Neighborhood design, the foreclosure crisis and the death of Trayvon Martin

Neighborhood design?  Is she nuts?  What does that have to do with Trayvon Martin?  Isn’t his death related to race, guns and stand your ground laws?  My reaction when I saw the headline in yesterday’s Boston Globe.  But after reading Zach Youngerman’s op-ed, it all became clear.

PUBLIC OPINION about the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., shifts every time new evidence emerges, as though each of them had a fixed character that could be revealed as easily as a video recording can be enhanced. But behavior is not simply a matter of character; it is also a matter of setting. Less than 1.2 percent of the population in Sanford walks to work, and the subdivision where the killing took place is designed for driving, so something as human as walking is odd behavior. Suspicious even.

“It’s raining, and he’s just walking around, looking about,’’ Zimmerman told the 911 dispatcher during his first exchange. Martin was in front of the clubhouse at the Retreat at Twin Lakes. He may have been looking for a sidewalk.

Depending on which way Martin entered the subdivision, he would have found at the clubhouse either a rare length of sidewalk merging into a parking lot or leading away into a sort of jogging path encircling an artificial lake. If Martin chose simply to cross the street from the corner where he was, he would have been forced to transgress in the most literal sense. The 30-foot street (enough for two driving lanes and one parking lane on Mass. Ave. [in Boston or Cambridge]) doesn’t have a painted crosswalk. Probably because the other side only has private lawns and driveways.

Most of the Retreat at Twin Lakes lacks a conventional sidewalk – a public pedestrian thoroughfare parallel to vehicle traffic but protected by a curb. Together with a landscaped tree belt, parking lanes, and occasionally bike lanes, sidewalks and roads make up what is called the public right of way. Without public rights of way, we would all be constantly having to trespass on private land or pay tolls to get anywhere. This was the situation Martin faced inside and outside the gated subdivision. On his mile walk to the nearest convenience store, the sidewalk ends twice and becomes a no-man’s-land of grassy highway shoulder. If Martin were trespassing, he had no choice but to do so.

So you have a place with wide streets, few sidewalks along the street and those not connected, and a rainy night with a teenager walking and not driving.  You can see how George Zimmerman might have been thinking that Trayvon Martin was casing the neighborhood.  Youngerman goes on

After a tragedy, we try to imagine alternatives. What if we change the laws? What if we raise awareness? To those important questions I would add: What if we design places differently, places for people?

Houses with front porches rather than driveways bring residents outside even in rainy weather and put “eyes on the street,’’ as the pre-eminent urbanist Jane Jacobs described it. When houses are closer to the property line and on narrower streets, residents feel like they are more responsible for what happens outside. Zimmerman was a self-titled neighborhood watch volunteer. Design can make residents neighborhood watch volunteers naturally.

In a place meant for people with a denser residential street, maybe the man and the boy might have felt less like they were all alone. In a place meant for people with sidewalks and street lights, maybe they would have been less alone. Maybe a couple of neighbors could have stopped the altercation before it got out of hand.

Of course, some people did hear the altercation after it started and there are accounts from the 911 tapes, Trayvon’s girlfriend, and some neighbors so this was not a totally isolated incident.  But Youngerman does have a point:  a kid walking in the that community, for at matter, anyone walking in that community was unusual enough that George Zimmerman followed the walker. 

I wanted to see the location myself to confirm Youngerman’s description so I did a search for The Retreat at Twin Lakes and like a lot of Florida, there are a number of houses for sale including bank owned properties (REO’s) and some on the market as short sales.

This is one of the REO’s.  The picture is a little fuzzy since I had to enlarge it, but it does show some of the surroundings.

Property Photo

This is a better picture of the surroundings.  It appears there are sidewalks but not, as Youngerman pointed out, conventional ones parallel to the street.

The Tampa Bay Times had a story about the community on March 25 which  pointed out that there were to be 263 houses built and at the time of the story 40 were vacant and half were rented not owned.  This is what happens when the housing market bottoms out and you have a foreclosure crisis.  Whether the property is under foreclosure or not, no one can sell.  The community was not stable.  This is the kind of place where break-ins happen and they had started there. 

This picture from the Tampa Bay Times makes the place look like an apartment complex, different from the real estate sales pictures appearing to showing single family homes or Youngerman’s description.  But the sidewalks in the picture are between buildings and not near the street.

Cheryl Brown, with the family’s boxer, Sake, says she and her family are rattled by the fatal shooting inside their gated community.

So the density that Youngerman was looking for might have been there, but the layout was poor with sidewalks between building, but none parallel to the street and with people moving in and out and lots of vacancies, Retreat at Twin Lakes may have contributed to the confrontation between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin that lead to Martin’s death just by its design and circumstances.  The bottom line:  Zach Youngerman is right about the impact of design if not right about all of the details.  This was a driving community, not a walking one and people did not know their neighbors.

3 thoughts on “Neighborhood design, the foreclosure crisis and the death of Trayvon Martin

  1. I also wondered if there was something that prevented people from being able to see what was going on. A number of people did hear it – at least toward the end.

    I grew up in a semi-rural area where the houses were generally attached to small farms, but it was a community. If I had been walking down the main road and something had happened, I would have had no hesitation in knocking on a door.
    Now I’m in Bosotn and I still know neighbors at least by sight.

    Thanks for your piece as it was thought provoking.

  2. Hey,

    Thanks for your close reading and investigation of my opinion piece. There were a lot of things that I wanted to include but couldn’t. As you say, there is a sidewalk or backwalk between the houses. If Martin got killed there, shouldn’t people have seen the altercation? Did Martin’s retreat there seem even more suspicious to Zimmerman since it was off the street?

    And what about Martin? Did the inhospitable feel of his walk encourage him to find some companionship by talking on his cell phone, or was he removing himself from his surroundings rather than participating? Might he have knocked on the door of a house if he couldn’t share his anxieties instantaneously with his girlfriend.

    Also, looking at the photos I found, the clubhouse seems to be a community gathering point at least in one way: mailboxes. When people pick up their mail in the same spot rather than outside their front door, they run into each other or at least recognize faces after a time. Maybe some people walked to pick up their mail.

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