What’s Wrong Here? Or, Bad Design Breeds Bad Neighborhoods

Work recently took me to West Valley City, where I took the picture below:

A neighborhood in West Valley City.

A neighborhood in West Valley City.

The picture doesn’t show very much, but after I took it I was surprised at how much information I could glean. And unfortunately, most of that information isn’t good.

Probably the most obvious sign of trouble is the graffiti on the street sign. I’ve written in favor of street art in the past, but this work clearly has… questionable artistic merit. In a nutshell, it goes to the broken windows theory that says that a mess in the built environment breeds additional problems.

But that isn’t the only problem here. What’s probably even more telling is that there no sidewalks. That means anyone who wants to walk has to do so in the street, with the cars. So it’s a hostile environment for people.

The chain link fence and the weeds aren’t doing the street any favors, but I think many of these problems trace back to the lack of walkability. It means there are fewer people out on the street — so there’s no one to catch vandals or other criminals — and that people who can chose to live in a more hospitable setting will.

And it gets worse. Just across the street sits this house:

A recently refurbished home in West Valley City.

A recently refurbished home in West Valley City.

That’s one of the saddest pictures of a neighborhood I’ve ever taken. It also bodes very badly for the long term prospects of this home, the neighborhood, and nearby projects like this one.

But the point is that the real problem here isn’t vandals, or chain link fence, or lazy owners who create homes that need refurbishment. All of those things are merely symptoms of a larger issue: this area is not well-designed. And until it becomes more hospitable to people all the refurbishment projects in the world aren’t going to put an end to the crime and social problems for which West Valley City is known.

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