Smart Growth and Crime

Smart Growth advocates claim that dense urban living and mixed-use neighborhoods will solve many social problems. Unfortunately, the evidence is that these principles can increase crime. Stephen Town and Randal O’Toole analyze the data for Reason magazine in “Crime-Friendly Neighborhoods” (February 2005):

[Jane] Jacobs [who promoted the advantages of mixed-use neighborhoods in big cities] never claimed her inner-city urban villages suffered less crime than the suburbs–or, indeed, that any part of her analysis applied to the suburbs. “I hope no reader will try to transfer my observations into guides as to what goes on in towns, or little cities, or in suburbs which still are suburban,” she wrote. “We are in enough trouble already from trying to understand big cities in terms of the behavior, and imagined behavior, of towns. To try to understand towns in terms of big cities will only compound confusion.”

Thirty years later, the planners Al Zelinka and Dean Brennan made exactly that mistake.

Zelinka and Brennan are the authors of Safe-Scape: Creating Safer, More Livable Communities Through Planning and Design, published in 2001 by the American Planning Association…

…There clearly is a market for New Urban-style communities, mainly among young singles, double-income-no-children couples, and people who appreciate bohemian lifestyles. Families with children, empty nesters, and people who prefer a quieter neighborhood are not so interested.

For many New Urbanists, it isn’t enough to build to the market. The Congress for the New Urbanism, founded in 1993, declares on its Web site that “all development should be in the form of compact, walkable neighborhoods.”

…[SafeScape] asserts, without substantial evidence, that mixed uses, pedestrian paths, and interconnected streets (as opposed to cul-de-sacs) reduce crime… Police, lacking their own experts, often assume that planners know what they are doing…

It might sound persuasive, but there are a few problems with this position. One, as we’ve seen, is that Jacobs was writing only about cities, not suburbs. Another is that this was one area where Jacobs wasn’t even right about cities. Jacobs’ claims were based solely on qualitative observations, not on any actual crime data. When the architect Oscar Newman took a look at those data, a quarter century before SafeScape was published, he found a more complex story…

…[Newman’s] 1972 book Defensible Space…showed that the safest neighborhoods maximized private space and minimized common zones. Safe areas also minimized “permeability,” that is, the ease of entry to and exit from the neighborhood or housing area. Cul-de-sacs are thus a crime-prevention device, and any breaching of cul-de-sacs will predictably increase crime…

“The larger the number of people who share a communal space,” [Newman] found, “the more difficult it is for people to identify it as being in any way theirs or to feel they have a right to control or determine the activity taking place within it.” To solve this problem, “‘Defensible Space’ operates by subdividing large portions of public spaces and assigning them to individuals and small groups to use and control as their own private areas.”

…Newman found…mixed uses “generate high crime and vandalism rates,” and housing units next to commercial areas “suffer proportionally higher crime rates.” More recent research in Baltimore and Philadelphia by Temple University criminologist Ralph Taylor and several colleagues confirms that mixed uses increase both crime and the cost of policing.

The reason mixing retail with residential areas increases crime is simple: Space is only defensible if residents have the clear right to influence and control what takes place there. In commercial or public areas, everyone has the right or excuse to be present, and offenders are indistinguishable from law-abiding citizens. Mixed use therefore reduces residential control over the neighborhood and provides criminals with anonymity as they merge into the background…

…the British Crime Survey, regarded by the U.K. government as the most reliable guide to crime, found that houses on main roads were at more than twice the risk of being burgled as those in a cul-de-sac. The Department of Justice’s [Closing Streets and Alleys to Reduce Crime, a new report], cites numerous studies in the U.S. showing that reducing connectivity reduces crime. It also finds that “most research supports the idea that burglars avoid houses in cul-de-sacs.”

…”I am not very impressed with the work of the New Urbanists,” Newman wrote shortly before he passed away in April 2004. “It is nostalgia–a throwback to the past, with little thought about what made those environments work then (long-term occupancy by an identical economic class and ethnic group), and unworkable today. The residential environments they are creating are very vulnerable to criminal behavior, unless, of course, these environments are exclusively occupied by high-income groups.”

…The defensible-space approach has been most influential in England, where a team of land-use researchers led by the Kings College geographer Alice Coleman in the early 1980s replicated and expanded Newman’s research by carefully examining nearly 6,000 residential blocks, including both suburban and urban areas. Affirming most of Newman’s conclusions, they found that neighborhoods of single-family detached homes had the fewest problems, and those that did have problems were across the street from apartments…

Peter Knowles, of the Bedfordshire Police, compared the design features of 24,000 housing units with some 20,000 incidents of crime. He concluded that New Urban-like housing had five times the crime and cost police departments three times as much to keep secure as neighborhoods designed to defensible-space standards…

See also:

Harvard Magazine: “Unequal America: Causes and consequences of the wide–and growing–gap between rich and poor” (July/August 2008)
[Sociologist David R. Williams:] “If people live in areas where there aren’t sidewalks, where there aren’t safe bike paths and places to walk and playgrounds, or where the rate of crime is so high that it’s not safe to go outside, then their level of exercise is much lower and their rates of obesity are higher.”

