Friday, March 4, 2011

Sun Burn: Letter to the Editor

The Ottawa Sun published a pretty inflammatory article about funding that the City of Ottawa provides to the 2010 Paint it Up program (which will be holding some information sessions for anyone interested in participating in the community program).

There clearly is some misinformation being communicated about the 'costs' that the city reportedly has incurred in the last few years. This article didn't help foster communication.

I wrote a letter to the editor today, but there is so much more I wanted to say about how the Sun framed the issue of graffiti.

The biggest problem, in my opinion, was how a connection was being made between assumptions about the cost of graffiti management and the value of community programs that work with youth who are interested in learning about legal graffiti.

Furthermore, our municipal government needs to be held accountable for the costs of the eradication approach to addressing graffiti.

Below is the letter I wrote. Who knows if they will publish it. I will try to address the more inflammatory bits of the article later this week in this blog:

I am writing to you today to thank you for highlighting the City of Ottawa's Graffiti management program, albeit indirectly.

I am an independent researcher and professor of research methods in the criminology department at the University of Ottawa. I have been investigating the complexities of graffiti and its management in the City of Ottawa for the last few years. Given my background, I would like to offer some insight into the 'cost' of 'the Graffiti Management Program that was highlighted by John Willing's article (March 3, 2011) on some city counsellor's reactions to graffiti management costs and the funding of community mural projects.

The Sun reported "it costs the city over $1 million each year to clean up graffiti vandalism," which grew from a reported 600,000 in 2007. Rising costs, indeed. Certainly this use of valuable municipal resources is concerning given the cuts to essential services such as public transit. I think we need to be careful, though, in connecting these increases to youth programming.

First, it is  important to make it clear to your readers that this increase is probably not related to graffiti removal on businesses. Business owners and landlords are charged with the costs of graffiti removal from their buildings. If not removed, the city will remove it at the expense of the business owners.

Further this, business owners are fined for having graffiti on their business.

Second, the claims that graffiti is "exploding" and that writers are "starting early" this year is also problematic.

I have been documenting graffiti for the last 3 years as part of my own research. The only increase in painting I have noticed is done by the City of Ottawa; they have increased efforts in painting over established graffiti walls that writers have been working on - in some cases -since the late 1980s. Most of these walls are not visible; some are quite hard to find, actually.

One would have to 'go looking' in order to find most of these walls. Increasing costs might be related (in part) to hiring a by-law enforcement officer (typically a summer student), whose job it is to 'go looking' for graffiti and fine businesses.
These are NOT new walls simply because the City happened to discover them recently.

There is no 'early start up' going on here. No 'explosion.'

Third, Tierney was quoted by the Sun expressing his feelings about the mural programs. His opinion is not based on independent research or evaluation reports. Certainly, the City of Ottawa Police Service, which supports the value of these programs, adopts a much different perspective.

There are two separate and complex issues here that I believe are being confused: the cost and benefits of the Graffiti Management Program and the cost and benefits of urban mural programs.

I do agree with counsellors Tierney, Bloess and Deans on one point; the city needs a better assessment of the mural program. But, there also needs to be an independent assessment of the implications and effectiveness of the City's Graffiti Management Program, particularly if the city is spending 1 million dollars painting over walls nobody can see, or fining local business owners.

It is interesting to note that Tierney's riding has no spaces for writers to work legally. His constituents might be interested in knowing that there are ways in which legal walls, when erected with a good understanding of the community who will want to use it, can help resolve some of these issues their counsellor expresses in this article on behalf of his constituents.

Certainly labelling some citizens as 'vandals' is unhelpful if one is truly interested in finding effective solutions to improve urban beautification and community harmony amongst the diverse communities that make up our city.

Sincerely Yours,
Deborah Landry, PhD
University of Ottawa

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