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Comment: A new path forward in creating safe and healthy communities

It was rather refreshing hitting the open road recently, especially during a global pandemic. Respecting various protocols and travel restrictions wasn’t a problem as our team only went as far as Kelowna.
An aerial view of Victoria’s downtown area. Adrian Lam, Times Colonist

It was rather refreshing hitting the open road recently, especially during a global pandemic. Respecting various protocols and travel restrictions wasn’t a problem as our team only went as far as Kelowna.

The experience also proved that if businesses carefully plan ahead they don’t always need to rely on Zoom to connect with their audience.

Our experience in Kelowna was refreshing, as it was in Colwood in late 2019 before COVID-19 surfaced. It’s becoming very clear that some municipalities are making community safety and well-being a priority!

These cities are moving well beyond some of our antiquated models of crime prevention, and are embracing solutions that lead to better outcomes and a more action-oriented role.

Police services recognize that many of the issues we face are complex, and they don’t have the capacity or expertise to deal with them effectively.

More police and security is not the solution, and neither is considered an upstream prevention-based approach to making our cities safer and more resilient. This is likely the reason we are hearing more police leaders admit that issues such as homelessness, mental health and addiction should not be in their wheelhouse.

We’re starting to see a major shift, and a much deeper desire for municipalities to collaborate using a multi-sector approach and best practices. It would be like a boxer who never moved around the ring, or executed a flurry of punches to win a fight — it’s too predictable — a losing strategy. Citizens are getting wise too, and want to be part of a winning strategy.

Kelowna’s press release started with a question — what does safety feel like? It’s the sense of calm experienced strolling through a well-maintained park, or the discomfort of walking down a poorly lighted street.

Our sense of safety is connected to the environment around us.

In our post survey of the five-day workshop we completed in Kelowna some themes prevailed, and clearly supported more grassroots leadership, inviting and influencing change.

One of the participants, a city staffer, said: “This week has opened my eyes to new observations on my day to day travels around our city. I will notice areas and activities that could use a deeper look.”

Helping facilitate and create a city cohort dedicated to community safety and well-being was extremely invigorating.

This all boils down to improving our built environment, both physically and socially, as I’ve written about in previous columns. It will be best practices such as crime prevention through environmental design, health impact assessments and placemaking that will begin to shift the paradigm around what makes our cities safe and healthy.

Crime stats and headlines are often a wakeup call for many municipalities, including our own. During the week of our workshop one such headline read “Kelowna has Canada’s fastest-growing crime rate, most opioid offences per capita.”

Many cities across Canada have fallen victim to Maclean’s annual report on crime severity, and although statistics can often be skewed, they certainly get our attention! This is not something that any mayor, police chief or citizen wants to wake up to over their morning coffee.

Last year, I was directly involved in helping several health professionals with the Capital Regional District and Island Health plan and deliver a one-day workshop at the University of Victoria.

The theme for the day was creating healthy and safe communities, a priority for the Community Health Network in the capital region. I also spoke at the event, along with many other professionals, including Dallas Gislason from the South Island Prosperity Partnership.

The economic impact of crime, homelessness, addiction and mental health on any city is huge, and when you mix that with a global pandemic it can be catastrophic.

Last year, I snapped a photo in a local coffee shop here in Victoria. Someone had scribed on the wall, “Cops protect property, not people.” If this is truly the way we think about community safety we’re in for a very long haul.

We must all take responsibility, and be stewards — active citizens engaged in the cities we live, work and play.

Steve Woolrich is a crime prevention practitioner and the principal of Rethink Urban’s collaborative focusing on community safety and well-being.

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