Architect, planner, crime fighter? Ifeoma Ebo is a strategist in the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ), which has made design a critical part of its work to improve public safety and the functioning of the criminal justice system in New York City. Design for justice is not just a matter of programming new jails or redesigning courthouses, but extends to how public spaces reinforce people’s relationship to place, to each other and to city institutions. While the city is the safest it has been in decades, pockets of violence and insecurity persist, especially in areas with a history of disinvestment and marginalization. In Brownsville, Brooklyn and Morrisania, Bronx, two neighborhoods highly impacted by violent crime, MOCJ has just completed a pilot study to improve the public realm called “Neighborhood Activation,” collaborating with Studio Gang and Hester Street in a community engagement process and design study to identify local priorities and needs, as well as interventions that could improve public safety. Below, Ebo talks to UO about the project in progress and the relationship between design, safety, and social justice.
You are an architect and planner, and you’re a strategist working in the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. What are you doing there?
I serve as the Design Advisor on a number of built environment initiatives that address public safety and social justice. With the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety (MAP), I either lead initiatives that are design-focused, or offer my expertise on projects that may have design embedded in them or on initiatives specifically addressing crime prevention through environmental design. I also support the development of design principles for courthouses and detention centers that address equity and procedural justice.
What is the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety?
MAP is based in 15 neighborhoods throughout the city, which account for the top 20 percent of neighborhoods that are heavily impacted by outdoor nighttime felony crime. These neighborhoods also have a high concentration of public housing. The goal is to hone in on key public housing developments in those communities and address crime through three different approaches: focusing on place, on people, and on networks. The “people” focus is about identifying who has the potential to go into a life of crime and provide the necessary resources to steer them in a positive direction. The “networks” component is about supporting existing networks in the community and strengthening the relationships between community leadership, NYPD, and NYCHA. And the “places” component is connected to addressing the environmental issues that contribute to crime, through physical design and programmatic solutions that are created collaboratively with the community. Not just by focusing on the built environment, but focusing on the relationship between people and the built environment, how to build people’s capacity to affect their own environments. So it’s not just about police doing law enforcement, about government providing security measures, but about people feeling like, “I can address this issue on my own.”
Is there a guiding philosophy for the design work at MOCJ? What are you focusing on?
There is a continuum in the criminal justice system that includes the physical environments of court houses and detention centers and the quality of public spaces in and around marginalized communities. The majority of people who must engage with the criminal justice system are coming from areas with high crime and a history of disinvestment, marginalization, and neglect of the public realm. Each of those touch points where people engage with the physical spaces of the criminal justice system has an impact on how they perceive their government, their trust in government, their respect for the process. We are trying to influence how those spaces are designed and operated. I am mainly involved in the built environment aspect of transformation.
What projects are you working on right now?
One initiative is called Neighborhood Activation. We brought on Studio Gang as a consultant to analyze two neighborhoods in the MAP program, Brownsville and Morrisania, and provide evidence-based research and design strategies to activate key “hot spots” in each neighborhood. Their methodology for designing spaces can foster improved collaboration between community and government in crime based problem solving and community design.
The intention is to address the root causes of crime, which are grounded in social and economic issues that impact the physical conditions of the community. Often we use this term, CPTED — Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design — but I believe in this office, because we are so focused on the “people” aspect, that we really want to get people out in their public spaces, to get them meeting each other, engaging with each other, working with each other to improve these spaces. We want residents to be able to identify who their neighbors are and who doesn’t belong, and to feel like they have a stake in their community, whether they own property or not. Through the design process, you can encourage that sense of ownership.
How does Neighborhood Activation Work?
Neighborhood Activation is an approach to working in communities that are heavily impacted by crime. It starts by engaging with residents as real experts on their neighborhood at every stage of design and development. The Hester Street Collaborative, a brilliant community engagement-focused firm, brought together residents, many community-based organizations that were already doing very similar work in the community, and agency representatives. They facilitated a number of workshops that focused on public space, economic development, community and police relationships and youth engagement. Through that process, they came up with a list of priority issues that were really sacred to each of the communities. That list became fuel for design ideas and recommendations for each of the locations. A significant part of it was evidence-based research. For any recommendation that was provided, there needed to be evidence that it had worked in another similar context with outcomes that align with our intended goals. Not just: “Oh, this would look nice here.”
How will those recommendations be implemented?
The first stage is a community-driven initiative with the use of agency tools to improve their public realm. For example, community members can identify an underutilized location, work together to clean up the area, activate it with programming, and apply to DOT for a city bench, street art, or a temporary plaza program to further activate the space. Over time, the space can be turned into a permanent public space in the community with capital investment.
