To Fight Street Gangs, Los Angeles Just Adds Light


Michal Czerwonka
Public Space as Alternative to Law Enforcement
At night, urban parks can become hives for gang activity and violence. A program in Los Angeles, the American gang capital, seeks to combat that phenomenon simply by keeping the lights on until midnight, reports the New York Times.

To both locals and police, it's a bright idea. Last year, neighborhoods bordering the eight parks where lights were left on involved saw 86 percent fewer homicides and a 17 percent drop in gang-related violence. L.A. recorded the safest summer since 1967, and some parks had no homicides for the first summer in years.Filling Parks With People at Night
By reinvigorating public spaces at night, the Summer Night Lights program is being seen as both a way of fostering community in dangerous neighborhoods and a partial alternative to law enforcement in a state where about 30 percent of murders are tied to gangs -- and where law enforcement isn't quite working.

In neighborhoods with minimal resources, antigang outreach groups and families are trying to capitalize on the social connections that exist in what few public places there are -- like schools, rec centers and parks -- to avoid and replace gangs. From the Times:

Seemingly small steps like filling parks with people can change the behavior that feeds crime patterns, said Marcos Andrade, 18. Mr. Andrade carried his 9-month-old nephew, Maximum, on his shoulders in Ramon Garcia park Thursday.

"I used to stay away and stay at home at night," he said. "But I'm really not an indoor type. Now we can be here and have support." Maybe Maximum, he said, "could grow up more free."

Nightfall is an obvious cover for crime, but during summer months, it's been shown to also encourage crime among youth. Research has shown that young people are more likely to commit violent crimes in summer months due to the longer days, and because of restlessness from not being engaged by school.

How It's Funded, and Why It's Important Now
The program began modestly last year, with a campaign by the Mayor's Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD) that raised almost $1 million in private donations to illuminate eight parks. Last week, the lights spread to 16 locations, as city officials have pledged to match $1.4 million in private donations to finance the lights, along with sports leagues, disc jockeys, art activities and food four nights a week in each park through August.

The lights are being switched on at an especially crucial and difficult time, as California's budget crisis forces the state to cut social programs. Cutbacks in the Los Angeles Unified School District erased most summer school and other nonacademic programs this year.

But simply installing and turning on street lamps is proving to be a simple, cost-effective accomplice in the fight against gangs, and is transforming parks to much-needed public space at night. That could help build stronger, safer, and more economically productive communities in the long term.

LED Night Lights?
Another bright idea: if the city could connect the Summer Night Lights program to its five-year effort to retrofit 140,000 of its residential street lamps with energy efficient LED lamps, it might save even more money while cutting crime.

Of course, LEDs would require a big initial investment (not assuming some kind of LED breakthrough). But with enough stimulus money, the long-term payback of lower energy bills and lower crime would outweigh that cost.

Cutting carbon and spreading community awareness about reducing energy use would only be icing on the cake.

Watch a video report from KTTV Fox Los Angeles and view a map at the LA Times

More on Lighting and L.A. at TreeHugger
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Tags: California | Lighting | Los Angeles