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Lower Crime And Spoiled Views

A look at the past week.

— This week brought news we’ve heard before. Many times before. But the recurring saga of falling crimes rates got some dramatic emphasis this week, as police said crime in San Diego was the lowest it’s been since 1963.

This was like being told we’d returned to a more innocent time. A time before the Vietnam War and the cultural rifts of the late 1960s. A time before the huge run-up in crime that battered the U.S. in the 1970s and ‘80s.

There are lots of explanations for why we’ve had such a falloff in crime rates. Some say it’s been stricter sentencing. Some say it’s community-oriented policing. Criminal justice professor Paul Sutton told me that crime rates are pegged to large demographic trends. The more young people you’ve got, the more crime you’ve got.

I’m more interested in how this good news (whatever its cause) has affected urban America. Crime has been so closely associated with the inner city that a city’s reputation and quality of life rises and falls, in an inverse manner, based on rates of crime.

Mike Stepner is the former San Diego city architect and a long-time urban planning guru. He says lower crime rates have engendered a healthier street life that can only cause crime to drop further.

“We’re doing a lot of stuff that brings people together,” he said. “Farmers' markets. Concerts in the park. Block parties. I think that brings people together and scares away the bad guys.”

Vicki Estrada is a landscape architect in San Diego who says cities can take real steps to reduce crime… it’s not all demographic trends. She says you can design parks so they feel safe and welcoming. She adds that scheduling farmers' markets and block parties are examples of “programming a space.” You’re populating a place with people in a way that discourages street gangs and drug dealers.

“We live in the city for a reason. There is a certain part of us that wants to get together with other people,” she said. “We need a certain amount of socializing in the right place. If it’s in the wrong place, bad things happen.”

I don’t spend each day thinking about the fact that San Diego only had 29 murders last year. But as time goes by, staying at the park with my kids after the sun goes down is no longer something that seems unsafe. The drop in crime has made cities great places to live again. Now if we can only improve the schools, middle class flight will be a thing of the past.

The Tragedy Of A Lost View

I first heard about Stephen Metcalfe’s play The Tragedy of the Commons in a newspaper article. The play has been running at Cygnet Theatre in San Diego. I read that Metcalfe was inspired to write the play when the view, from his La Jolla home, was being threatened by the construction of new “McMansions.” (His word, apparently)

The main character in The Tragedy of the Commons is, similarly, a guy whose view of the ocean is going to be obliterated by a new construction. My first reaction when I heard of this play was to wonder: Is this guy serious? Was he really writing a play to tell us how sad it would be if some privileged homeowner lost his ocean view?

This week, I heard Metcalfe interviewed on These Days and I learned that he was serious. When asked why losing one’s ocean view was so important, Metcalfe said, “To me, the view is representative of much greater things. It is representative of resources, wilderness, of the environment…and of beauty.”

I haven’t seen nor read Metcalfe's play. I only know it from interviews with the playwright and from theatrical reviews. But only in La Jolla could you find many people who would understand why the loss of an ocean view could be one man’s dark abyss.

The expression “tragedy of the commons” refers to the danger of offering common land for all to use, resulting in degradation of the land. In the case of this play, I guess it’s degradation of ocean views. I’m sure if I had a nice view of the Pacific and somebody built a house in front if it, I’d be upset. But I’d know better than to call it a tragedy.

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