This question was put to me recently by a stranger, someone I had just met, my husband's co-worker. My kids and I were visiting my husband at his office for lunch and a tour of the new public hospital, and conversation had turned to how my husband is a run commuter: he runs the 2.5 miles from home to work at least a couple times per week instead of driving. I was asked if I am also a runner, like him. No, I have never enjoyed running, I replied, but I do make a habit of walking regularly, almost daily, around our neighborhood, for health and exercise. Sometimes I have the toddler in a stroller with me; sometimes it is refreshing to be out for a 30-minute walk completely by myself. It was at this point that my husband's co-worker, a doctor with a young family who lives in a wealthy northern suburb, stumped me by asking, "But don't you feel scared to walk in your neighborhood?"
I was speechless, unsure of what to say or how to respond. My thoughts were racing: No, not at all! Why would anyone think that? Maybe he's never been downtown outside of his workplace, the hospital. People who think this way don't have any concept of what the urban neighborhoods are like here, how lively and active the streets feel, with people jogging, biking, walking dogs and pushing strollers, carrying home groceries, or walking to neighborhood coffee shops or bars. I would hope that no one anywhere in the world actually feels unsafe walking in their neighborhood, but that is likely an unattainable dream. However, this is not a war zone in a developing country; this is downtown Indianapolis. The near north side of downtown in particular has been revitalized and energized over the past 10-15 years, benefiting from the popularity of the nearby Monon Trail and Cultural Trail and redevelopment around Mass Ave. This area is booming with new house construction and old house restorations. New local businesses are popping up everywhere, from Foundry Provisions and Thirsty Scholar to Shoefly Public House and Tinker Street Restaurant (not yet open, but coming soon), and some places, like Goose the Market, have been in the neighborhood for 7 or 8 years now. The same pattern that we have seen in this neighborhood has also happened in Irvington and South Broadripple (aka SoBro), and is being repeated right now in Fletcher Place & Fountain Square. This pattern is also on track to be repeated on the near east side over the next 5-10 years, in neighborhoods like East 10th Street, Holy Cross, St. Clair Place, Cottage Home, Windsor Park, and Woodruff Place.
So why did my husband's co-worker ask the question? Because he and many others who live in the suburbs and commute to work in the city have never heard of these vibrant urban neighborhoods and aren't aware they exist. They see crime reports on the news and believe those glimpses of poverty-stricken neighborhoods accurately represent all of city life. They see downtown Indy as a place to work and to attend sporting events, and nothing else. More specifically, this doctor who asked the question was thinking of the shocking murder of a young man on the west side during an attempting mugging. When I responded to the "Don't you feel scared" question with "Why? What do you mean?" he said, "Because of what's been going on recently." Still at a loss, I looked at my husband, who clarified, "Oh, you mean the shooting of that man on the west side, Nathan Trapazzuno?" This was a terrible incident in April 2014 in which two teenagers robbed, shot and killed a young man in his early twenties, who was married and expecting his first child, while he was out walking before dawn near the corner of 16th & Tibbs. I don't know the west side of the city very well, so later I looked up the location; the Google Streetview shows a CVS, three fast-food chains, auto shops and parking lots - it looks more like suburban sprawl than the city, and is actually much closer to Speedway than the Indianapolis urban core.
Now, murder - especially an attack on a stranger - is a senseless tragedy no matter where it happens, and this particular story is heartbreaking in so many ways. It is also quite rare: if you look at this map of homicides in the metro area for 2014 and hover over each incident location, note that the majority of the motives are listed as either drug-related or domestic. Translation: although the homicide rate for this year is high, the victims and perpetrators are mostly people who know each other. If you are out walking in your neighborhood and not involved in drugs or a gang, statistics reveal that the likelihood of you being shot is extremely low. In fact, studies show that since inner cities have fewer fatal car crashes (because of higher density and lower driving speeds) and because car accidents are a leading cause of death in this country, Americans are actually "19% safer in the inner city than in the outer suburbs," reports Jeff Speck in his book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. Here's more of the research to which he refers:
"Car crashes have killed over 3.2 million Americans, considerably more than all of our wars combined. They are the leading cause of death for all Americans between the ages of one and thirty-four, and their monetary cost to the nation is estimated to be hundreds of billions of dollars annually. . . . While we Americans may take our great risk of automobile injury for granted, it is actually something that is well within our control--in the long term, as a function of how we design places, and in the short term, as a function of where we choose to live. . . . [William Lucy at the University of Virginia] compared crash and crime statistics in eight large American cities between 1997 and 2000. Here the data produced more subtle results. The basic theory held true: car crashes far outweighed murder by strangers as a cause of death in all locations and, in older cities like Pittsburgh, the inner cities were considerably safer overall. But in more modern places like Dallas and Houston, where the downtowns are largely unwalkable, the city car-crash statistics were almost as bad as in the suburbs."
All this made me ponder, what actually makes a neighborhood or street feel safe, comfortable and appealing for pedestrians? Here are 5 things I came up with.
Five Design Aspects of Safe Streets
1. Density = eyes on the street
This means that when housing is spaced close together and mixed on a street with businesses and higher-density housing like apartments or duplexes, there are more people to witness a potential crime happening on the street. More eyes on the street discourage crime from taking place.
2. Human scale
When buildings are small enough and close enough to the street to provide visual interest to someone walking along, the term "human scale" is often used. This makes a street feel comfortable and enclosed, like an outdoor room. The opposite of human scale is, for example, a street with a row of big-box stores like Walmart, Target, Meijer, etc with huge parking lots. Nobody wants to walk down that kind of street. The vast expanse of concrete and the low windowless buildings seem to go on forever. Think about it. Those places are designed for cars only.
Adequate streetlights are an obvious one.
4. Sidewalks + buffers
Okay, I could write a whole post just about the importance of sidewalks (and I probably will at some point), but it will suffice for now to say they are vital to encouraging people to walk. The best-designed neighborhoods have sidewalks on side streets as well as the main avenues, as well as a grassy buffer/planting strip, a.k.a. right of way, between the sidewalk and the curb. This makes people on the sidewalk feel insulated from car traffic. If there is no grass buffer or right of way, on-street parking can also act as a barrier or buffer between the road and sidewalk.
5. Other people = pedestrian + bike traffic
This is a pretty simple one too. When the sidewalks are full of all types of activity--people running, walking dogs, pushing strollers to the park, shopping, and biking--the street feels alive and welcoming. The feeling of safety in numbers encourages more people to walk, which in turn adds to the effect.
So what do you think? Can you add to this list of what makes a street or neighborhood feel safe? Any thoughts about the statistics on death by car crash vs. murder by strangers? Have your say in the comments below.