Violence and Public Space: a complicated story

How can we prevent violence?

The Center for Disease Control has been trying to answer this question through the lens of public health, combining hospital emergency room data and policy reports to map injury due to violence in Atlanta and Philadelphia. It’s an innovative application of the Cardiff model of evidence-based violence prevention. It turns out that police reports provide only a partial look compared to intakes at hospital emergency rooms. When the two data sets are combined, they offer a more solid understanding about where to deploy resources for violence prevention.

Their primary finding though was encapsulated in a startling statement: “Violence happens in public space.”

It sounds innocuous, but troubling conclusions spread from this single statement. Blame easily becomes assigned to people in public space, or to certain people in certain public spaces, as anti-loitering laws have historically done. The CDC scientists and its local working group of businesses and city agencies were open to strategies that could go in many directions: remove people from the space, reinforce policing of the space, or perhaps provide amenities for people so that there is no cause for conflict. It is unclear to me if they seek a design that deters people from gathering in public space or one that supports people to do so.

It isn’t easy to prove, but in many U.S. neighborhoods there are too few public spaces where people are encouraged to congregate. This lack of places often leads to anti-social behavior where it is least wanted. Further, this does not even broach the larger systemic inequities that underpin patterns of violence. This “lack” of public space is difficult to measure and currently cannot be compared to injury data, or other tangible, measurable metrics. It’s a void.

All this bears pointing out because data innovation for violence prevention and public health becomes much less useful when there is lack of data about the neighborhood’s need for public life and places for everyday social interactions. There are other areas where the lack of understanding about people in public space has led to odd outcomes: teenagers constrained because they cannot hang out on the main street in groups greater than two. Or the resignation from residents living in publicly-assisted housing, because they only have one day a year to socialize with their families on the grounds of their homes. I hope it doesn’t go in that direction.

A partial understanding of what people need from our public spaces slips too easily into outcomes that are more exclusive than inclusive, more unjust than just, and thus less healthy for everyone. There’s a lot of work to do to round out people’s understanding about the need for public life for everyone, and to fill the void of understanding about people and public space.