SciPolBites: Community and Safety
SciPolBites is a series of reflections from NSPN members about current issues in science and policy. In this SciPolBite, three members share their perspectives on how we should think about community safety during Halloween and trick-or-treating, from the organization of space to systemic injustice to mental health.
Community and Safety: A Spatial Justice Perspective
The tricks of Halloween have often eclipsed the treats for poor/low-income communities and people of color. Over the past several years, #NotYourCostume Twitter threads and blog posts have highlighted racist and insensitive Halloween costumes. While addressing individual-level behavior is encouraging, trick-or-treating is also a reminder of the structural racism that has led to the racial and economic segregation across America’s neighborhoods.
As highlighted by Dr. Julian Agyeman in a 2020 article and during a workshop hosted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, urban planning has intentionally racialized infrastructure, which he calls the “spatial toolkit for white supremacy.” The effects of zoning, redlining, and racially restrictive cordons and deeds, which legally excluded nonwhite people from being able to obtain a loan, purchase property, or reside in certain places, underlie neighborhood segregation today.
Dr. Agyeman provided several examples of racialized urban design including how complex intersections with high intensity traffic were disproportionately and purposefully created in communities of color, many of which were created under the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. As New York University Professor and the President of the American Civil Liberties Union, Deborah Archer, discussed in a recent paper, this act resulted in highways, railroads, and major streets that intentionally displaced communities of Black residents from thriving spaces, demolished Black homes and business districts, and became a physical structure to separate white and Black neighborhoods. Today, Black people in these communities continue to suffer from racialized poverty, disproportionate health problems, and lower life expectancy, as reviewed by Drs. David Williams and Chiquita Collins in Public Health Reports.
This Halloween, make a commitment to what Dr. Agyeman calls a “humane-scaled” approach to urban planning where we urge policy makers and community leaders to design spaces for human dignity and empathy. One way you can do this is to call your elected officials and advocate for racial impact equity studies, which would require state departments of transportation to review the ways in which racial and ethnic groups will be affected by proposed redevelopment projects (see the Federal Highway Administration’s investigation of the North Houston Highway Improvement Project). It is especially critical to advocate for spatial justice now, as cities are reinvesting in the racist 1950’s infrastructure that is no longer adequate to meet demands or requires major upkeep.
Carine Kelleher (@CarineKelleher)
Community and Safety: A Systemic Perspective
James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, recently spoke at a conference I attended. His work amplifies the existing research on the importance of our environment. Want to encourage a habit? Make the cue in the environment obvious, attractive, and accessible. Want to change a bad habit? Make the cue invisible, unattractive, and difficult to access. “We do not rise to the level of our goals,” Clear stresses, “we fall to the level of our systems.” His well-researched premise on the importance of the environment can also be extended to our communities and can even shed some light on our more complex issues like community safety and funding allocation.
Overall, Winston-Salem has seen a 188% increase in crimes committed with guns since 2015. As a parent of two Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools (WSFCS) children, I have been following the recent conversations of school safety closely. What is most alarming to me are the “preventative” measures being taken: to name a few, expanding the Real-Time Crime Center, introducing ShotSpotter Technology, and increasing surveillance systems in schools. The Sheriff was even quoted calling for swifter discipline in schools, “...we have to be proactive, not reactive.” But, these initiatives are not proactive—they are classically, undeniably reactive. And these tough-on-crime sentiments are quite popular. One paper read:
“Of course the WSFCS Board had to make some very visible changes...Navel-gazing, studies, community forums, and hiring consultants wasn’t going to cut it...”
But, here are some observations I made when my peers and I conducted a Community Health Assessment in East Winston last year. While there are numerous community assets beyond the scope of this article, the physical environment of the neighborhood is visibly devoid of investment. Narrow roads with no sidewalks. Fences that are tagged with graffiti. Convenience and vape shops instead of grocery stores. Teens with basketballs but no basketball courts and a community pool that requires payment for admission—despite the fact that 99% of students in the area are considered under the poverty level. Let’s contrast this area of town with Meadowlark Middle School near Clemmons. It sits on a beautiful greenway with access to a large outdoor shelter with large cooling fans. Afterschool Taekwondo centers and dance classes are minutes away. So tell me, what kinds of habits are we encouraging? What are we making accessible? What are we making attractive? We cannot keep pretending that our outcomes are independent of our environment. That the kids on the greenway are inherently better than the kids in East Winston. All kids deserve that greenway. All communities deserve to feel safe. We can get tough and pour our resources into reactive measures, but until we address the root causes of violence we will continue falling to the level of our (unjust) systems.
Leanna Kalinowski (@LeannaKal)
Community and Safety: A Mental Health Perspective
Halloween is an exciting holiday for many people, from dressing up as your favorite movie character, to watching spooky movies, to having an excuse to eat too much candy. It’s also a holiday that promotes interaction among members of a community; a level of interaction that most neighbors typically do not engage in on a day-to-day basis. Whether you are bringing your children door-to-door to receive candy from your neighbors or decorating your front lawn and handing out candy to the neighborhood children, the community interaction facilitated on Halloween is incredibly beneficial to mental wellbeing.
The mental health benefits of community interaction extend past Halloween and can also be seen following small daily acts of kindness to a neighbor. Researchers asked participants to engage in one of four types of support to their neighbors for a period of four weeks: emotional support, which included checking in with the neighbor; tangible support, which included dropping off groceries; informational support, which included providing service recommendations; and belonging, which included cleaning up the neighborhood or supporting a local business. Engaging in these small acts of kindness within their community led to a decrease in feelings of loneliness.
The overall structure of a community also has profound impacts on mental health. Neighborhoods with higher levels of social cohesion experience lower rates of mental health problems than neighborhoods with low levels of social cohesion, regardless of how rich or poor the neighborhood is. Promoting social cohesion among neighborhoods also decreases depressive symptoms and is protective against cognitive decline among geriatric populations.
As we wrap up another Halloween season, it is important to keep the mental health benefits of social cohesion in mind and support local policies and activities that promote frequent community engagement. These benefits are present even when the acts of kindness are small, and extend past annual interactions with your trick-or-treating neighbors.