Engaging Communities for Safer Public Spaces

In any community, safety is a top priority. Assembly’s research efforts reveal that public space design and maintenance conditions are closely connected to community trust and perceptions of safety.Public space improvements can even lead to reduced crime rates.CfAD recently sat down with one of our favorite NYC practitioners who’s advancing these issues on daily basis. Ifeoma Ebo, Director of Strategic Design Initiatives at the NYC Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice (NYC MOCJ), shared her insights on how public spaces can become a launching point for enhancing neighborhood safety—and how community engagement offers the key to success.

CfAD: Can you give us a brief overview of your work at NYC MOCJ, in particular the Mayor's Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety?

Ifeoma: The Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety (MAP) is a targeted, comprehensive approach to reducing violent crime in and around 15 New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments that comprise almost 20 percent of violent crime in the City’s public housing. As a part of the MAP program, I lead built environment initiatives that are centered in place-based, community-driven design approaches to transforming public space to address social justice and public safety. This work is realized through partnerships with partner agencies, community-based organizations and residents in a co-creation process.

CfAD: How did public space become such a key focus of this work? Was there a particular inspiration or precedent that helped frame the MAP approach?

MAP was established with the recognition that dysfunction in our physical environment has an impact on crime. This understanding was originally born out of the Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) methodology introduced in the 60s and the Broken Windows theory introduced in the 80s. These methodologies and perspectives on crime prevention have received much criticism because of their insensitive and unengaging approach to problem solving.

The initial built environment initiatives of the MAP program focused primarily on safety infrastructure, outfitting all 15 of the public housing developments with new outdoor lighting infrastructure, security cameras, and upgraded doors to make them more secure. Yet based on our long-term work in these communities, and by partnering with residents to hear their needs, our approach has now evolved to become much more holistic and community-engaged. Working with residents and community-based organizations using a place-based approach is an essential part of what we do at MAP—recognizing that public space can be a space for building trust, facilitating partnership, realizing dreams and supporting community empowerment.

CfAD: This month we're celebrating the 1-year anniversary of the release of the Assembly: Civic Design Guidelines, and thinking about the many ways public spaces are being leveraged to build civic trust. Are there any specific on-the-ground examples you can share from your work?

There are several examples from our CPTED initiative, in which we provide $50,000 grants to NYCHA resident teams to partner with their Neighborhood Coordination Officers to reimagine an open space within their developments. Intergenerational groups of residents from each housing development, known as the Neighborhood Stat (NSTAT) teams, collectively decide how to utilize the funds based on their community’s specific needs.

To share just one example, the NSTAT team in Patterson Houses in Mott Haven, Bronx spent two days working with local organizations to build a space for mental well-being and substance abuse support—a serenity garden with a gazebo, planters, seating and a meditation space for residents to relax, reflect, and gather with neighbors. The space is now transformed from a gated area to a co-created place where residents can support each other and partner with organizations to address community health. This work was supported by partnerships with NYCHA and local organizations such as the Center for Court Innovation and Mission Continues, which ensure project longevity, support, and encouragement for the NSTAT team.

Throughout this entire process (and for all our sites), we are educating and providing NSTAT teams with the tools to develop a community-driven process and a successful final project. We have also partnered with Make Public, a firm that specializes in social impact assessments of the public realm, which helped us develop a participatory-research framework and tools for residents to test their project goals and impact. By piloting this framework across our 15 project sites, we are hoping to establish an array of best practices and approaches that can be used in other communities looking to move the needle on issues of crime and justice.

CfAD: Community engagement is so central to your approach. Can you tell us a bit more about your process, and who's involved?

Central to our ability to engage with residents at each MAP site is our partnership with the Center for Court Innovation (CCI). There is a CCI staff member, known as the MAP Engagement Coordinator, embedded at each site. They are tasked with recruiting a team of residents, engaging with partner agencies that provide services in each community, and coordinating the implementation of CPTED projects at each site.

A critical aspect of our community engagement process is providing training for our residents in CPTED, community organizing, and placemaking. While residents have a lot of willpower, energy, knowledge, expertise, and goals for their community, there can be gaps between their aspirations and their implementation experience. Through this initiative residents learn how to create an action plan for project implementation and data collection so they can 1) understand how to collect and analyze data, and 2) prove that their ideas work. We also bring in other technical consultants, advisory groups, and City agencies to provide guidance on their action plans—which in turn gives those agencies a better understanding of resident priorities.

CfAD: Do you have any key takeaways or recommendations to share with others who are interested in fostering trust and safety through public space initiatives?

In any community-driven design process, community expertise should be privileged over technical knowledge. Residents, community-based organizations, and other local partners understand the unique challenges taking place in each neighborhood. Their knowledge and commitment are what will ensure a contextually and culturally relevant strategy, a sense of local ownership, and resources to sustain the project over time.

Through MOCJ’s community-based initiatives, residents are expanding their understanding of how participation in public space projects helps build community cohesion and civic trust while addressing public safety. This process is our attempt to move at the speed of trust as we work with communities, partner organizations, and agencies. We use public space improvement projects as a platform to inspire collaboration, encourage transparency, build capacity and activate networks in the neighborhood. The increasing willingness of residents, organizations and agencies to participate in this process is a clear indicator that we are on the right track in terms of building civic trust!

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    Through the NYC Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety, residents are envisioning new ways to shape their local public spaces in order to build trust and increase safety. Image courtesy of Ifeoma Ebo.
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    The NSTAT team in Patterson Houses partners with local organizations to take a hands-on approach to project implementation. Photo: Center for Court Innovation
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    In just two days, residents of Patterson Houses in Mott Haven, Bronx created a serenity garden to foster holistic community health. Photo: Center for Court Innovation
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    Activation and programing begin to change residents’ perspectives around public space at Boulevard Houses in East New York, Brooklyn. Photo: Center for Court Innovation
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    Nighttime space activation in Brownsville’s Dr. Green Playground brings all ages together to celebrate, building community connections and neighborhood pride. Photo: Center for Court Innovation