In Washington D.C.’s Union Station, the Starbucks has gone out of business because of soaring crime. In Philadelphia, public concourses beneath Center City, which connect transportation hubs, are filled to capacity with vagrants and the mentally ill, creating unsafe conditions. Scenes like these are playing out all over the country, and, while the most important thing local government can do to restore a semblance of order is return to proactive and effective policing, it is not the only arrow in our public safety quiver. In fact, infrastructure and urban planning can play, and have played, a vital role in reducing crime and vagrancy in America.

In New York City these days, there is a perfect example of how infrastructure and public planning can create spaces that encourage safety and order. The old Penn Station just below Madison Square Garden is dark and sprawling, and it has strange corners and crevices, providing easy access for sleeping or doing drugs. By comparison, the new station, across 8th Avenue, is a wide open space into which abundant light flows; it has very few places for non ticketed passengers to hide in the shadows. With a quick sweep of the eyes, a single cop can see everything.

I asked Nicole Gelinas, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and expert on law and order and urban economics, about what civic planners can do going forward to create a better environment in our cities. She pointed out that “light and airy spaces encourage people to behave better,” and she went on to add a key point about the importance of programming in spaces, saying “programming is vital. You would think it’s over programming, but that’s to keep out bad users.” She gave the example of Bryant Park in New York. Once an open air drug market, its redevelopment renewed the space and allowed for plenty of activities and programs. There are now movie nights, an ice rink in the winter, ping pong, and even a small merry go round. As Gelinas points out, these good users are a key to keeping away the bad users.

There are two reasons why we need to be actively thinking about how to use civic planning to promote public safety in our cities. The first is that the infrastructure bill signed by President Biden last year, whether it was a good idea or not, will infuse a trillion dollars into project spending. That’s a plethora of walking-around money for all manner of public space. The second is that it has become clear that, after COVID, most of our cities are going to be different than they were before, with fewer commuters and more empty office and storefront space. In general, these changes will present a new environment which our urban planners must adapt to.

We have historical precedent going back decades that shows how smart urban design, zoning, and infrastructure can not only turn cities around, but do it in short order. Both New York City and Philadelphia in the early 1990s, under the stewardship of Rudy Giuliani and Ed Rendell respectively, saw massive positive change to their cities in the wake of smart, public safety-minded planning. In Gotham, one of the first things Giuliani did was kick the porn theaters and shops out of Times Square; within a few years, it was transformed into a family-friendly environment. Likewise, Rendell beautified and redeveloped important stretches of Center City, making it a thriving destination spot instead of a barren landscape of crime and vagrancy.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when famous civic planners like Robert Moses and Le Corbusier were household names and when grand, futuristic design ideas abounded. Today, like poets and painters, the men and women who plan our environments do so mainly in quiet anonymity. We no longer see grand designs and ideas transforming our urban landscapes. If the next decade is to be one of massive infrastructure spending, that needs to change. The public should be involved in reviewing and selecting the plans that will create the most safety and order and which best fit the needs of diverse communities.

With all of the pressing problems plaguing our cities – crime, urban decay, inflated rents, and homelessness – it isn’t easy to look up from the immediate and think about the future. However, all of these problems can be addressed, at least in part, by smart planning that focuses first and foremost on public safety. Cities are a long game; their success is measured in decades, even centuries. Smart design can not only help ease the conditions in our metropolises today, they can lay a groundwork for safe and sustainable spaces for generations to come. Now is the time to focus on how best to spend Biden’s infrastructure windfall. As we make those choices, public safety must be front and center in our minds.

David Marcus is a Brooklyn based columnist and author of “Charade: The Covid Lies That Crushed A Nation”

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire. 

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