Fight City Gun Violence With Better Street Design

How four people made small changes to reduce gun violence in one Portland neighborhood by 60%.

Portland's Mt. Scott Park (Photo courtesy The Philadelphia Citizen)

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When Nadine Salama moved into a new apartment building across the street from her daughter’s favorite park in the Mt. Scott-Arleta neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, she was thrilled.

For years, Salama and her 9-year-old shared a home with Salama’s business, Green Tulip Peace & Nature School, a preschool and childcare facility. They were excited to have their own space when they moved in January of 2020. The apartment was only three minutes from Salama’s work.

Then, six months after they moved, there was a shooting across the street from their home.

Salama, who has lived and worked in Mt. Scott-Arleta for 12 years, found herself reassuring her neighbors that this kind of thing wasn’t common in the neighborhood.

But the shootings were becoming more and more common. By summer, Salama says the neighborhood saw five or six shootings each month. “It was something that we were dealing with every day,” she says. What’s more, shootings that had previously taken place at 1 a.m, or midnight now began as early as 6 p.m.

The shootings were, and are, part of a broader increase in gun violence across the U.S. Last year, Portland experienced its highest number of homicides in three decades. Nationwide, gun violence increased by more than 30 percent during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Philadelphia, there were 562 homicides in 2021. And the city has already seen 632 nonfatal and 160 fatal shootings this year — a nine percent decrease compared to last year, but still nothing to brag about.

Salama noticed her neighborhood’s physical layout made it conducive to drive-by shootings. Mt. Scott Park is next to 72nd Avenue, a major thoroughfare that allows shooters to drive away quickly. Across the street from the park, a church parking lot with five entrances also made for quick escapes.

“[Shooters] would shoot from one side of the road, enter into the parking lot and speed off into our side streets,” she says.

What Salama did next helped reduce gun violence in the neighborhood by 60 percent, NPR reported. Could a similar solution help Philly tackle part of its gun violence problem?

As an involved neighbor and preschool owner, Salama started local. She reached out to parents, youth organizations she’d worked with before, and the Mt. Scott-Arleta Neighborhood Association.

Everyone was willing. They decided to work first on reducing access to the church parking lot.

“We didn’t want to lose our community,” Salama says. “We figured the best way to address this would be to start to create obstacles and make it harder for the perpetrators of these acts to get away with them and be able to escape.”

Joel Sommer, pastor with Access Covenant Church, had been renting a small space from the church. Sommer put Salama in contact with the church’s leaders. “When they heard what Nadine was asking for, they immediately sealed off two of the exits” using simple chain barriers, he says.

Salama then got in touch with Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who runs Portland’s Fire & Rescue, Bureau of Transportation, and Community & Civic Life departments, to see about adding streetlights to the park and implementing speed bumps to slow traffic.

Since 72nd Avenue is commonly used by ambulances and other emergency response vehicles, speed bumps were a nonstarter. Hardesty put Salama in touch with Dr. Jonathan Jay, a Boston University professor who studies how traffic patterns and tree coverage affect gun violence and came to town to meet with Hardesty. Jay met with Salama and Andre Miller, a community justice organizer for the City. Salama showed them around the park and pointed out where bullet casings were being found in the neighborhood.

The trio came up with a plan to convert a nearby slip lane — which allowed cars to turn left without entering the intersection, giving shooters a quick escape route — into a community space. (Residents are currently voting on proposed uses for the space.)

But Salama was looking for more immediate action. She recalls hearing gunshots while cooking dinner in her apartment in September 2021. After the shooting, a car crashed into a fire hydrant as the driver was trying to flee the scene.

“My daughter was in her room playing, and we heard, distinctly, gunfire at the end of the road, like towards the park,” she says. “I didn’t feel safe for my daughter to walk down the stairs to our car by herself because there might be a stray bullet.”

Salama gathered videos of the incident from her neighbors, and pushed Hardesty’s office to take action. The City installed orange traffic barrels printed with “Local access only” on residential streets within the six-block radius of the park, forcing cars to slow down. Within a week, the message had sunk in and they were able to take down the barrels.

“I think we were all shocked as to how quickly it made a huge difference,” Salama says. “Vehicles couldn’t just turn on a whim and speed down any road.”

The next step was reclaiming Mt. Scott Park and the nearby church property as community spaces. Salama worked with neighbors and organizers to plan events in the park. The idea was to have people gather, play music, and bring their children to re-instill a sense of neighborhood pride.

“We had just had a lot of members of the community come out and just occupied the park in a positive way. Fill it with music and joy and happiness,” she says. She soon organized another event in the church parking lot.

After these changes, the neighborhood went 57 days without a shooting. More impressive, gun violence decreased by 60 percent — and stayed that way, even as other neighborhoods in Portland have seen an uptick in shootings.

This story originally ran in The Philadelphia Citizen and appears here as part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

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Courtney Duchene is a contributor to The Philadelphia Citizen.

Tags: philadelphiaparksportlandgun violence

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