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Felton Earls

Dr. Felton Earls is a pediatrician, psychiatrist and Health at the Harvard School of Public Health professor. Earls and Robert Sampson spent 10 years on a groundbreaking, $51 million study of 8,782 people in 343 Chicago neighborhoods. They found that the key to reducing crime isn't fixing broken windows and shooing the derelicts from the street corners, the popular "broken window" theory of crime reduction. Rather, sustained improvement happens when the residents themselves act to change the neighborhood. Earls and Sampson call this informal social network "collective efficacy."

Some experts say their study is the most important research into crime and delinquency ever undertaken.

he study in Chicago is about the quality of life of children and what it's like to grow up in a large American city, the perspective of a child, an adolescent, a young adult. We chose Chicago in the early 1990s to do this work cause it was a diverse city, but with each of those major ethnic groups it was spread in class, it meant that in one city we could study the very poor and it wasn't coupled with their ethnicity. We didn't have to study all poor blacks and all wealthy whites, and that's a very important thing because we didn't have to be stuck with that situation in Chicago.

Earls Photo

Felton Earls in his home office

Once we were secure in the choice of Chicago, we very carefully did studies of every neighborhood, characterized by the race of people and the socioeconomic class. In those neighborhoods we sampled groups of children of varying age groups, and from 1995 up until 2002 we studied these kids growing up, what was their quality of life like.

You know we started out being very worried about violence and gangs because that stereotypically provides so much concern for one growing up in an urban environment, but we ended up studying asthma, obesity, sexual activity -- so the studies become very comprehensive in studying human development, child development in an urban context.

As we got into the neighborhoods and we started to do survey work around people's attitudes about safety, we were surprised that the answers were all over the place. There were negative, but there were positive responses as well, which were coming from all over the place, so in 1997 we were on the verge of making a discovery -- that there are common values that people hold in urban environments that are irrespective of how well people know each other. They share a space, there is a common thing they act upon to keep that place safe and in fact they create an urban oasis you might call it, that really does function very well.

t's hard to put your finger on isolated activities, it kind of depends on the environment. In some places it's interaction around policing -- in Chicago in the mid 90s there was an effort to institute community policing and where neighborhoods embraced this new idea that cops would walk around and get to know people, it worked.

People came out and went to the beat meetings and people's attitudes towards the police changed, so what exactly activates people, motivates them to create public space that works, it kind of varies, depends on what the issues are of those particular places, so it's not one thing, it's the process to become active and mobilized that really counts.

Let me start with the empowerment part. Home ownership, residential stability are foundations on which people can become more activated, because they're invested in it, they can stay there, they look at it as a place that they have chosen to be and that's a positive thing.

Cabrini Green Photo


Large clusters of poor people living in public housing is a barrier, a disadvantage. Part of it must be the physical structure -- the physical housing, these vertical blocks that separate people from each other, but it's also the lack of resources and the lack of thinking you can effectively change things. So we're very interested in the extent to which public housing is being changed in Chicago right now. We did not anticipate in 1995 that the Cabrini-Green projects would actually be transformed, that they would be demolished and new places would be put up. That process is now well underway. Had we anticipated that bold experiment in American society we might have been able to position ourselves better to understand it, now we're playing catch up a bit.

It's targeting exactly what our research found was the constraint, the barrier, that structural disadvantage of lots of people living without public resources. I've seen some of the new development and it's very impressive. It's more than revitalizing and revamping physical space -- it's more than planting flowers, getting rid of what people call broken windows. In order for the process to be sustained, our research would say, it has to be citizen action as well, it has to be participation, belief, ownership, that the transformation is part of your will, that you are acting on your own behalf and your neighbor's behalf rebuilding public space, so my only concern is what is the social part of this, how mobilized have citizens and neighbors been.

'm not sure about the tipping point or how suddenly or precipitously these things happen, but certainly as I look at most cities I know, the transformation, the improvement of the city -- the harbor in Baltimore, the downtown area in Boston, the Riverwalk in New Orleans, that these have been places that have been absolutely positively transformed.

Now how much of it is economic development and how much is the actions of the people who live there - those are the questions that we have. If it's only economic and not citizen action then our concern is that it may only last as long as the bubble in the economy lasts, that it won't be sustained because people want their kids to be in beautiful space. So our main concern has been as we look around, it's been more difficult to locate the social aspect, and I know it's happening, but it's not something which the developers have in mind when they start urban transformation, and what we're hoping is that the kind of research we're doing will point out to the planners that the social development is crucial -- that they should act as a base line around which you build urban environment.

For example we have a map of urban Chicago that maps neighborhood by neighborhood what we call collective efficacy through a process of trust, cohesion, agency around which people, the citizens take action and build their own environments, and that map tells you something about where strength and weakness lie in urban development.

Look at neighborhoods like Pilson and Little Village -- these are almost ports of entry for first-generation immigrants, particularly from Mexico, and one of the things we are fascinated with is the amount of energy that immigrants come to the United States with. So even though these are poor neighborhoods, they are neighborhoods that have fairly high levels of the social process that we're measuring -- they care about their environment, the schools, safety, they are willing to do things to make things safer for their kids, so immigrant neighborhoods in a way defy the usual stereotype of poverty in their willingness to engage in civic action.

was trained as a physician, I was trained in hospitals and it occurred to me sometimes that if a kid came in with asthma or an overdose in a suicide or an injury in a gang fight, that I was working downstream -- that I'm seeing the results of some kid who got hurt in the streets, and I didn't know much about the dynamic that causes this, and for all I know this kid could be back in the hospital tomorrow given my lack of understanding.

So with a sociologist I tried to reshape my career to be able to ask questions about what was going on upstream, so the Chicago project is a result of a very determined effort I've made throughout my career as a pediatrician and a psychiatrist, to learn about how the neighborhood factors create what we see in emergency rooms and clinics.

It's paradoxical. We think of urban environments as man-made environments and they can be fully man-made, you can get rid of all the trees and it'd still be an urban environment.

My understanding of cities was not very informed about the involvement of nature until I lived in Stockholm and I was amazed at how peaceful and beautiful the city was and my analysis quickly led me to the answer -- you were never far away from open spaces and trees, and despite the fact of how many built up buildings there are, the Swedes have done a wonderful job of maintaining nature. Even if it's small, it's wonderful and beautiful.

So since that I've come to America looking at the relationship between the natural environment and the man-made environment, and believing very strongly that our sense of tranquility and peacefulness and harmony requires we are never separated from nature.

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