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?

Chicago’s crime rate down for 23rd straight month – but is this the public perception?

The Chicago Tribune reports that the November crime statistics for Chicago look good. Here are a few of the important statistics:

Superintendent Jody Weis announced November’s crime statistics Sunday, saying the decrease amounted to the 23rd consecutive month of lower overall crime in the city.

Property crimes dropped overall by 2.2 percent compared with last year’s figures, officials said…

There were 12 fewer slayings in November compared with last year’s figures, a 2.8 percent dip. This year there were 412 slayings reported compared with 424 for the same time last year, officials said. These numbers were lower than figures reported in 2007 for the same time frame; that year had the lowest number of slayings since 1965, police said.

Overall violent crime dropped 9.8 percent, with criminal sexual assaults dropping by 8.5 percent compared with last year, robberies dropping 11 percent and aggravated assaults 11.9 percent, officials said.

This sounds like good news. In fact, how have I not heard about this before – now 23 straight months of decreasing crime rates? One would think that Chicago officials and police would be trumpeting this all over the place: crime is going down!

But on the other hand, this reminds me that the public perception of crime rates is what really matters. In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about teenagers being shot. The nightly news and local media still seems to revolve around ghastly crimes. Does the average Chicago citizen or resident of the region know that crime in Chicago has gone down for nearly two years?

And ultimately, what would the crime rate need to be so that people wouldn’t see Chicago as a den of crime? A place like Celebration, Florida can experience one murder and people wonder if it has all gone wrong. Would Chicago be seen as a relatively crime-free place with 350 murders a year? 300? The crime rate could go down for another 6 months or a year but there has to be a lower number where people (and perhaps the media) start perceiving Chicago differently.

Findings about mixed-use communities and crime rates

Mixed-use developments are the rage these days among architects and planners, both in urban and suburban settings. However, there is some contradictory research about whether these developments have higher or lower crime rates. One recent study suggests that crime is reduced once there are enough people on the streets even as there might be a short-term increase in crime before the neighborhood has enough people on the streets. An earlier study had suggested that mixed-use neighborhoods lead to higher levels of crime and therefore, planners should design neighborhoods with features to reduce crime.

This reminds me of Jane Jacob’s ideas of “eyes on the street.” Jacobs suggested this was easier to maintain in mixed-use urban neighborhoods where storekeepers, shoppers, residents and others maintained a steady watch on what happened in the neighborhood.

Trying to figure out why crime rates are down

Crime rates are down but experts are having difficulty figuring out exactly why:

There are no neat answers. Among the theories: As overall economic activity slows, more people who otherwise would be at work are unemployed and at home, and when they do travel they are not as likely to carry items of value, so burglaries and street robberies decline.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, when the economy went south crime rates went up. Inflation was high then, low now. Is that the difference? For the experts, it’s back to the drawing board.

A couple of thoughts:

1. In a large system like American society, it can be very difficult to isolate individual or even small groups of factors that are causing the downward trend in crime. Some might take this as evidence that social scientists can’t figure anything out about society. I would suggest that it simply illustrates how complex social life can be.

2. Perhaps like the economy, politicians will get credit for crime going down and get blamed if crime goes up even if policies had little known effect on these changes.

3. Across American society, do the American people perceive that crime has gone down? While the statistics say it has, do people feel safer? This is an issue of how crime is portrayed and whether individuals accept these societal-level figures (if they even ever see them) over anecdotal evidence.

Crime rates vs. perceptions of crime

The Chicago Tribune reports on a recent Chicago area poll of 800 heads of household that found nearly half of Chicago residents think crime is up. The reality is that crime rates are pretty steady: homicides are up less than one percent compared to last year and overall crime rates are down.

One reason given for these perceptions: several high-profile shootings of Chicago police officers. According to one academic:

“Police officers are the embodiment of authority,” said Arthur Lurigio, a professor of psychology and criminal justice at Loyola University Chicago. “When officers are getting shot, that gives citizens a sense that the social order is completely collapsing. The average citizen, the regular guy and woman on the street, are going to think, ‘If they’re shooting police, what chance do I have?'”” Police officers are the embodiment of authority,” said Arthur Lurigio, a professor of psychology and criminal justice at Loyola University Chicago. “When officers are getting shot, that gives citizens a sense that the social order is completely collapsing. The average citizen, the regular guy and woman on the street, are going to think, ‘If they’re shooting police, what chance do I have?”

Another factor that is likely playing a role: media coverage. As a consumer of Chicago news, much of what I have heard about in the last few months is crime, shootings in particular. These may be stories that should be reported on but the coverage has been heavy. If one were just to watch or listen to the local news, I have little doubt many would think crime is up and perhaps even out of control.