A few further thoughts on the importance of community building and crime prevention or community safety.
Perceptions of crime and fear of crime are powerful driving forces with people often perceiving crime to be worse than it is in an area. As people become more fearful they tend to put the barriers up and either band together to try and make sense of the situation or reduce social contact.
Some years ago a group of community members approached both Police and their local council to seek help in addressing crime in their area. They wanted the place to be more like it was twenty years ago. The area had a bad reputation, had generational unemployment, people were fearful of young people. They requested a public meeting be held to voice their concerns. Over 100 people attended the meeting. Both Council and the Police addressed the meeting. The Police noted that crime statistics didn’t reflect the level of crime people were fearful of and encouraged people to report crime regardless of how fearful they felt. Council opted for an Assets Based Community Development approach to the concerns raised. The meeting then broke out into a World Café discussion. Each table discussed something different including the positive qualities of the area, the assets and what could be done to make the location a better place. At the conclusion of the meeting a committee of local residents was formed with the aim of building community pride and actively working to make their area a better place.
It would be good to say that the problems changed overnight. But they didn’t. The committee struggled for some time to find a purpose, something to aim for. They became lost in concerns over insurance and projects being too difficult. Skilled community workers spent months working with the group. Eventually they focussed on a Spring Fair that was an expo to highlight everything the place had to offer. This gave the group some focus. Something to aim for, to achieve. The Fair was a major success. From this the group went from strength to strength. In the following years they found support with the local branch of the Bendigo Bank. This provided some finance for additional projects. Council worked closely with them. The partnership between the community, the bank and council resulted in the development of a Learn to Ride facility, creation of Men’s Shed, a partnership with the local golf club to provide a youth drop in space. Council worked to improve infrastructure. A mural was painted on the local amenities block. The result was a community working together. Although crime is still a concern the community no longer expects the Police or others alone to solve the problem. They are focussing on making the place a better place. They took ownership and built a sense of belonging. The increase in social capital had the result of reducing fearful perceptions of crime and of others. Connection was created. An angry group became an agency of social change.
Another group of community members from another location also approached the Police about the level of break ins in their suburb. Again, Police statistics showed that their level of concern was overstated. Of course crime statistics are only a reflection of incidents reported to Police and not necessarily the real life situation and at other times rumours of crime events become exaggerated through the “rumour mill”. The group decided to work together to build pride in their area. One member of the group loved gardening. She planted vegetables on the strip of grass in front of her fence, leaving a sign they were for anyone to pick who wanted them. Eventually, a partnership was formed with the local school with the school’s garden opened up for community use as a Community Garden. Residents worked together to paint the “traffic island” in the middle of the road. This helped brighten the area, they cleaned up vegetation near the school, lobbied council to repair drainage and put in bollards near the pick-up zone for the school to keep children safe. They worked together, made sure that they had each other’s contact numbers. Over a period of time their concern for break-ins diminished as they worked to create a stronger sense of community and local ownership. This resulted in both a lower fear of crime as well as building capital between community members and empowering them to take ownership of their community space. Part of this process of community was identifying the interests, skills and passions of each person. These became the motivation for many of the projects they worked on and assisted in developing stronger relationships and connections which in turn created a safer place.
Community is always the solution.