Defensible space debunked?

The NY Times has an article about Oscar Newman’s signature start in NYC and how it has fared over time. It’s not a real positive piece, and the comments are insightful.

In the early 1970s, the architect and city planner Oscar Newman came forth with a book and theory called “Defensible Space,” which relied in part on data from New York City public housing to propose a set of design solutions to the mounting problems of urban living.

The idealism of the ’60s extended to the notion that architecture in itself could engender meaningful social change, a belief now long out of circulation and perhaps never more so than at a time when the city’s civic leaders view development largely as bait for luring foreign capital. Mr. Newman examined public housing and determined that bigger, essentially, was worse; that taller buildings correlated with higher rates of crime and that design that was focused on giving residents a greater sense of ownership over where they lived would help prevent the delinquencies that had taken hold in the projects. The fewer the number of apartments sharing a common entry, for instance, the greater the ability for residents to both feel and exercise a sense of control over their environments.

via In Marcus Garvey Village, a Housing Solution Gone Awry – NYTimes.com.

When I was first running for mayor in Dayton 20 years ago, defensible space was still being given cred here- with the closing of streets turning McPherson Town into “McHenry Town” and Five Oaks into “Fort Five Oaks.” Barriers, gates, street closings were being embraced by some as a solution- and as a deliberate offense on their freedoms by others. Eric Goldsmith used to appear at many city commission meetings, calling himself a prisoner of Five Oaks, because the gate in front of his house made him have to drive several blocks to get to his house that used to be a quick turn onto a main street.

Five Oaks has seen its ups and downs over the years. But, if we want to attribute it all to the gates, we would be making a mistake. Across Salem in Dayton View and University Row, we see the same issues. None of the neighborhoods have seen great success, despite the intervention. The depression and housing disaster certainly didn’t help, but, more than anything, it’s obvious that city/urban planning and architecture can’t undo poverty or bad government policies- mainly our failed “war on drugs.”

I do believe that good neighborhood boundaries help pull a neighborhood together- I believe it’s one of the reasons South Park, with the natural boundaries of Rt 35 to the North and Woodland Cemetery to the South, Wayne Avenue to the East and Main St to the West, has helped our neighborhood define and manage our own destiny. Oregon, McPherson Town and to an extent, St. Anne’s have done best of the historic districts where the borders are clear- and it’s been a bit tougher for the Huffman Historic district with its somewhat loose boundaries- although they did add gates to better define their space and cut down on cross traffic.
South Park once discussed changing some traffic patterns in the neighborhood which brought on the biggest shouting match at a neighborhood meeting that I can remember in my 27 years here, and nothing became of the idea.

It would be interesting to do a follow up survey of Five Oaks and see what the gates have done and if there is still support. It’s also sad that the city hasn’t done its part in managing and maintaining them, because that was part of the deal. Unfortunately, the people of Five Oaks don’t put enough money into the campaign funds of our city commission to warrant the attention that others get. It’s something that needs to change- and it’s one of the reasons I am running for Dayton City Commission. There is no excuse for the gates to look the way they do.

As to Oscar Newman and his grand vision- I think the key to any city isn’t the buildings, the architecture or the machinations of a city planner- the key is the people, the social capital of a community. Empower the people, the community rises. Treat them poorly, which has become the reality of the Marcus Garvey Village and you reap what you sow.

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2 Responses

  1. jstults June 2, 2013 / 3:13 pm
    David said:

    The depression and housing disaster certainly didn’t help, but, […]

    Dayton had no housing boom, so I’m not sure how accurate it is to call what we’ve experienced a “disaster”.  The FHFA has a little web app that lets you compare metro areas.  Just for kicks, here’s a graph comparing house price index for Ft. Lauderdale, Phoenix and Dayton. 
     
    On gates: as a newcomer to the Dayton area I found the fenced off roads weird and inconvenient (still do). 

  2. jstults June 2, 2013 / 9:42 pm
    Oops, I had an error in the graph I linked earlier.  Here’s the same data but with my error fixed (and with the rate and the value shown with separate scales).  Same story: Dayton home prices missed out on the boom.

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