By virtue of the generosity of the Knight Foundation, nine U.S. cities participated in an all-expenses paid study trip to Copenhagen, Denmark. Our purpose was to study best practices in city building and all that encompasses. We were ably led by the internationally renowned experts at 8-80 Cities, whose mission is to inspire leaders to transform cities for all residents from 8 years old to 80.
During this incredible learning opportunity, Columbus experienced its 18th murder of the year — four murders in four days. The community was rocked and, though I was 4,000 miles away, I was consumed by questions of why crime occurs in a community like Columbus with so many great people, so much promise and so much excitement.
The former mayor of Tampa once told me that it is not where the crime is occurring that holds the answer; it’s where the crime is coming from. She asserted that if you tracked the addresses of the perpetrators of crime, you would find that by and large they come from isolated areas of economic distress and urban blight.
Though not an absolute, her axiom is true. This truism played over in my head as citizens back home rightfully screamed on Facebook and Ledger-Enquirer comments “CRIME!”, “Stop the Crime!”
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Necessarily, my entire Copenhagen study trip was seen through the lens of the challenges we were having back home. With every presentation and tour, I asked, “What effect does this have on crime?” While my queries made perfect sense to the representatives from other cities in the U.S., the Copenhageners wrinkled their brows and said, “Crime? What do you mean?”
It’s not that they don’t have crime in Copenhagen. They had 25 murders last year, which is about half or less than half the rate of a comparable city in the U.S. Of course, they don’t have nearly so many guns in Copenhagen. They deal with bike thefts, a tolerated drug culture and a robust pickpocket industry. So there are differences, to be sure.
The biggest difference was the one that underlaid the purpose of our trip. They worry about building the right kind of community to result in happier, connected people with a great sense of civic well-being. They believe if you do that, the crime rate takes care of itself.
We, on the other hand, worry about crime, and we direct a great deal of resources toward addressing it. We allow thousands of acres of blight and distress, neighborhoods with decade-long failing schools and 17-plus percent unemployment rates and then we ask: “How can we contain or reduce the crime that will largely come from the environment that has been created?”
The answer is obvious: You will have to concentrate on law enforcement and other public safety resources. There is no question that areas of blight and distress take up more public safety resources.
There is no question that U.S. cities, and particularly Columbus, Georgia, spend a great deal of their wealth on crime fighting and law enforcement. In Columbus, we spend 45 percent of the city’s entire budget, or $117 million, on public safety and criminal justice. Public safety is the largest single expenditure sector at 39 percent.
Per capita, Columbus spends more on public safety than any other Georgia municipality of similar size, or $612 per person. The next highest public safety expenditure per capita is Savannah with roughly $480 per person.
In Copenhagen, emphasis is placed on community well-being, and a low crime rate is a derivative effect. Eighty-two percent of Copenhageners are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the opportunity for taking part in Copenhagen’s urban life.
Yes, that’s 82 percent. That impressive figure is nothing compared to the 92 percent of Copenhageners who think a “vibrant and diverse urban life is important.”
When asked how they most like to interact with their fellow citizens, they said walking and being in city parks. Indeed, the average Copenhagener walks 15.02 minutes a day; and they said they would walk even more if they had more green walking routes or if there were less automotive traffic or less air pollution.
Thirty-four percent said they don’t walk at all, because they are riding their bikes to work, to the corner market, to school, etc. The average Copenhagener spends 1 hour and 37 minutes each week with fellow residents in a city park. (The city has set a goal to increase that to 1 hour and 45 minutes by 2015).
Could it be that if you live in Copenhagen you are just too connected to one another, and to the community, to commit crime? Or is it that you are just too exhausted from all the walking and biking? Columbus is a great city, but could we be even better by addressing the “whole package”?
Our ‘What if?’ possibilities
What if you built a city to promote economic prosperity throughout its borders? What if your civic investment revealed that you expect and believe in the ability of every square inch of your city to produce tremendous return on that civic investment?