Journal of Planning Literature: “Is it Safe to Walk? Neighborhood Safety and Security Considerations and Their Effects on Walking” (February 2006)
…The role and importance of the built environment in promoting physical activity (or at least not impeding it) is a relatively new area of research that has received increasing attention by scholars…

A 1994 U.S. Department of Transportation survey found that half of the respondents would walk or walk more if there were safe pathways and crime was not a consideration. Bauman et al. (1996) found that perceived safety was one of the most important environmental qualities for walking. In a survey that questioned Ontarians about their walking habits, Hawthorne (1989) found that safety from crime was one of the most appealing features for walking… An analysis of Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System data collected from a sample of 12,767 adults in five U.S. states (Maryland, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) revealed that higher levels of perceived neighborhood safety were associated with a lower prevalence of physical inactivity. A 1999 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study found that differences were greatest for people older than age 65, women, and minorities. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association observed a higher prevalence of inactivity among those who perceived their neighborhoods as unsafe (Weinstein et al. 1999)… In a national sample of 2,031 adults interviewed in 1990, Ross (1993) observed that after controlling for sociodemographic characteristics, people who were afraid of being victimized walked significantly less than those who were not afraid…

Many women tend to perceive city centers and public transportation services as dangerous (Trench 1991; Loukaitou-Sideris 1999). A British study of women’s fears in pub
lic settings found that women anticipated being at risk in multistory parking structures, public transportation stations and bus stops… (Valentine 1990). Safety seems to be an important concern particularly for minority women living in poor neighborhoods. Surveys and focus group studies of minority women found that many were reluctant to venture from their own porch out of fear for their safety (Eyler et al. 1998; Wilbur et al. 2002; Young et al. 2002; Thompson et al. 2002; Evenson et al. 2002)…

Studies have shown that environmental barriers to walking such as safety are high among low-income people (Craig et al. 2002), who often live in small apartments and houses with no backyards or adequate space to exercise. A national telephone survey found that twice as many low-income (31 percent) as moderate-income
(15 percent) respondents identified worry about safety in their neighborhoods as an obstacle to physical activity (Moore et al. 1996 in Sallis et al. 1998)…

The decline of walking and participation in physical activity among children is quite dramatic compared to previous generations (Killingsworth and Lamming 2001). Today, more than ever, parents tend to impose severe restrictions on their children’s use of public spaces because of fear for their safety (Valentine and McKendrick 1997; Jones 2000)…

Older adults, for whom walking is the prominent physical activity, are greatly influenced by safety and security concerns (Booth et al. 2000)…

The highly influential empirical studies of Oscar Newman…highlighted physical factors contributing to the high levels of crime and fear in public housing. Newman (1972, 1976, 1981) elaborated the idea of defensible space–an environment that exhibits physical characteristics that allow residents to assume primary authority for ensuring their safety…

Research on the microenvironment of crime settings has shown that both the possibility of surveillance of a site by bystanders and signs of care that give the appearance that there are natural guardians who may intervene can strongly discourage potential criminals. Certain features of the microenvironment affect the likelihood of crime. For example, it is easier for criminals to commit crimes near major streets (Brantingham and Brantingham, 1993). The greater the number of escape routes (streets and alleys) in the vicinity of a site, the easier it is for criminals to escape (Poyner 1983)…

…design and policy interventions aiming to enhance neighborhood safety are the necessary first steps for the encouragement of walking…

US Department of Justice: “Closing Streets and Alleys to Reduce Crime: Should You Go Down This Road?” (PDF, 2004)
Researchers have argued that closing neighborhood streets and alleys can prevent crime because there is a relationship between street access and crime rates. The details of the argument are as follows:

  1. Offenders find targets in familiar territory. They gain
    knowledge about vulnerable areas and potential
    opportunities through their contacts with other
    offenders and through their daily routines, such as
    hanging out with friends, traveling to work, and going
    to the movies. This means that frequently traveled
    streets are more vulnerable to crime.
  2. Offenders are quick to recognize a closely knit
    neighborhood and the presence of people who might
    notice them. From litter and other signs of neglect,
    they can judge whether they are likely to be challenged
    if they deal drugs or solicit for prostitution.
  3. Burglars avoid cul-de-sacs and prefer corner sites
    where neighbors are less likely to see them. Offenders
    look for heavily traveled streets and locations near
    major highways, where there are many potential
    victims and where they can easily escape.
  4. Reducing through-traffic by closing streets or alleys
    means that

