People in Alameda are fond of talking about what a safe place this is, and why that is the case. Is it because we have a great police department, or a relatively small population, or a widespread sense of contentment generated by something they put in the pancakes at Ole’s? All of those factors, and many others, may play a part (especially the pancakes), but lately I’ve become more aware than ever of the importance of good architecture and street design in preventing crime.
What it comes down to is simply the time-honored principle of “eyes on the street.”
The idea is that the more ordinary, law-abiding citizens there are looking out of windows and passing by on sidewalks in a given location, the less likely it is for crime to occur there.
Take this example: right here in Alameda, in broad daylight, a bicycle was recently stolen from a drugstore bike rack near Park Street.
Only minutes before, the same bicycle had been locked, with the same unfortunately inadequate cable lock, outside the library only one block away.
In both cases, the bike was parked for only about fifteen minutes, yet it was unscathed at the library, and vanished at the drugstore.
One could conclude that the location of the theft was due to random chance, but it certainly looks like a textbook illustration of the importance of visibility in deterring crime. The bike rack at the library is highly visible from nearly every direction, including from above. Some of the second story windows in the library project over the sidewalk, allowing a clear view of what’s going on below. There’s also a good chance that people in surrounding buildings would see any suspicious activity at that bike rack. Add to that the large numbers of people not only walking to and from the library, but also passing within a couple of feet of the bike rack on their way to different destinations, and you have a natural surveillance system at work.
In contrast, the only people walking past the bike rack by the drugstore entrance are those going to and from that particular store. Because the store is set back from the street on that side, its entrance is less visible to people passing by on the streets and sidewalks. During busy times, there will almost always be a solid wall of vehicles screening the bike rack from view by anyone in or around the parking lot. There is also little chance that anyone can see the bike rack from surrounding buildings. Directly across the street to the west is the disused Carnegie library. To the north is an empty gas station, and to the south is a parking garage that might provide a view of the bike rack from some angles, but only if people are standing right at the edge of the garage facing the parking lot. It seems unlikely that many people going to and from their cars would make a detour for a view of the parking lot.
One might think that the solution would be to relocate the bike rack, but the design of the drugstore makes it nearly impossible to find a location that is actually good for parking bikes. The building was car-oriented from its mid-twentieth century start, and is even more disconnected from pedestrian activity since its recent remodeling. The size of the windows was reduced, and the side entrance closed off, making the parking lot entrance the only place where anyone is likely to glimpse the outside from inside. The result is that it’s harder and less pleasant to walk or bike to the store, meaning that anyone or thing in its immediate surroundings is less likely to be seen. There may be little that can be done anytime soon to improve this particular dead spot, but it should serve as an example of what not to do in the future.
There are many positive examples of building and street design in Alameda, and I hope that future changes will draw on them. I think the library both emulated and innovated on more traditional street-oriented parts of Alameda, unlike the boxy motel that preceded it. I hope that over time even more of our windowless, dead spots can be similarly opened up to embrace the security that comes from everyday activity of families on bikes, students walking to school, customers enjoying the sights of a shopping district from both indoors and out, and residents keeping a proprietary eye on their neighborhoods.
Susan Decker is an Alameda transit, bike, and pedestrian advocate.