Can we in Columbus, Georgia, drive down Cusseta Road, Meritas Drive, Terminal Court or First Avenue in City Village and honestly say that if you live there you have the same quality of life — the same level of well-being — you have in other parts of the city?
Last year Columbus — a city that had been recognized by Richard Florida’s Liveability.com as one of the Top 100 Best Places to Live in America — was declared by a Yahoo blogger to be one of America’s “Most Miserable Cities.”
As we scrambled to learn what entity was ranking “miserable” cities and how Columbus could possibly be on it, we learned there was no such thing. We learned that, in fact, Healthways and Gallup had joined together to change the way cities measured prosperity and produced a survey called State of American Well-Being.
Their contention was that cities should stop measuring just jobs created or crime rate or Gross Domestic Product and start measuring things like population health, civic well-being, access to resources and opportunities.
Columbus had not fared well in this study. So, one might fairly ask, where would Healthways and Gallup get such a crazy measurement tool? As it turns out, they got it from cities like Copenhagen.
Copenhagen surveys its citizens regularly. They conduct an Urban Life Account, a Bicycle Account, a Greenspace Account, and so on. They engage college students to take annual counts of how many people are using their parks and what they are doing when they are using those parks. Are they engaged in programming like sports teams? Are they using the walking trail? Are they simply sitting?
Information is power and cities like Copenhagen, and now organizations like Healthways and Gallup, understand the power of knowing whether your citizens are using public amenities, whether they are engaged in healthful activities, whether they feel connected to the neighborhood next to them or the park two neighborhoods over.
The State of American Well-Being never called Columbus or any other city “miserable.” That phrase was a smug discounting of the entire purpose of the study, opportunistically used to drive readers to the Yahoo blog page. I’m sure the study’s authors stood in dismay as they learned how the blogosphere missed the entire point, which was: Do we know whether our citizens have healthful and enjoyable lives; and are we building cities that optimize their well-being and opportunities for success?
Copenhageners will tell you they know the satisfaction rate of their citizens. They will tell you that number is high (in the 65 to 85 percentile depending on what aspect of civic life you are talking about). They will also tell you their satisfaction rates are high because they are very good at building an integrated, livable city.
They build bike lanes everywhere, on nearly every street, for all the reasons I have mentioned previously, but they also do it because it pulls their struggling residents out of poverty. In the U.S., we spend 20-25 percent of our income on costs associated with transportation. In Copenhagen, because of the tremendous biking and walking facilities and biking and walking culture, they spend only 5 percent on transportation.
Imagine if you had 15-20 percent more disposable income in your household. That would be a nice economic boost for all families.
People of all economic levels use the Copenhagen bike facilities, but those in lower income levels use them more. Throughout Denmark, people making less than $13,000 a year use biking as a mode of transportation 26% of the time and walk about 23 percent of the time. That leaves about 40% of their trips for automotive transportation and 10% for public transit. (In the U.S., people at this income level utilize automotive transportation 73 percent of the time.)
People making between $65,000 and $78,000 a year in Denmark utilize biking as transport 14.5 percent of the time and walk about 17 percent of the time. They utilize automotive transportation 68 percent of the time. (In the U.S., people at this income level use cars 86% of the time).
Cars are expensive, and in America and in Columbus people have little other choice if they want to get to work or school or day care. Data shows that not owning a reliable car is the surest route to inescapable poverty in the U.S. Think about it. If you do not own a car in Columbus, what jobs are available to you?
If you don’t own a car you better hope you live close to where the most vibrant market investment has been. For us, that is north Columbus, Uptown and Midtown. If you live there, or at least in sections of those areas, you might have a shot at walking (often with no sidewalks, mind you) to work. Otherwise, you are like 73 percent of Americans who find that the typical job takes more than 90 minutes to reach by public transit.
If we build better cities, could we make poverty easier to escape? In Columbus, could we improve the well-being of our residents from a health and wealth standpoint if we built infrastructure that allowed them viable transportation options in their daily lives?
NEXT WEEK: A different Scandinavian city offers a study in contrasts, and a few comparisons.