshit me by saying that they were re-planting the shrubs.
    “By putting them in your car, I suppose?” I said. I told them that I had the number of the car, and this was all being recorded on CCTV. I called up the dock patrol van on my radio (no mobiles then), and got the driver, and his dog to supervise the oldies putting every plant back. The van driver spoke to these people, and it turned out that they weren’t even local – they had seen the planting earlier in the day, and decided to take a load on their way home, as the plants would still be loose in the soil. Cheeky bastards. We took their names and told them that the port management and local police would be notified, and they would be hearing from us. They drove off, shrubless, dirty, and worried. Did I care? No.
    We logged the incident, but reckoned that replanting spiky shrubs in near dark, on a steep bank was punishment enough.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Ian, that certainly tops my suddenly missing white iris and the bushy tree in my parents’ yard that disappeared overnight a week before Christmas.

  12. Cynthia says:

    I get a twitch when I read about “broken window” theory, not just because of where the theory was born but because it infers certain areas are doomed, unless the local council (or their outsourced services) actually do “mend windows” I much prefer collective efficacy. Helen and Ian give excellent examples of this and are very heartening to read. When a community (measured by how for you can walk in 15 minutes in some research) has common beliefs and values and are involved in each other’s business/lives. I can still see Mrs Fagan’s waving arms as she headed to us mini hooligans in the ten foot shouting “Your mum know what you are doing?”. Rather like Ian’s torch shining on the garden culprits and, more or less saying, “What you up to then?”
    “Crime is (was?) vastly reduced in these areas.
    Alternatively I remember a research that showed playing classical music into a youth crime area worked as a deterrent, so I suggest playing Gilbert and Sullivan outside the problem venues may be an effective deterrent to crimal behaviour.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – I was surprised by the sheer effrontory of these people ie. “We saw the new planting, and decided to have a load of it.”
    And then trying to convince me they weren’t, despite the spaces on the embankment, and the fact that their car was full of bags with shrubs peeping out of them. They were stuck when Brian and his dog, Satan parked behind them.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Sheer effrontery is a cover for criminous tendencies. It’s gateway behaviour – even in the elderly. First you nick a plant, then a piece of fencing and the next thing is sheds going missing and who knows where it will stop. Perhaps we need more Brians to stand in our patches with Satan.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    It all started with nicking apples when they were kids and picking rasps that “were leaning over the fence, Missis.” I neglected to start with this part before.

  16. Ian Luck says:

    Both Brian and Satan were great deterrents. Brian was very tall, and although actually he was a lovely bloke – he looked dangerous, by which I don’t mean brutal, but slightly deranged, and you wouldn’t know what he’d do next. He looked very similar to the actor Graham Crowden, much liked by Lindsay Anderson.
    Satan was a huge German Shepherd, who grumbled all the time, but was a fully trained guard dog. But grumbly. Sadly, both are long dead. But I’m sure Satan, sitting there grumbling, made those shrub thieves work all the quicker replacing the plants.

  17. Wayne Mook says:

    If you go scrumping or taking cuttings it’s best to ask most people are OK, especially in Portugal, staying there this August we had a couple of blokes getting carobs (it’s a tradition), they asked, we even helped, my seven year old especially enjoyed it. So we made more friends in the community.

    My little sister is part of Gorgeous Gorsehill, they do plantings, some go astray, but on the whole it works. As well as planting concrete bollards are turned mosaics and telephone exchange boxes are painted. They are even memorialised on a giant mosaic on Chester Road nr Manchester United’s ground.


  18. Helen Martin says:

    Always ask. Most people will say yes, particularly people who have difficulty doing the harvesting. Offer to bring the owner a basketful or whatever and you’ll have a friend for life.

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