Part of the consultants’ task was to identify all the capital projects in the pipeline and to identify ways to optimize those projects through the inclusion of components that further activate the space, address public safety or add an element that the community can be involved in implementing.
We really wanted this initiative to be about the coordination between agencies, and between community and agencies, towards the improvement of the public realm. Oftentimes in government we operate in silos. We wanted to ensure that this initiative encouraged agencies to incorporate crime prevention strategies or activation strategies.
Another approach to implementation is through partnership with other agencies to roll out grant programs or competitions to test ideas that address public space activation through design. MOCJ is currently working with Department of Transportation and the Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer on the NYCx Challenge — an initiative to encourage the use technology to improve nightlife and public safety in Brownsville. The premise behind the challenge is that tech companies partner with community-based organizations to design a placemaking strategy that uses technology as its main feature. I hope that this initiative can encourage the optimization of technology for both surveillance and activation of space. Through these kinds of agency partnerships in the implementation of short-term projects residents will see that neighborhood activation is not just about this thing that they did over six months, but it’s actually starting to influence places and spaces in their community.
What comes next?
Now we’re engaging with community stakeholders that have been involved in this process over the last six months through a placemaking competition based on the aims and goals of Neighborhood Activation. The grant can either support some of the initiatives that they’re already working on, or new ideas they come up with based on the principles that came out of the neighborhood activation process. If we can get them started on a number of projects in the community in specified locations over the course of the next year or two, and then through testing and refinement over time, see which ones are successful, we can make a case to the agencies to hopefully transform that community-based initiative into a permanent piece of infrastructure.
What are some of the principles that have come out of Neighborhood Activation?
Improved coordination between agencies in the design and implementation of strategies that address public safety and activation of the public realm. We want to encourage the notion that services to the community go beyond the front door of the public building but also include the immediate public realm and its contribution to public safety.
Prioritization of young people in community design and civic participation. In many high crime neighborhoods, the combination of youth crew activity and police enforcement restrict access for youth to outdoor public space. We want to involve young people in the design and implementation of public space improvements in their community.
A stronger focus on maintenance, in terms of addressing the sustainability of the initiatives and recommendations, and acknowledging that maintenance to deal with disrepair and disorder is a very big part of crime prevention. Many beautiful things have been designed in these communities but have degraded over time because they haven’t been maintained.
Finally, it’s also about understanding that residents are experts in their community. Not just any idea will work; you have to identify what residents have been doing, what they want, and whether what you’re suggesting will work. There’s a possibility that it won’t, because of the specific culture of that community.
Is the idea that by piloting these strategies at these two sites, they could then be applied at other sites throughout the city?
Absolutely. Through the neighborhood activation process we developed short-term strategies, but also policy-based recommendations that can be used in communities that are grappling with the same issues. Beyond the fifteen MAP sites, we have a list of about a hundred communities that are grappling with the same issues of high crime.
There’s another initiative that is just focused on public spaces in and immediately supporting our MAP sites, taking the method of neighborhood activation to a smaller scale. We are going to be training stakeholder teams comprised of police officers, NYCHA property managers, and residents to understand the principles of CPTED, identify places on their campus that might be at risk of crime and work together to identify appropriate solutions to those areas through design and programming.
Oftentimes people feel unsafe in a place and attribute it to poor lighting, whereas it could be something else that’s going on there. It could be social, it could be economic, it could be physical or environmental. The goal is to help people understand those concepts, to identify where challenges are on their campus, and then to collectively come up with solutions.
I hope that this initiative can encourage new programs between young people and police officers, or a new community garden or dog run on the campus, or a new signage campaign to prevent people from throwing trash out of their window — essentially placemaking initiatives based on each of the campuses’ unique needs.
What are some of the specific environmental aspects that contribute to actual crime or perceptions of safety that are opportunities for intervention?
Well, a lot of it is connected to subtext. Places where you don’t have a lot of foot traffic, where you don’t have “eyes on the street,” or maybe there’s a lot of trash in that location, neglect, that creates an opportunity. If a criminal sees that a place is not being taken care of, that means no one’s going to see what they’re doing. Another issue is places that are in disrepair, so therefore they cannot be used effectively — like a playground that has broken equipment, so children cannot use the space, then there are fewer eyes on the street.
Those don’t sound like actual consequences of design or the physical environment, so much as maintenance and management questions.
Yes, that is a part of it.
Are there issues of form that play into it as well?