    • criminal outsiders are less likely to become
      familiar with the area;
    • residents learn who does not belong in the
      neighborhood, which helps them to more
      effectively keep watch on the streets near their
    • residents committing crime in their own
      neighborhood cannot so easily blame outsiders
      and thus deflect suspicion from themselves;
    • burglars cannot so easily gain access to
      properties, especially from alleys behind
    • escape routes for robbers are blocked off; and
    • drive-by shootings are prevented because cars
      cannot easily enter a street, or because they
      have to backtrack to escape, exposing them to
      retaliation from those shot at.
    • Research findings are generally consistent with this theory:

    • Areas with street layouts that permit easy access
      experience more crime than areas with restricted access
      and complicated street patterns.[1]
    • A study in Vancouver, British Columbia, found that the
      more entrances to a street, the more crime on that
      street.[2] Most research supports the idea that burglars
      avoid houses in cul-de-sacs, unless these abut wooded
      areas or wasteland affording access from the rear.
    • A study of 86 Norfolk, Virginia, neighborhoods found
      that those with high burglary rates had a larger number
      of access points from arterial roads.[3]
    • An early study comparing adjacent high- and low-crime
      neighborhoods found that the low-crime areas did not
      have major thoroughfares.[4]
    • Reconstruction of a major highway led to the closing of
      all cross streets in Pompano Beach, Florida., at the
      highway’s right-of-way. An unexpected side effect was a
      dramatic reduction in drug dealing, robbery, assault,
      and other crime in the adjacent neighborhoods during
      reconstruction. Side streets were reopened after the
      work was done, but Pompano Beach made traffic
      modifications and adjusted police patrols to control
      access to neighborhoods.[5]

…What if the [street] closures do not stop these criminals, but simply displace them elsewhere in your jurisdiction? What have you gained?

In fact, displacement can be advantageous if it stops the neighborhood from reaching a “tipping point,”[6] when minor crimes build up to produce a much more serious problem (the familiar “broken windows” process). If you prevent the neighborhood from reaching this tipping point, then the savings to the city as a whole will be much greater than the costs of displacement to other neighborhoods. But try telling that to the residents of those other neighborhoods! Fortunately, you won’t need to, because research generally shows that displacement is by no means inevitable. Most research shows that if it occurs at all, the crimes displaced are far fewer in number than those prevented.[7] This is because some neighborhoods are so attractive to criminals and so full of criminal opportunities that they actually foster crime. It is wrong to think that criminals commit only a certain restricted number of crimes in a specific time period, and stop once they reach those limits. On the contrary, criminals will commit as many crimes as they have the time and energy for, if the crimes are easy to commit, low risk, and profitable. When these conditions change and the rewards of crime decline, or the risks and effort necessary increase, criminals will lower their expectations–as we all must do when opportunities for gain are reduced. This means that street closures do not inevitably result in displacement, and that they can reduce the overall volume of crime.[8]

The Guardian: “‘It’s abuse and a life of hell'” (2/29/08)
An article about Roger Matthews, author of Prostitution, Politics and Policy:
…Matthews’ work on this issue began in 1985, early in his academic
career, when he decided to evaluate a road closure scheme in Finsbury
Park, north London. The road closure had been put in place to solve the
chronic problem of street prostitution in the area by cutting off kerb
crawlers’ access. When it first started “there were 260 women working
on the streets”, says Matthews. “Two years later, there were only 10 or
20. People would say to me, ‘But the women will just move on to other
areas to work’, but they were wrong. Most of them appeared to get out
for good.”

Carolina Journal: “Sprawl Doesn’t Boost Crime Rate” (6/21/04)
In 2002, Los Angeles’ violent-crime rate of 1,349 per 100,000 was more than double that of the Riverside-San Bernardino metro area, considered the country’s most sprawling area by Smart Growth America.

Portland’s violent-crime and property-crime rates of 828 and 7,127 per 100,000, respectively, were much higher than sprawling Raleigh-Durham, which had rates of 455 and 4,416. Seattle’s violent-crime and property-crime rates of 705 and 7,298 per 100,000 outpaced sprawling Denver’s rates of 534 and 4,994…

A study of Raleigh showed that street robberies were less likely in neighborhoods having sprawl-associated features such as cul-de-sacs, high rates of home ownership, and single- family homes…

Carolina Journal Online: “Smart Growth: It’s Even Dumber” (1/12/05)
Set aside the economic and fiscal case against the kind of dense, transit-friendly, auto-unfriendly development patterns that bureaucrats and editorialists like but the vast majority of North Carolinians don’t and never will. Set aside the fact that such development reduces home affordability, increases traffic congestion, worsens air pollution, and boosts the cost of government. Here’s something else that Smart Growth trendiness will cost you: higher crime

Increase density? This creates larger common areas, such as parking garages, that reduce safety…

It is telling, write Town and Reason co-author Randal O’Toole, that some defenders of high-density living will, when pressed, downplay the importance of safety in favor of words like “accessibility” and “openness.” It shows that they aren’t really motivated by the desire to satisfy customers’ highest priorities, which often involve the safety of their persons and the security of their belongings.

