Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: January 15, 2007
Byline: Gregory Heller

Smart money is on neighborhoods

Philadelphia is on the move. But many also feel it is off course.

Declared “the next great city,” its real estate has surged; Center City attracts residents by the thousands, and numerous neighborhoods have undergone stunning revitalizations.

At the same time, it has an alarming number of homicides, continues to lose jobs to the suburbs, and its residents have one of the lowest higher-education rates in the nation.

In a Franklin & Marshall Keystone Poll taken in July, only 28 percent of residents polled felt the city was headed in the right direction. Philadelphians are looking to this year’s mayoral election for a change, for new leadership to guide our city toward realizing its potential.

This poll and another by Pennsylvanians for Effective Government reported that, overwhelmingly, crime is the top priority.

The danger, however, is that other issues, such as neighborhood reinvestment, tax reform, and growing our job market could end up taking a backseat. This would be a mistake.

These issues are not only important but they also play a key role where it concerns finding long-term solutions to crime.

No issue should be addressed in isolation. Good policy targets a problem’s roots, reflects best practices, and capitalizes on how one issue impacts others.

When we talk about crime, we have come to expect calls for more officers on the street and for cracking down on illegal gun sales and possession.

These are valuable strategies, but they focus on the problem we see, not its roots.

Extra police on the streets is a temporary solution. It does not address underlying problems that cause neighborhoods to exist in poverty and vulnerability.

Increased police presence must be combined with comprehensive, targeted investment in neighborhoods — creating an environment that looks and feels safe; restoring abandoned housing and rebuilding vacant lots; creating well-lit corridors, and attracting new businesses, residents and development.

This link between strong neighborhoods and low crime has been studied since the 1960s. It makes sense. Neighborhoods free of vacant properties, with vibrant shopping and people out at all hours, are places with lower crime rates that feel safer. There are more eyes on the street and more stakeholders protecting the community.

This strategy is not new. Installing pedestrian lighting and landscaping and making other community investments to improve safety and the perception of safety is a strategy called “crime prevention through environmental design.” It has been adopted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the National Crime Prevention Council.

Data show that Philadelphia neighborhoods with recent reinvestment have had the largest reductions in serious crimes between 1998 and 2005. Neighborhoods lacking the same level of reinvestment have stayed constant or had increases in crime during the same period.

Center City, East Falls, Fishtown, Manayunk, Mount Airy and University City, all areas with significant reinvestment, have had drops in crime of between 33 percent and 69 percent.

Of course, if we install pedestrian-scale lighting, crime will not instantly plummet. We need a comprehensive strategy, simultaneously investing in a number of elements in the same neighborhood.

This kind of long-term, multifaceted approach has been adopted by community development or service organizations, including the Girard Coalition, Mount Airy USA, New Kensington CDC, the Center City District, and the University City District, as well as the University of Pennsylvania — whose neighborhood reinvestment strategy initially was a response to high crime levels in the early 1990s.

Though the link between neighborhood reinvestment and crime clearly illustrates where policies interconnect, it is not the only example. True innovation means looking at how investing in neighborhoods reduces crime and improves our schools, and how tax reform impacts jobs and home ownership.