If there’s a space that’s neglected, you can transform it through design and make it more useful for people. It may not be that there’s a design issue per se, but you can use design as a way to transform that space. And maybe sometimes there are design issues, but we can’t shift a building! We can’t change the design of public housing. We can move a gate, we can add some benches, we can make small interventions in the public realm that begin to create a space where people feel more comfortable and safer. We’re hoping that through that activation there are no more opportunities for crime. Granted, it may shift crime from one location to another, but there are other measures at play here that are not just design-based.
In light of the enormous population and development pressures in the city, how do you address fears about connections between neighborhood improvements and gentrification?
It definitely has come up in some of our meetings, particularly from people who live in private housing. But our focus, which we’re quite transparent about, is really on the public housing developments and empowering people that live in those communities. We do want one of the outcomes of this to be more social cohesion in the community, between people who live in public housing and people who live in market-rate housing or own their own houses. And we try to diversify, through engagement of the community organizations and getting their constituents involved, to assure people that this is not about improving spaces to invite other people to live there.
How do you establish trust, especially in neighborhoods where residents have historically been marginalized? Even in an administration that’s put equity and social justice at the top of the agenda, it can’t be easy. Criminal justice issues in particular are framed and experienced so profoundly in terms of race and class.
I work in government, but I don’t see myself as a government employee, I feel like a common citizen who’s just been placed in this position and is fighting for the underdog. I’m always thinking about how things will impact people. Not just how we’re able to achieve things, but how our work affects the people who are living with our decisions. If it doesn’t improve their quality of life, even if it may be addressing our agenda, then I feel that we can’t do it. I’m not going to put my face on it. It can keep you up at night. It can be quite frustrating, but I think that is what is so exciting about working for the public sector.
What does it mean for you, specifically as a Black architect, working in the city on these issues?
One of the reasons why I enjoy working in the public sector is that there’s always a focus on the public interest, and the public interest is about everyone. It’s about the immigrant, about Black people, white people, doesn’t matter what race, ethnicity or gender. It makes it challenging, because you have to grapple with different interests, but it also means that my opinion is valued not only because I was educated and professionally trained and I have experience, but also because I have an innate sensitivity to the living conditions of Black people, and I am always bringing that to the table. I bring that understanding of what people are going through. And I think that has had an impact on some of the work that we are doing here.
I’m a member of BlackSpace NYC and a lot of us are working in government. There’s this collective appreciation and dedication to the public interest. We’re not bound by an agency or corporate agenda, we’re bound by our drive and our passion to influence the trajectory of Black communities. I bring some of the conversations that we have in Black Space to my work at MOCJ. Because I’m engaging with people of color who are in places of influence, who are also working in and who have come from communities that have been marginalized, and I’m hearing from them what the challenges are.
How is it different to address those issues in government, as opposed to other fields that you have worked in?
I’ve been involved in many different kinds of built environments — hospitals and residential development and community master planning; I’ve worked in the private and non-profit sectors and academia. To work for an organization and with colleagues that are motivated by influencing different spaces through policy and with a focus on fairness and equity is exciting. In the past, my work has been about producing actual buildings. Now my work really is about developing partnerships with communities or other agencies in the transformation of the built environment.
I have to think about, “OK, yes, this may be forwarding our agenda and addressing crime prevention, but what sort of impact is it having on the people that live there? Are they seeing it positively? Maybe they might be happy with it, because it’s the only thing that is available, but what are the alternatives?” I’m always thinking about the alternatives. Because I have a background in architecture and planning, I can theorize what they might be, whereas sometimes decisions are made without someone with that expertise.
That’s one of the important things that architecture can do: mediate between the big-picture policy goals and the experience of daily life. The public realm is a place where they meet very directly.
There’s power in changing the environment. I’ve been quite surprised at the many ways we’ve been able to add value to projects — the number of built environment projects that this office is involved in, but also the openness and understanding that design can have an impact on social justice, and the ways that we can leverage our influence to have an impact on different kinds of built spaces where we haven’t been involved in the past.
I think that is always the challenge, reminding people that design is not the only solution to a problem and we must consider the other forces that have impact. Design is not going to solve the world, or end crime, or make everything fair, but it is a critical part of the solution. A lot of it is just problem-solving. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we don’t, but the more we’re all able to collectively brainstorm and tap into the different expertise of people in the office, we can come up with a solution that both can happen immediately — because there’s always a sense of immediacy in this office — but also sustainably. There’s a balance that we have to continuously strike here: “What can we get done right now to address that problem?” But then also: “How can we do it in a way that is sustainable and continues to improve the quality of life of people who live in New York City?”