Feature Article - November 2011
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Maintenance Series: Vandalism & Graffiti

Straighten Up, Fly Right
Preventing Vandalism, Graffiti With Smart Maintenance

By Dawn Klingensmith

Prevention Starts With Pretty

Caring for and keeping up the neighborhood goes a long way toward preventing graffiti and vandalism. Remove litter, tend to landscaping and ensure all lighting is working properly.

The Boise parks department holds volunteer days such as Paint the Parks, Rake the Parks, and Sweep the River (for litter removal along the river walk), which gives citizens "a sense of ownership and pride" with regard to public spaces, Conner said.

"Our goal is picture-perfect parks—raking up leaves, freshening the paint, making it look like somebody cares," he said.

That in itself has deterred vandals and decreased the amount of graffiti in Boise, but the volunteer efforts also effectively put citizens on patrol. "Any park beautification volunteer program helps with vandalism because if people invest their time and energy, if they see tagging, they're more likely to do something about it," said Conner, emphasizing citizens should report rather than confront offenders caught in the act.

From a design perspective, cities can eliminate or reduce the allure of blank canvases by using textured surfaces, dark-colored or colorful construction materials and paints, and natural deterrents such as vines and thorny shrubbery to restrict access, Campbell suggested.

Over the past decade, the Boise parks department has been standardizing its building colors (gray with blue or green trim), which cuts costs whenever paint matching is required and also projects a more professional appearance and a recognizable "brand."

In that same time frame, restrooms have been retrofitted with stainless steel toilets and special partitions to prevent "classic restroom and graffiti vandalism, especially with the toilets around the Fourth of July," Conner said. "Ten years ago, we started to replace the porcelain fixtures with the same kind of toilets used in correctional facilities, and vandalism has gone down to zero. Essentially, you can't blow these things up."

Caring for and keeping up the neighborhood goes a long way toward preventing graffiti and vandalism.

Fabricated in-house, the metal partitions are coated with automotive paint, and maintenance crews use an anti-graffiti wipe to quickly and easily remove all the potty poetry and declarations of love that tend to spring up in bathroom stalls.

Conner recommends anchoring park furnishings like bleachers and benches, if not to deter thieves then to prevent "musical chairs" types of mischief; in Boise, a group of skateboarders once moved a set of bleachers over a 5-foot wall just to prove they could.

In contrast, Biederman believes movable seating is partly to thank for Bryant Park's high usage and low crime rate. A popular lunchtime destination, the park's expansive lawn is dotted with movable round tables and chairs—thousands of them. Their movability has "many virtues," Biederman said, including the ability to form "conversational groupings" or break away for a solitary activity like reading; to define your personal space and decide how near you want to sit to others; and to control sun exposure.

Biederman referenced the work of William H. Whyte, an author of several scholarly books on "street life" and public spaces. Keenly interested in seating arrangements, Whyte determined that the freedom to choose where to sit in a public space is more important to a person than the comfort and aesthetics of the seat, and that benches force people into awkward, too-close-for-comfort situations.

But another advantage to movable chairs is the pact of trust it forges with the public: Their mere presence implies a high degree of trust in park users, while at the same time sending a signal that the park is safe since the chairs "are just left there all night," said Biederman, adding that chairs are "counted constantly" and there's virtually no theft.