By David Pendered
Atlanta’s response to crime along the Atlanta BeltLine is unfolding almost exactly as recommended in a health impact assessment completed in 2007 by a research team guided by Georgia Tech professor Catherine Ross.
The city has formed a police team to patrol BeltLine’s greenspaces; worked with Trees Atlanta to trim vegetation; improved lighting; and installed markers to help users identify their location.
All the efforts address this one statement in Ross’ report: “Users might avoid the BeltLine if it is perceived as being ‘unsafe,’ …”
The perception of safety along the BeltLine was a central message Friday when a host of city officials visited the Historic Fourth Ward Park’s skate park. They announced the formation of a police squad with 15 officers that will patrol BeltLine trails by foot and by bike – and eventually by all terrain vehicles, off-road motorcycles, and possibly an electric vehicle.
“We hope their presence brings an added measure of comfort to the many people who have already discovered the Atlanta BeltLine’s beauty, and encourages others to newly discover it,” Atlanta police Chief George Turner said in a statement.
The squad is funded by a $1.8 million, three-year federal grant that supports efforts to provide community oriented policing. This police tactic has officers basically walking beats to stay closer to a community than is possible from a patrol car.
The creation of such a police squad was suggested in Ross’ report, which was written at a time MARTA was expected to play a more prominent role in operating and maintaining the BeltLine:
- “Consider creating a BeltLine patrol or police force. Because of the size of the BeltLine and the variety of its component parts, it may be necessary to create a BeltLine police force. This could be an expansion of the MARTA police force, or a separate group created along similar lines. Such a force would ensure familiarity with the parks, trails, and transit facilities; would not further tax the Atlanta Police Department; and would ensure continuous patrolling of the 22-mile system.”
Ross serves as director of Tech’s Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development. The report was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and completed with technical assistance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The report was presented in the heady days before the recession. At the time, the fast rate of Atlanta’s development was fueling hopes that great stretches of the BeltLine’s system of transit and trails would blossom overnight, as if by magic – and the greenspace would be flanked by homes, shops and offices.
Those homes, shops and offices played a significant role in the BeltLine, though it may have been understated and under-appreciated at the time.
The people who lived near the BeltLine or frequented its commercial buildings would represent more “eyes on the street,” in the language of the health impact assessment. The presence of these additional eyes was expected to serve as a deterrent to criminals.
The report elaborates on the role of informal surveillance of the BeltLine in curbing crime:
- “The more ‘eyes on the street,’ the more potential witnesses to a crime, and thus the more dangerous it is for a potential criminal to act.”
The health assessment also advocates the use of a design principle to combat crime that’s called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, which dates to the 1970s. The report cites four concepts that emerge from a 1995 study in Toronto on how design could bolster safety along that city’s regional urban greenways:
- “If a pathway is meant to be used at night, lighting should be provided to a level that will allow a user to recognize another person’s face at a distance of 25 meters (82 feet). Lighting levels should be consistent, instead of creating contrasts between pools of bright light and pools of shadow.
- “Signs should be simple and clear, readable from 20 meters (66 feet) away, and in multiple languages if appropriate for the community. Signs and maps should communicate the location of key landmarks in relation to the user, and give information on how to get help if needed.
- “On pathways, vegetation should be controlled to allow clear sightlines. Vegetation that creates shadow pools and potential hiding places should be appropriately pruned or located.
- “Isolated natural areas should include signs that tell the user that the area will be low-use and unlit, and suggest alternative routes, with maps.