Why do we believe North America’s biggest cities are dangerous when they are, in fact, among the safest places in the world? In large part, because it was once true: For most of the 20th century (and a good part of the 19th), our big cities really were dangerous. Murders, muggings, armed robberies and sexual assaults were big-city phenomena, and the way to escape physical danger was to move away. Today, the opposite is true.
If you really want to find murder city, you need to get out of North America. The most violent cities in the world are places that used to be small and peaceful, but have very recently become huge cities. And no wonder: The cities of the Southern and Eastern hemispheres are doing today what our cities did a century ago: Absorbing huge, formerly rural populations. In 50 years, Kinshasa has grown from 500,000 to 8 million people; Istanbul from 900,000 to 12 million…
“The twenty-first century,” it concludes, “is witness to a crisis of urban violence.” The two billion people becoming city-dwellers are facing the “urban dilemma” – they realize that moving to the city is an improvement in their lives by most known measures, but it does expose them to greater risk and danger. So while urbanization has cut world poverty in half and lifted billions out of starvation, the hives of crime and danger in the city are preventing the next step into prosperity: “This dark side of urbanization threatens to erase its potential to stimulate growth, productivity and economic dividends.”
By no means is this inevitable. Cities are not naturally more violent: Yes, Caracas and Cape Town have horrendous murder rates. On the other hand, very densely-populated cities such as Dhaka and Mumbai have rates below their national averages – they are actually safer places to live than the villages migrants are leaving behind. In poor countries, and here in the West, the really huge cities are often much safer than the small and medium-sized ones, where the real corruption and danger lie. In India, which has been galvanized by a rape crisis in the fast-urbanizing north, new research shows that rates of sexual assault and rape remain higher in rural areas. And we have learned from Brazil and South Africa that big, bold interventions can make dangerous cities safer.
It is helpful to keep a global perspective on this issue. What counts as violent is relative: Americans tend to compare their cities to other American big cities, perhaps within regions or to the biggest cities in the country.
Another reason our big cities are seen as violent: urban violence is a consistent media story, even as violent crime rates have dropped in many cities.