Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Submission to Council graffiti management strategy

I made a written submission to Canada Bay Council last week in regard to their graffiti management strategy.  I've since heard that they will be adding it as an appendix or whatever in their final report.

This is the bulk of my submission - I have left out some photos that I have already posted.


 I have been concerned about graffiti and general “urban decay” problems for several years.  In the past, I confined myself to reporting abandoned cars and contacting Council about road issues and parking problems and the like. 

This changed in July 2007 when our house was tagged.  It was only a single, minor tag, but it really got up my nose.  From that point on, I started to take a more active interest in the defacement of property around Canada Bay – and quite frankly, the more I looked, the more horrified I became. 

In April 2008, I started to document my efforts in a blog that I called “notsep” – which stands for “not somebody else’s problem”.  The blog can be found here:  The idea behind the blog is that other members of the public might see that they too can undertake some simple activities that help to improve our neighbourhood. 

It is my belief that the first step in controlling graffiti is to make residents, businesses and utilities aware that “somebody else” is not going to take care of it for them.  They need to dispose of the assumption that there is always “someone else” on the lookout for graffiti and having it removed.  Residents and businesses need to stand up and take ownership of the problem – it is not somebody else’s problem. 

Comments on the draft strategy

 I believe the draft that has been presented by Council is a good start.  However, I offer the following comments from personal observation. 


 North Strathfield, particularly around the train station, is one of the worst affected areas of Canada Bay.  The statistics may not point to North Strathfield as being a problem, but having visited every commercial centre in Canada Bay over the last month, personal observation tells me that it is possibly the worst hit area – all the way down to the motorway overpass at Parramatta Road

Reporting of graffiti incidents

 Reporting of graffiti is recognised as a problem by the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCARS).  I have linked to a number of research papers on my blog, and the latter reports suggests that only 25% of malicious damage incidents are reported (graffiti being a subset of malicious damage).  

Personal observation around Canada Bay suggests to me that the true figure is 5% or less.  A 5 minute drive down Lyons Road from the Council Chambers to Great North Road found 35 separate graffiti incidents that were observable from a vehicle travelling at 60km/h in traffic – and that did not include the tags that could only be seen from the opposite direction.

 A 25 minute foot survey of premises two streets back from the Five Dock shopping precinct found that in one zone, 76% of commercial premises showed signs of graffiti, and that 95 separate tags were found on 18 structures or signs.  The incidents observed along Lyons Road and in one 2 block area of Five Dock would normally amount to 1 month’s worth of official graffiti reports. 

 I have written to the Crime Prevention Division (CPD) of the Police Force enquiring as to how utilities, such as Energy Australia, report graffiti incidents.  I know that if a school is vandalised, the Principal has to report the vandalism to the Police in order to have their insurance pay for the clean up.  However, I am not sure whether all the utilities, such as Telstra, RTA, Sydney Buses, Australia Post, Sydney Water, RailCorp etc are reporting every single incident. 

 In this instance, I asked the CPD how Energy Australia handled my recent request to repaint all their substations in the inner west.  Did they report every vandalised substation as a single incident?  Did they report say all 50 as one incident, or did they fail to report at all?

 I recommend very strongly that Council treats the existing official statistics with a large grain of salt.  The only value that they have is showing how many Council assets have been defaced and cleaned over a period.

 The breakdown of the existing statistics shows that the great majority of reports are coming from Council.  However, of the 35 observable incidents along Lyons Road, none are the responsibility of Council.  There is clearly massive under reporting by residents and businesses. 

 One way around this is to undertake some sample surveys around known problem areas.  It took me an hour to plan and complete a survey of one area behind the Five Dock shops.  I estimate it will take a day in total to completely survey the Five Dock shopping precinct and its surrounds, but it will provide a more accurate set of information that Council can work from.

 This could be followed up by a Council survey of businesses in selected areas to gauge how often they are being hit by graffiti, what it is costing them to remove it, and how often (if at all) they are reporting it to the Council or Police. 

 Reporting system

 The best reporting system that I have come across is from Sydney Water.

 Under the “contact Sydney Water” tab, there is an online form that allows the user to upload documents, which can be photos.  I have used this form to report two vandalised pumping stations, and it is easy to use and intuitive.  Council should try and copy this idea.


 The allocation of Police resources is driven by statistics.  The current level of graffiti reporting drives the level of Police interest, which appears to be deservedly low or non-existent.  Police commanders will only take an active interest in graffiti if it looks like it will harm their career.  A 500% increase in graffiti statistics in Canada Bay would certainly generate some unwelcome interest at Police management meetings. 

