It's a fact: front porches make neighbourhood safe and build communities
The crime stats for 2008 are now in, and guess what, crime is down again (6%) for perhaps the 10th year in a row. Do you believe it? Probably not. The daily diet of crime headlines would strike fear in anyone's heart. Ever heard of a politician asking for a reduction in police budgets? If you have they were likely not in office very long. Nothing gratifies an angry electorate like someone who is "tough on crime."
Well, here's the tough reality. Cities are getting squeezed on all sides for limited dollars, and something's gotta give. If you want that new community centre or your old broken sidewalk repaired, you might want to re-think the assumption that cities have unlimited money to pay for policing. According to my very quick analysis of the 2009 City of Vancouver budget document, Police account for nearly 21% of overall expenditures ($195,000,000). The Parks and Recreation comes in at a distant second place at 11% ($102 million).
Property crime is still too high, and we can thank our voracious appetite for drugs (both illegal and the "legal" kind - an addiction happens both ways) for the constant rip-offs. But how do you stop this kind of crime - place a VPD member on every block? Of course not. Vancouver police usually are there to take the crime report (if it's reported) and fill out the paperwork. You don't usually catch these bad guys in the act nicking tools from your garage.
What you need is for the community to be vigilant. You need eyes and ears on the street. You need front porches.
Vancouver has let bad home design eat away at the fabric of communities. We've let too many monster homes blind themselves to the streets and alleys. Thank god we don't allow front driveways and huge ugly garage doors to face the street here, as it would be much worse if we did (I'm looking at you, Surrey).
What Vancouver needs is front porch culture. What's that, you say? Next time you're in a small town, or a borough like The Danforth in Toronto, or any of the hundreds of small towns that dot southern Ontario, what do you see? Front porches. What do you see after dinner? Faces. People just kicking back looking at the street, watching the world go by. You see neighbours chatting with neighbours. And you probably see some of the lowest property crime rates on the planet.
This year the Tory government in Ottawa decided to kick back $1300 to households that spent ten grand on home renos. It was a clever way to keep thousands of contractors right across the country at work during an economic slowdown. Look in any neighbourhood around town and you'll see many home renovation and landscaping projects underway.
Now take that same principle and apply it into a brilliant crime fighting strategy. Give people big tax breaks for building front porches on their homes. Even the City of Vancouver itself, as cash-strapped as they are, should think about property tax breaks for building front porches. And real front porches that a family can get cosy on, too, not some little bird perch. Do this and watch the cost of policing in these community plummet -- there's where the city wins.
As it happens I've been floating my front porch idea for some time. A while ago I had my CityCaucus.com colleague Daniel Fontaine and his family over for dinner at my house. We opened a bottle of wine on a warm evening and sat on our front porch. While out there a neighbour grabbed my attention and pointed to a little thief from the neighbourhood who was walking away from about $200 of paint stolen from a nearby construction site. All of us shouted him down, and he turned around and took the paint back when we threatened to call police.
It was almost as I'd staged it as a demonstration. It was a coincidence though, but a real example of what I believe. Vancouver, Burnaby, Richmond, North Vancouver, Pitt Meadows, Surrey...if you want to spend less money on cops, then build more front porches.