Every so often something happens that forces us to stop and re-evaluate our lifestyle. One such incident occurred recently in New York City.
During daylight hours, a good Samaritan intervened to save a woman from her knife-wielding attacker. Wounded himself in the melee, the man collapsed on the sidewalk, bleeding heavily. Security cameras show what followed.
Numerous pedestrians stepped around him; one even paused to take a photograph.
But for more than an hour, not a single passerby offered assistance or called for help. By the time an emergency crew arrived, the man was dead.
Events like this are not, thankfully, a frequent occurrence. But they happen often enough to pose some troubling questions. Have we truly become indifferent to human suffering? Is our instinct for compassion growing dim?
Some trace the problem to the way cities have developed. They suggest that urban cores are more threatening or intimidating than they were in earlier times. We fear to get involved.
But while that sounds right, it merely shifts the focus of the question: What is to be done?
One school of thought favours building up the community's protective services. It advocates a stricter line on law enforcement, and a more visible police presence.
Colwood adopted one of these defensive countermeasures last week, when the municipality decided to outfit its bylaw officers with stab-proof vests. The City of Victoria already follows this practice.
But is this the correct choice? Can squads of police officers or bylaw staff in body armour take back the streets for us? Can they make a city more livable, or will they harden it yet further?
Perhaps an entirely new approach is called for. A group of community activists in Victoria have a different solution. They want us to reclaim the streets ourselves.
Their project is called Building Resilient Neighbourhoods. The idea is to revitalize our community from the ground up, by groups of neighbours acting together.
Some examples: Residents of McCaskill Street pooled resources and purchased a communal freezer so they could buy food in bulk at lower prices. Some neighbourhoods have invested in shared chicken coops, others in book boxes where reading material can be exchanged.
The Fernwood Community Association purchased a building to use for local events.
The common factor in these projects is that the impulse for change comes from residents themselves. That brings a sense of shared ownership and pride in what is accomplished.
It is a radical notion. Traditionally, we've looked to government, local and provincial, to organize and regulate the community.
That means bylaws, zoning rules, traffic-corridor plans and the like. Those are all necessary, yet they don't engage our sense of personal involvement.
Quite the opposite, in fact. Bureaucracies can be bloody-minded at times, in a way that turns us off.
How long can it be before an inspector from the ministry of agriculture declares those chicken coops unsanitary? Will someone from the department of transportation label book boxes an impediment to pedestrians?
We don't really believe the poultry police are ready to strike, but there is a challenge to be faced here. If community-led initiatives are to succeed, our governments will have to give us some leeway. We can't do the job if officialdom won't let us.
There may have to be some bending of regulations, or the occasional turning of a blind eye. More than that, indeed, it might help if explicit exceptions were made when a proposal has the community's support.
For one thing seems clear. Governments have spent millions trying to forcibly humanize communities, and it hasn't worked.
The only people who can take back the streets are us. If we don't, there will be more incidents like the one in New York.
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