Is regeneration the key to creating safer cities?

‘They wanted to end El Cartucho, but they opened the doors of hell’

      Between 1995 and 2005 the local government of Bogota, Colombia, decided to prioritize a group of policies and actions aiming at reducing criminality and violence. One of the most remarkable actions was the regeneration project of ‘El Cartucho’, a zone of extreme social destitution where thousands of homeless gathered in a scenario of crime and drugs. The area was well known as a centre of drugs and arms trafficking as well as a gathering point for gangs and prostitution. Tortures, kidnapping, abuses and thieves were the norm of the place and led to its destruction and replacement for the park ‘Tercer Milenio’. Despite its success in the reduction of crime, the regeneration project in El Cartucho led to multiple questions around its social consequences and opened a public discussion around the role of regeneration projects as a way of improving security and safety.

      This post will evaluate how planning for crime prevention can reduce some antisocial behaviour and crime practices while critically discussing its implications in the regeneration project of El Cartucho. It will be argued that the success of these practices can be achieved only if they are supported by social inclusion, political coalitions and business participation invested in reducing the causes of crime; otherwise, it produces a displacement of crime and an aggravation of social problems.

The transformation of a place, from heaven to hell

      El Cartucho was the name given to a street in the neighbourhood of Santa Ines in Bogota, Colombia. in 1999, 10.000 people lived in 602 houses in this street. Between 1997 and 1999 the average rate of homicides in this area was 40.000 per 100.000 inhabitants, it was without doubt the most dangerous street in Bogota.

      The decline of the neighbourhood Santa Ines has been widely discussed due to its complex history.  It is located a few streets away from the Presidential house, the Bogota Hall and other important institutions. Before 1949, it was home for high income families, but after serious damages suffered during the event known as ‘Bogotazo’, the neighbourhood was partially destroyed, and the residential activity was transformed, displacing high income families to the north of the city. The abandoned houses of Santa Ines became permanent homes for hundreds of deprived families being displaced as result of the violence in the rest of the country.  As time passed, the physical deterioration raised in the street, combined with a deprived state of life, control by criminal groups and dereliction by the local government.

Behind the intervention: broken windows

      In 1998, the mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa, took the decision of making a radical intervention in El Cartucho. His main argument was the urgency for preventing crime and stopping illegal activities. His second argument was the necessity to regenerate the centre of the city increasing the number of public spaces.

      The theoretical support to the intervention came from the ‘Broken Windows’ theory, adopted from the New York experience. This theory proposed by the criminologists Wilson and Kelling, highlights the impact of social and environmental disorder in the perception and conditions of safety. It affirms that the presence of disorder in the physical and social environment, emits a signal of decay in the community order. According to this theory, the garbage on the street, abandoned places, vandalism (disorder) and the presence of certain window brokers groups as drug consumers, prostitutes or homeless in El Cartucho generated a chained effect that implied the scaling of crime.

      This link between the physical deterioration and crime, although accepted in El Cartucho, is not very clear. It is very problematic to describe the cause and effect sequences connecting the deterioration of urban neighbourhoods to changes in their crime level. This is due to the various characteristics likely to interact with the decline process. It is discussed that factors related to the restructuring of national and local economies, external to the neighbourhood level and beyond the idea of crime and disorder, could also explain the neighbourhood decline. Nevertheless, in terms of crime and antisocial behaviour, local government strategies relied on an uncritical acceptance of ‘broken windows’ and the acceptance of causality where disorder leads inevitably to neighbourhood decline.

The strategy: regeneration project and its implications beyond crime

      There is a growing emphasis on initiatives aimed at the regeneration of deprived areas as a strategy for reducing neighbourhood dissatisfaction through reduction in crime prevention and community safety. In El Cartucho, the urban strategy was focused in the design and construction of the park Tercer Milenio. The park was conceived as a ’green area of 16 hectares that would not only improve the quality and connectivity of public space in one of the most deprived areas of the city, but also would stimulate investment and increase land value’.

      Despite achieving a change in the landscape and in the image of the place, thus providing the city centre with public space, the park Tercer Milenio is underused and is still perceived as unsafe. In the evaluation of the Park Tercer Milenio as public space, Herrera concludes that there are no changes that indicate a significant impact in the housing market in the boundaries and surroundings of the park; furthermore, ‘the edifications continue deteriorating, the park is usually empty, and it is considered dangerous for the habitants and visitors’. An explanation of this can be that the regeneration considered the transformation of the social and symbolic meaning of the place in the interest of market-led development excluding culturally and even physically to local groups and communities. One of the main issues of city centre regeneration is the ‘little consideration to the oscillation and interplay of varied interpretations of urban space’. On the other hand, the Park Tercer Milenio continues being a drug Hotspot where neither residents, nor visitors feel safe enough. The physical infrastructure was modified but it was not less attractive to offenders, this is, it did not consider Situational Crime Prevention techniques.

