The 46-year-old Baltimore County Democrat said the problem in dealing with crime is that neighborhoods have changed from the time when she was a child. Gone are many of the close-knit communities, where families knew each other well, often for several generations, she said.
"The word `neighbor' doesn't carry the same meaning as it once did because we don't seem to know our neighbors as we once did," Townsend said.
People have closed themselves from the outside world, either by staying in their homes or living in communities that are guarded by private security and locked behind gates, she said.
"Our homes, therefore, aren't just castles. They are castles with moats and drawbridges drawn up," Townsend said.
Meanwhile, there has been a "horrific increase in crime" over the past 30 years, as the neighborhood bully of her generation has been replaced by the drug dealer or stray bullet, she said.
Getting people involved is important because neighborhoods that care about crime and blight tend to have fewer problems, Townsend said.
She cited a study in which a car was parked in a neighborhood for weeks and nothing happened. Then the researcher broke a window, and the car was stripped within a week.
"The lesson is this: People aren't eager to attack something that looks like someone cares about it," she said.
That's where building code enforcement comes in, Townsend said.
"Code enforcement is a chance for us to say, `No (to crime). Someone does care about this community,'" she said.
Programs in which police and building code officials work together to combat a problem neighborhood are doomed unless the people living in the neighborhood take part through citizen patrols and other volunteer efforts, Townsend said.
"Government works when citizens know they have a role," she said.