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Removing trouble spots

On an August evening in 2009, in the Northside neighborhood of Houston, Texas, a small group walked the perimeter of a picnic area at the center of a regional park, clipboards in hand. Except for some vagrants, the area was abandoned. They noted the reasons why—the rusted picnic tables, the graffiti, the poor lighting.

By October, the group had completed a 23-page safety audit of Moody Park with crime statistics and a list of recommended improvements. They e-mailed it to the city parks and recreation department and awaited a response.

As in dealing with any bureaucracy, they expected to wait awhile.

Within two weeks, though, the city had sandblasted and repainted all the picnic tables, cleared debris from and repainted an enormous gazebo, and fixed the lighting.

“We were floored,” said Jenifer Wagley of Avenue Community Development Corporation, which organized the audit as an early project in Houston LISC’s Great Opportunities (GO) Neighborhoods initiative.

Yet it’s not unusual for safety audits to get a quick response from public officials, explained Julia Ryan, program manager of LISC’s Community Safety Initiative.

“When you have a coordinated plan that’s endorsed by the police department and the CDC it’s very compelling for public sector leaders."

“When you have [a] coordinated plan that’s endorsed by the police department and the CDC it’s very compelling for public sector leaders,” said Ryan. “It’s easy for them to commit resources to it.”

The Community Safety Initiative provided the training for Avenue CDC and other Houston LISC partners, showing teams of residents, neighborhood groups and police officers how to identify features in the landscape that contribute to crime, such as overgrown hedges or poor lighting using the principals of a theory known as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. Using those observations, they then craft a plan for improvement. 

More safety audits have followed the one in Moody Park, as did more victories.

“If you come together in an organized way, it doesn’t take 200 people to make a difference,” noted Wagley, program manager for GO Neighborhoods in Northside. “We’re pulling together 20 people and making a huge difference in the neighborhood.”

Attracting partners

During a safety audit, participants observe an area before and after dark, and respond to a list of questions about sight lines, escape routes, lighting, signage and other safety factors.

The audits are an engaging way to attract new participants to your community work, especially those who don’t like to sit in meetings, Wagley said. “On a safety audit, you’re in the mix of the community, walking around with your little clipboard. It’s fun.”

More than 100 people have participated in at least one of the six audits to date, including residents and representatives from local government agencies, neighborhood groups and the police.

Safety audits provide a new perspective on familiar places, said Sherry Bernard of the M.D. Anderson Family YMCA in Northside. An audit at her workplace identified inadequate lighting in the parking lot, a potential safety hazard for children exiting the building when it closed at 9 in the evening. “When you’re there all the time, it’s something you get used to,” she said of the problem, which has since been remedied. “It’s just the way it is.”

Some Northside audits led to tighter legal enforcement. One prompted the Texas Alcohol Commission to begin cracking down on a gas station that sold alcohol and allowed patrons to drink it in the parking lot, an activity that often enticed local teens. The audit also led police to force a property owner to remove abandoned cars that were providing cover for drug deals.

The audits recommend that the neighbors work together on long-term plans for enhancing use of their public space.

Beyond taking quick steps to improve safety, the audits recommend that the neighbors work together on long-term plans for enhancing use of their public spaces.      

That’s beginning to happen, says city council member Ed Gonzalez. He used the Castillo Park safety audit to begin a conversation with the library and middle school adjoining the park and the high school across the street.

Now they’re figuring out ways to deter vandalism by making the park more attractive to neighbors, such as by adding playground equipment. “We’re trying to look at a more comprehensive plan,” he says.

Windfall

An audit of one Houston park brought an unexpected windfall. Ketelsen Park had fallen into disrepair after an adjacent elementary school relocated across the street. A city-run nonprofit called the SPARK School Park Program went beyond the audit group’s request to renovate the park, and offered $65,000 towards building a new one on school grounds.

Having an organized group to generate neighborhood interest in the park and possibly help fundraise “played a big role in them getting a SPARK Park,” said Kathleen Ownby, SPARK's executive director.

And fundraise they did. The Ketelsen Elementary School PTA sprung into action with popcorn sales, bake sales and a student coin drive. The kids were so excited about the park they brought in money from their piggy banks and searched their sofas coins, says school social worker Barbara Hamilton. "They still bring us little bags."

The school and Houston LISC also contributed funds, bringing the total raised to $96,000 so far.

Scheduled to open next fall, the park will provide much needed recreational space for the community, said Ketelsen Elementary School nurse Casie Mair-Miley. A substantial portion of the school’s 1st to 5th graders are already obese and have developed high blood pressure.

“I’m always telling kids they need to exercise,” Mair-Miley said, “[but] they don’t have a safe place to get the exercise.”

The safety audits are something tangible that residents can do that gives them a sense of control over places and spaces they care about.

If the $150,000 goal is met through additional grants, Ketelsen will get playground equipment and public art (possibly a sculpture that children can climb), a walking trail for adults and a small “eco-pond” for science experiments.

But Northside neighbors are just getting started.

This summer, Avenue CDC plans to organize safety training for ten resident leaders and then ramp up safety audits to two a month, Wagley reported.

“The safety audits are something tangible that residents can do that gives them a sense of control over places and spaces they care about,” she said. “It’s a tool that gets results.”