Linking crime rates to poor urban design

The possible effects that urban design has on human behavior is an interesting, cross-disciplinary field of study. In the pages of the Jerusalem Post, an architect and town planner calls for better urban design in order to reduce crime rates:

But the crime problem will not be resolved through increased police forces alone. The function of police is to apprehend criminals, but they can in no major way create or foster security by eliminating the conditions in which most crime breeds.
Also obvious to all is that a panicky response to the problem – clearly evident in the government’s actions in the case of Lod – is unsuitable and sure to prove wasteful. Needed is a far deeper understanding of the roots of the problem, including its social, economic and moral aspects, such as inequality. One important factor, not well enough understood, is simply the physical environment.

Architecture can encourage encounter or help prevent it. Certain kinds of buildings and spatial layouts favor criminal activity. Knowing how to identify problem areas in existing environments, understanding why they have become dangerous, then prescribing corrective measures is essential. Knowing how to create safe new environments, at least avoiding the many pitfalls leading to the creation of dangerous spaces, is the other side of the coin. While architecture admittedly operates more in the area of influence than control, it can be an important step toward preventing crime…

With our rapidly expanding population and limited land reserves, urban renewal and the creation of new medium- to high-density, large-scale housing developments, most difficult challenges have become an urgent necessity. The time has come for the existing professional literature on environmental sociology and psychology – practically unknown or systematically ignored here for so many years – to be given the serious attention and respect it deserves.

These are interesting claims: a certain kind of urban design will reduce crime rates and is a better response (or more measured approach) than panicked crack-downs on crime. This sort of argument is not uncommon: New Urbanists make claims about community life based on their planning principles. Several full communities as well as a number of smaller developments have been built with these particular principles that are intended to counter the sterile life of suburban sprawl. Similar claims have also been made in the United States. Not too long ago, in the era of public housing high-rises, it could often be heard that such buildings prompted more crime. The counter-argument was that plenty of wealthy people live in high-rises without much crime, a contrast that could clearly be drawn in cities like Chicago where public housing high-rises and wealthy high-rises were within sight of each other.

In American discussions of this topic, the conversation often turns to Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In this book, Jacob makes an argument for “eyes on the street” in order to ensure a vibrant and safe community. By this, she meant that a certain number of people, resident, shop owners, walkers, and others are on the street throughout the day, signaling to people that the neighborhood is watching.

I would be curious to know: how many urban sociologists today would suggest that particular urban designs or principles are key factors in reducing crime or anti-social behaviors? While architects and planners make this argument (perhaps to illustrate the important social consequences of their work), how much research supports this claim?

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