When urban design leads to crime and violence

Revisiting the social housing community where she grew up, Jay Pitter found that its design was what made it lethal
By TVO Current Affairs - Published on December 28, 2017
Fenced area in the foreground, apartment in the background
Jay Pitter grew up at 1 Firvalley Court, a Toronto Community Housing apartment in Scarborough. (Fred Lum/Globe and Mail)

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Excerpted from Subdivided: City-building in an age of hyper-diversity, edited by Jay Pitter and John Lorinc. From Jay Pitter's essay, titled “Designing Dignified Social Housing."

Mapping Chaotic Geographies

In the spring of 2015, I decided to visit the social housing community of my childhood with a photographer. With his help, I wanted to document the specific design features that shaped our experiences in the community – including the sex trade I'd witnessed and Britney’s murder. As we turned into the complex, the trip became an uneasy crawl toward an unresolved past.

We parked beside an above-ground garbage bin regurgitating chicken bones, baby diapers, and empty soda bottles. A few feet away, an elderly man riffled through a pile of colourful baby clothes next to a a soiled floral mattress and one red shoe that seemed desperate for its companion. Looking up at my old balcony in the sky, I remember how small we all were as kids – how small we sometimes felt.

Cover of Subdivided, edited by Jay Pitter and John Lorinc

Having researched place-making and crime-prevention models while completing graduate work in environmental studies, I instinctively began to audit the community from both a child’s perspective and a professional eye. The doorways along the outer perimeter sink inward and were still covered with view-obstructing awnings. These dim alcoves provided excellent coverage for Mikey the Pimp’s drug deals, and also created an uneasy feeling for children walking past the building’s shadowy perimeter. Out back, the wood and sand were entirely obstructed by the building’s height and girth. All of these design features contravened the precepts of natural surveillance. A principle of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design, natural surveillance seeks to focus as many eyes on a space or place by using simple and effective design strategies like lighting, landscape, and the siting of doors and benches. Jane Jacobs similarly espoused the virtue of the ‘eyes upon the street’ in the compact working-class neighbourhoods of New York’s East Village.

When we walked around to the front of my former building, I noted another set of design deficiencies. As we entered, I found myself standing atop what appeared to be the very same carpet, now worn through to the rubber, that I walked across on my way to school each morning thirty years earlier. Aside from a security guard who turned a blind eye to the happenings in the building, there was no access control – no external fences, low walls, shrubs, or even an intercom system to hinder criminals like Mikey the Pimp. In the winters when it was cold, he and his clientele were never inconvenienced. They had full access to interior spaces within my building. Instead of the parking lots, ravine, and the park out back, his clients were directed to warm, accessible spaces, like the laundry room and the stairwells, where they could devour their purchase of crack or a young girl in relative comfort.

My building wasn’t the only problematic place in the community. The clichéd social housing basketball court – mythologized as a site of hoop dreams and a launching pad for upward mobility – was located close to the row houses where Britney and her family lived. Like many of our public spaces, the court was hidden a couple of flights below street level. Like my building, it too lacked access barriers, natural surveillance, and safe-circulation paths. There was a single opening, which doubled as both entrance and exit. The younger boys in the community cut a hole in the fence to create an escape route from the police who sometimes beat them up or the older local guys who ‘jokingly’ pummelled them as part of their initiation into manhood. Instead of recognizing the dangers of having a single gateway serving as both an entrance and exist, or paying attention to the natural pathways carved out by residents, the housing provider installed prison-like metal bars around the sides and top of the fence, as if to make escape that much more difficult.

During the summers, we weren’t whisked off to cottages – heck, we didn’t even have a local pool! – so the guys played basketball in this reinforced metal cage while the girls watched. There was an air of pageantry about these games. Many girls would get dressed up, doing their hair and watching the guys play without ever being given any space or time on the court. Though his silky shirts and layers of gold chains hindered him from actually playing ball, Mikey the Pimp lurked around the court, likely recruiting or keeping an eye on ‘his’ girls. I was an awkward-looking tomboy with zero interest in lip gloss, and the whole ritual struck me as bizarre.

I didn’t want to hang around the court anyway; I had other plans. By the time I was 12, I’d made business cards out of lined essay paper, and secured three babysitting clients for the summer. Sometimes I would treat my friends to french fries at a local hamburger place or purchase Popsicles from storeowners who eyed us suspiciously as we walked through aisles stocked with overpriced white bread and powdered milk. The burger place and variety store were situated in a strip plaza atop a really steep hill that lacked both a pedestrian walkway and speedbumps. Because of the drug and sex trade in the community, an increasing number of cars sped in and out of the complex.

On one of our trips to the variety store, a driver forgot to put on the emergency brakes and his car began to roll down the hill. In an instant, it was rocketing through the air toward my friend Mindy. She tried to outrun it, but the car landed on top of her, crushing her pelvis. Mindy spent the entire school year in the hospital. The design of that complex, coupled with the criminal activities it facilitated, was lethal.

Excerpted with permission from Coach House Books. All rights reserved.

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