 Every effort should be made to pound the local Police command with unwelcome statistics until they sit up and take a genuine interest in tackling graffiti.  That means encouraging businesses, which bear the brunt of graffiti, to step up and report it.  If they understand how the Police management mindset works, they might be more willing to report damage to their property.

 It should also be recognised that the Five Dock Police Station is only staffed by Highway Patrol officers, and is therefore of no use in any efforts to tackle graffiti locally.  The mere presence of a Police Station in Five Dock should not be seen as an asset in any anti-graffiti efforts.  However, if the malicious damage statistics show a massive spike upwards, the Local Area Commander might think about relocating some General Duties Police to the station, with a remit to tackle graffiti in Canada Bay


 Direct observation of graffiti around Canada Bay shows that the hardest hit structures are those that are owned or managed by public utilities – the RTA, State Transit, Energy Australia, Sydney Water, Australia Post, Telstra and the like.  

The great majority of electricity substations, pumping stations, telephone wiring boxes, letter boxes, lamp posts, bridges, street signs and street furniture show signs of graffiti.  I have posted hundreds of photos on my blog of defaced utility assets from around Canada Bay.  I suspect that most, if not all, of the graffiti shown in my blog has never made it into the official statistics. 

My initial review in March found that close to 100% of all Energy Australia substations between the CBD and Homebush had been vandalised, which is why I asked Energy Australia to repaint the lot.  In one short section of Concord Road, I found that 7 out of 8 lamp posts had been defaced.  The majority of Australia Post letter boxes throughout Canada Bay have been defaced.  Practically every single Telstra street junction box box has been vandalised.  Until recently, almost every upright on the Iron Cove Bridge had been defaced – the RTA has painted over the graffiti, presumably after I asked them twice to paint over the graffiti in the underpass that forms part of the The Bay Run. 

Any graffiti management strategy must therefore include these utilities.  


The above photo was taken in Five Dock Park on the morning of Saturday 19 July 2008.  The Council graffiti truck had driven into the park, presumably to top up a water tank from a tap.  In order to enter and leave the park, the truck had to pass the vandalised Energy Australia substation on the right – which I had repainted two months ago. 

When I say the utilities need to be involved, I mean that Council staff should take on the responsibility of reporting vandalism like this to the authority responsible.  Council doesn’t have to fix the graffiti, but neither should Council ignore it and assume that “someone else” will realise that this asset has been defaced and take care of it.  These utilities used to send a crew out on a regular basis to perform maintenance inspections.  That no longer happens – equipment is remotely monitored by SCADA systems, and the crews only visit when the monitoring system notices an alarm. 

(When Sydney Water converted to using SCADA to remotely monitor their pumping stations, they made something like 1,500 staff redundant – these were the staff that used to visually inspect every asset on a regular basis.  They are all gone, and will not be replaced.  The utilities no longer have “eyes on the ground”.  Somehow, they have to be replaced.) 

Even then, the crew that comes out might be contractors, and they generally don’t view graffiti as part of their problem – they’re just there to replace or fix a broken part, and nothing else.  

Council should work on the assumption that no one has reported the graffiti.  Council staff must be encouraged to start hassling the likes of the RTA and Energy Australia to clean up their patch.  My blog lists many of my communications with a variety of organisations, including Council, and it can be used as a guide or template for reporting graffiti to the RTA etc.  Council staff who are out and about should become the “eyes” for our utilities, reporting back vandalism wherever they see it. 

I took the above photo from the Council playground in Five Dock Park.  Some of the equipment in the playground has been tagged, and the attached playgroup building has also been tagged.  It is no use Council cleaning up these assets, and then leaving the substation as a magnet to continue to draw in further graffiti.  If we are to get on top of graffiti, then every asset in a location needs to be cleaned, and repeatedly cleaned until the incidence of graffiti drops away.  This means tackling every utility that has assets in an area to ensure that they clean them, clean them and clean them again.  No asset can be left behind. 

If you have trouble convincing Council staff to take up the baton, pass it to the Councillors – they are after all a group that has sufficient civic pride to take on a role that involves a lot of work for little remuneration.  If you can’t get the Councillors to take an interest in reporting graffiti that they see in their travels, you might as well scrap the strategy and save yourselves some time and money.  Again, the crucial thing is making them aware of the fact that the utilities are generally in the dark when it comes to vandalism of their assets, and they depend on civic minded people to step up and do something very simple – let them know about it.

