Close to Home: How did Windsor become the safest city?

A young boy living in unincorporated Windsor in the 1980s felt lucky to have his best friend live in the house behind him. The only problem was that his parents would not let him walk to his friend's house even though it was so nearby. The reason was that it was too long and unsafe of a walk on city streets. The solution was to put a ladder over the fence. This ladder became a symbol of what was wrong with the design of Windsor.

At that time, Windsor was a disconnected, sprawling, unincorporated bedroom community with an unsavory reputation. Known as 'Poor Man's Flat,' it had sound walls, cul-de-sacs and three-car garages. During the process of incorporating into the town of Windsor, citizens demanded 'no more ladders.' That meant that in the newly incorporated town they wanted new development to make it easy for residents to safely stroll. They did not want any more unwalkable and unsafe car-dominated sprawl.

The most obvious change has been the addition of the Windsor Town Green. A more subtle change whose full value is only now being understood was the addition of crime-prevention techniques in the zoning code. Windsor stopped building cul-de-sacs, gated communities and sound walls. Instead of blank sound walls with no eyes on the street, houses were faced directly to the street. In most cases, including projects on Old Redwood Highway, we were able to front houses onto a calmed street with on-street parking.

Windsor's new code required that an elevated porch or stoop face the street and be placed closer to the sidewalk than the garage. On corner lots, wrap-around porches are required. These provide a welcoming feel to neighborhoods, allowing corner residents to comfortably survey both streets.

In apartment projects, elevated front entries with stoops are required to face the street. (This is the opposite of typical apartment design patterns, which put the back of the apartment behind the sidewalk.) The apartment front yard is then defined by small hedges or low fences to encourage tenants to feel ownership of their yard and street. Residents get to know who lives on their street and who does not. As a result, informal police are posted at every house with eyes-on and the ability to call for assistance at a moment's notice.

The reason that these crime-prevention techniques are so effective is that certainty of being caught is the main deterrent for criminals, not the severity of future punishment. In Windsor's new neighborhoods, the certainty of being caught is quite high.

So what is Windsor's crime track record? Safewise, a home security company, reviewed FBI data and ranked Windsor the 28th safest community in California in 2015. (See No other Sonoma County community made the list. What is interesting is that Windsor's violent crime rate was basically the same as the state average: 3.85 per 1,000 residents vs. 3.96. However, property crimes were about 10 per 1,000 residents vs. 27 per 1,000, which is the California average.

In 1997, 93 percent of Windsor citizens reported feeling safe or very safe in their neighborhood, and in 2008, 98 percent reported that result. With each new development that is approved with these crime prevention through environmental design requirements in place, Windsor residents feel safer.

Windsor has received excellent police protection from the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office at very low cost. Windsor now pays 35 percent less than the average for police protection among Sonoma County cities. That equates to about $3 million in savings each year for the town, all while being the safest in the county.

The experience of living in Windsor has been transformed from dicey to very safe in just 25 years. And school-age children in Windsor's newer neighborhoods no longer need ladders to safely visit their friend who lives one street over.

Lois Fisher is an urban designer with Fisher Town Design. She lives in Windsor and has served on the Planning Commission there for many years.

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