Saturday, November 28, 2020

Closing neighbourhood walkways to prevent crime is actually not a solution

As Shakespeare should have said in the English of his time, the problem with solutions is that they bring own set of problems. Take crime that is a direct result of walkways (more commonly called “passages”) that connect Gaborone neighbourhoods and streets. What seemed to be the most logical solution to this problem (closing these walkways) has brought its own set of problems.

Nowhere is this situation most pronounced than in Block 7 where, as a solution, one too many alleys have been closed by the residents’ association with the blessing of both the Gaborone City Council (GCC) and the local police station. There are also secondary benefits to these closures: they enable residents to regain control of their neighbourhoods; define and create neighbourhoods; reduce fear of crime, noise and congestion; make it possible for neighbourhood children to play on the streets; and most importantly, improve property value.

However, the walkway-closure solution is clearly not happening within a public-policy context but is largely based on common sense. This approach has brought its own set of problems – eight to be exact. First, thieves don’t retire because access to Block 7 is now more difficult to steal from. What they do instead is move to other attractive but more vulnerable targets that have not taken similar defensive measures. Such targets are Block 6 to the south and Block 8 to the north.

Closing walkways as a crime-fighting measure is not unlike what the Ministry of Education (as it then was) used to do with male teachers who sexually abused female students. The punishment is fittingly harsher and swifter nowadays but there was a time when a culprit would be “punished” by being transferred to a school in a far flung part of the country – where he would continue the abuse and when found out, transferred once more. In both cases, what seems to be a solution to a problem merely displaces it to another geographic area. Second, walkway-closures are an inadequate substitute for proper policing of a residential area. Mere police presence in an area deters crime but the belief that walkways attract thieves and aid their thievery necessarily leads to reduced police presence in an area once such walkways are no longer accessible. Ironically, criminals know this and could as easily come back.

Third, all pedestrians have a right to freely use public walkway but closures take away such right. Ultimately, what should be a public commodity (walkways) ends up being used exclusively by a few. Fourth, walkway-closures can promote discord within a neighbourhood between those in favour and those against. In the former category will be house owners who are determined to protect their valuable property at all costs and typically spearhead campaigns to close off a walkway. In the latter category will be pedestrians (who would live in the area as servants-quarters’ tenants or live-out maids) who use walkways to get to the bus stop and nearby shops. Where there is disagreement on this issue, it is obvious which party prevails on the basis of the power it has. The losers will live with this inconvenience and not feel like they are part of the community.

Fifth and related to the latter, closures weaken civic ties and create tension with neighbouring communities. Across the road from Block 7, due west, is Ledumadumane Ward in Mogoditshane, Kweneng District. Ideally, Block 7 and Ledumadumane should have strong civic ties but that becomes near impossible when a pedestrians who use Block 7 walkways to travel to and from work are denied access to such walkways. Over time, this creates tension between the two communities.

Sixth, closures can create dangerous, life-threatening situations if emergency vehicles are restricted. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this point is with an example of what happened years ago when fire broke out at a Gaborone factory. A fire engine that rushed to the scene well in time, couldn’t gain access to a position where it would have been easier to put the fire out. A few years prior, the factory’s owner had applied for and been granted an extension of the plot, in the process acquiring what had been used as a public walkway. From what Sunday Standard learns, the closure of walkways doesn’t impede the access of fire engines but can affect the work of utility service providers who can use walkways in residential areas to lay underground cables.

Seventh, in some parts of the world it has been found that walkway closures lull parents into a sense of false security. The result is that they become complacent and fail to monitor their children’s whereabouts. Lastly, closures harm businesses. In the particular case of Block 7 and Ledumadumane, that means that the shallow-pocketed in the former can’t walk freely across the street to buy from the latter’s tuckshops. 

Appearing recently on Access TV, the Gaborone Deputy Mayor, Lotty Manyepetsa, advised residents who live in areas with problematic neighbourhoods to petition the city council where they want a walkway closed off. The issue is actually much more complex than that because some neighborhoods are attractive to criminals and in that regard, will always foster crime. While there is indeed a relationship between street access and crime rates, there are many more measures (such as crackdowns, neighbourhood watch and target-hardening) that need to be paired with a set of policy tools to arrest crime. On the face of it, closing walkways in an area like Block 7 might suggest that this measure is working. However, what actually happened is that the crime has merely been displaced to adjacent neighbourhoods – which means that the city’s crime rate has not changed.

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