 Council staff are not the only ones walking around with blinkers on.  Here we have a Police van, with a Police Officer walking out of the nursing home opposite Five Dock Park, with our regularly vandalised substation not 50 metres away.  Malicious damage is a crime, but obviously not one with a very high priority.


Involvement of the civic minded

 I count myself as a “civic minded” person.  I care about making Canada Bay a nicer place to live in.  There have to be more people like me out there – I am trying to find them, so that I can get them to do what I am doing – the more the merrier.  Council should do the same – recruit people who will keep an eye out for problems, and report them.  Organisations like Rotary and the Lions Club must be full of them – use them.

 Business involvement

 Businesses across Canada Bay vary enormously in size, scope, ownership and management structures.  These variables all have an impact on how a business approaches graffiti.

 Many businesses operate out of rented premises, so they expect their landlord to tackle graffiti rather than doing it themselves.

 Many businesses are run by a manager rather than an owner, and managers go not always have the same priorities as owners, or the same pride in their business.  Some managers are severely restricted in the scope of their activities.  My belief is that the sole proprietor of a butcher shop is much more likely to immediately tackle graffiti than the manager of a big bank branch.  The manager will be guided by bank policies and procedures, and the priorities placed upon them by their immediate management.  If the bank doesn’t take presentation seriously, then graffiti will be left unattended.  Building maintenance is also managed by another department within the bank, and may be outsourced to a third party.  Managers might never have had the need to contact their building maintenance people, and so have no idea how to do it.  All they need is a prod in the right direction. 

 At the other end of the spectrum are businesses like McDonalds and KFC which take shop presentation very seriously, and any McDonalds manager that allowed their premises to degenerate would probably face the sack.

 My view is that graffiti is not good for business.  It discourages customers, and it makes a good business look shoddy.  Perception is all, and a dirty, dishevelled or defaced business is unlikely to be viewed by customers as a quality operation.  McDonalds work hard on keeping their businesses neat, clean and tidy because that reflects on how people feel about their food.  No one wants to eat in a dirty environment.  

This message must be rammed home to business owners.  It is in their best interests to keep their immediate environment looking good.  Businesses invest a substantial amount of money in signage, brochures, business cards, letter head, uniforms, fit outs, shop fronts, awnings, furniture, lighting, displays and marketing, which are all designed to paint a business in the most favourable light.  This can all be ruined by too much graffiti. 

Businesses must be encouraged to clean their premises within 24 hours, and to go a step further and to take “ownership” of the street front around their business.  If a shop has an RTA signal control box out the front, that business should “adopt” it and take care of reporting graffiti to the RTA.  It’s no use having a gleaming shopfront if it is surrounded by other vandalised structures.  They should also be told to go and talk to their neighbouring businesses if they are not pulling their weight.  Council shouldn’t do it for them – businesses in a badly affected area might find that once they start talking to each other, that they have a shared interest in keeping their area presentable. 

Businesses should be told to stop whingeing about it and to take action themselves without waiting for “someone else” (such as the Council) to do it for them.  Council should be the last line of defence in this area.  They should be told, “There is no one else – you are it!” 

This is an instance of where expecting too much of government (Council or State) can be a bad thing.  Council will never have the resources to keep graffiti tightly under control.  The responsibility should be forcefully pushed back onto businesses, who should be told to take the initiative in fixing up their neighbourhood.  Looking to government is not the answer.


Free riders

 Whilst most property owners might be expected to take a responsibly approach to managing the presentation of their property, there will always be some who will not give a damn.  The problem for surrounding property owners is that one “infected” building can lead to the rest of the area being defaced.  

My view is that landlords need to be reminded that their economic self interest is dependent on the maintenance of an attractive shopping precinct.  Anyone who doubts this should pay a visit to The Mews development in North Strathfield, and then walk over the railway line to the strip shopping area along Queen St.  They are like chalk and cheese in terms of graffiti and shopping activity.  Queen St is dead, meaning that landlords in this area are facing either declining rents or no rents as business flees to more attractive and psychologically safer locations – such as The Mews, or a Westfield centre.  

The challenge for Council is how to deal with landlords that are unwilling to keep their property in a fit state.  

I have often found that all it takes to get a building cleaned up is to ask.  It can be a challenge finding the right person to ask at times, and this is where Council could help, by making it easy for neighbours to find the owner of a property and contact them, politely, with a request to clean it up.  A bit of shame can work wonders – not all the time, but if it helps to clean up 80% of the buildings in a street, I’ll take what I can get.  Council should not be embarrassed about shaming recalcitrant landlords.  

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