Consequences of the intervention: impact on crime, crime displacement and deprivation

      After the intervention in El Cartucho, four new epicentres of crime and violence (known as ‘Ollas madre’) were identified. The most important one known as the Bronx, a few blocks away from El Cartucho, was considered the biggest centre of crime in South-America in 2015.

      There is some evidence that displacement of crime disproportionally affects deprived areas. This is reflected in Bogota in a particular way as all the ‘ollas’ are located in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods. These places experience both greater concentrations of crime and higher overall crime levels. Since the destruction of El Cartucho, there is a clear increase in concentration of offences in the Bronx as Figure 6 and Figure 7 show for the concentration of homicides in the borough Los Martires (Location of El Bronx).

      The critiques of displacement remain to be the most serious obstacle to Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) implementation and acceptance. ‘Essentially, displacement suggests that place based crime prevention is a zero-sum game’. In this context, ‘crimes prevented at one place are automatically shifted to places that have had no crime interventions’. If enhancing public safety through crime and disorder reduction strategies, not only reconfigure inequalities in cities, but have profound implications for victimization, criminalisation and criminality, it is pertinent to ask if it is ethic to move crime and social problems around the city as it happened in Bogota.

     Despite the displacement and concentration of crime effect, crime was reduced in El Cartucho itself.  Graphic 1 and 2 depict the evolution of homicides and mugging respectively in areas where the public space was intervened, showing a dramatic change from 1999 to 2003. The crime prevention intervention in El Cartucho had a very positive evaluation as homicides and mugging diminished in more than 70% between 2000 and 2003 in the area.

      The reduction of crime was notorious not only in El Cartucho, but in all Bogota. For instance, the reduction of homicides went from 80 per 100.000 habitants in 1993 to 22 in 2004. Graphic 3 shows how homicides (red), mugging (blue) and automobile thieves (green) reduced from 1990 to 2003. Nevertheless, the relationship between urban interventions and crime is both complex and multifaceted. Simply establishing a correlation does not provide enough evidence for causation.

      It is important to understand that the overall reduction of crime in Bogota was not only a product of urban interventions aiming at the reduction of crime. Crucial socio-economic factors were addressed while the urban interventions had place. The reduction of population with unsatisfied basic needs was reduced from 20% in the 90s to 14% in 2002. The education coverage reached 98.2%. and public services also increased its coverage to almost 80%.

      Some studies suggest correlations between the location of crime and socio-economic factors, especially unemployment and income inequality. Increases in income inequality may increase the level of crime. Conversely, improving economic conditions is a feasible strategy for reducing serious crime. Some interventions also propose the inclusion of prevention measures around youth crime focusing on life skills, peer group level interventions, education level and family-based practices alongside with law and order enforcement.

    The results from Bogota show that efforts to reduce crime will only show sustainable benefits if achieved through multi-agency partnership working. This involves undertaking long term interventions to address not only the physical, but the social and economic regeneration of areas thus improving life chances of residents.


      The intervention in El Cartucho and the creation of the park Tercer Milenio from the architectonic and political point of view has achieved a change in the landscape and in the perception of the place itself, improving the image and providing the city centre with public space, thus increasing the safety in the zone; however, it didn’t stop the delinquency structure or stopped crime in Bogota. The displacement of crime was the biggest issue of the regeneration policy, the violent acts, the drug consumption, traffic and in general the illegal activities that were intended to be finished were displaced to the periphery of El Cartucho and to other already deprived areas strengthening the effects of the neighbourhood effect.

     The priority given to security and crime prevention in the urban regeneration of El Cartucho, despite integrating some CPTED principles did not consider the social characteristics of the inhabitants of this place and the social program was not effective in integrating the varied interpretations of the urban space. Furthermore, the application of urban theories that prioritize crime prevention and security although positive, are useless without the proper understanding of the causes of crime and without a proper inter-disciplinary and multifaceted work towards the elimination of those causes.

     It is necessary to understand that El Cartucho was not just a result of ugly streets, but the public face of more complex social exclusion problems. Future policy makers should ask themselves if fixing the window can solve the problem or if we should first fix the broken society and then fix the window.

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