Sustainable Northampton Plan (PDF)
[Recommendation on page 51:] Avoid creating cul-de-sacs and dead ends when possible and instead create a network of streets. Dead end streets, while desirable to some residents, add significantly to the delivery of city services and increases traffic flows to other local streets…

The Republican: “Through traffic banned at 2 Forest Park intersections” (7/21/08)
…barriers that had been erected on a trial basis since late September will become permanent at Marengo Park and Dickinson Street and at Bellevue Avenue and Belmont Avenue…

Most of the 60 people who attended a board meeting on the issue July 14 supported keeping the two intersections’ traffic barriers, which were
installed in late December.

The barriers have ended the streets’ use as cut-throughs for speeding drivers and as pit-stops for prostitutes and drug-dealers who drift over
from Belmont Avenue seeking secluded side streets, they said…

The Republican: “Springfield council votes to close Mountain View Street temporarily” (6/23/08)
The City Council voted unanimously tonight to close Mountain View Street at Belmont Avenue in Forest Park temporarily to through traffic in an attempt to reduce crime on the street.

Residents have complained that prostitutes and drug dealers have been using their side streets from Belmont Avenue for sexual trysts and drug transactions in parked cars…

The Republican: “Crime-weary residents want street closed to traffic” (5/9/08)
…Residents said they felt blocking access from Belmont Avenue to Mountainview Street, which is a one-way street, would deter prostitutes seeking side-street hook-ups and vehicles that zoom down from busy Belmont Avenue…

Residents said they have experienced break-ins and broken car windows. Hodge said tools have been stolen from her garage.

Blocking the street would copy a move the city made nearby. Residents of Marengo Park and Bellevue Avenue who complained of similar problems succeeded in getting large concrete planters with detachable chains placed at Bellevue and Belmont avenues and at Marengo Park and Dickinson Street…

David J. Simpson, of Marengo Park, said the redirection of traffic in his neighborhood has nearly eliminated the problems.

“It’s like night and day,” he said.

The Republican: “Street closures deemed needed” (12/16/07)
The Republican: “City targets crime with street closings” (12/4/07)
Outrages large, small and steady are why residents of Marengo Park and Bellevue Avenue are both glad and sad that the city has agreed to close portions of their streets to through traffic for six months…

They are glad, they say, because they hope the temporary barriers will stop the streets’ use as a recreation area and turn-around by drivers thought to come from apartment complexes on nearby Belmont Avenue…

Residents have found used condoms on their front lawns. Some have experienced break-ins to their homes.

Many have had car windows shattered, fences busted and lawns littered with trash thrown from passing cars…

“All of us have encountered cars parked on the street with sex going on,” Simpson said. “I’ve seen (speeding) cars pass other cars on this road….What I’m trying to do is make the route undesirable as a cut-through.”

The New Draft Sustainable Northampton Plan: Balancing Compact Growth Against Taxes, Urban Greenspace, Homeowner Preferences
An objective of the Plan is to “implement ideas for maximizing density on small lots”. (p.16) It calls for the City to “consider amending zero lot line single family home to eliminate 30′ side yard setback”. (p.69)

…The Plan calls for high and medium density housing in downtown and the “more densely developed areas”, 12-65 units per acre. (p.13)

…The best plans will fail if they don’t appeal to the people. A 1993 Fannie Mae poll showed that “86 percent of American households believed that owning a home was better than renting…and 73 percent preferred a single-family detached home with a yard” (cited in J. Terrence Farris, “The Barriers to Using Urban Infill Development to Achieve Smart Growth”, 2001, PDF).

Pictures of Northampton Streets at Various Densities

Planning Board Adopts Sustainable Northampton Plan
[New language in Plan:] “Traditional Neighborhood and Receiving Zone — These are currently the most developed areas with planned expansion of developable area to accommodate expected demand for new growth. These areas can accommodate the vast majority of new smart growth residential development… More focus on design details, encouraging designs compatible with historic neighborhoods, focus on pocket and linear parks and on the quality of life generally are key elements for encouraging a population density consistent with the highest quality neighborhoods present 50 years ago.”

…[NSNA is] concerned…about the reference to densities of 50 years ago. Much has changed since then. In particular, women have far more jobs outside the home, meaning more cars are on the road. By the same token, more families have become too busy to dedicate an adult to shopping in small amounts on a daily basis. If you’re buying 50 pounds of groceries and supplies at a time, you’re probably going to prefer to do that by car rather than walk or use the bus. Factors like these mean that a neighborhood that had comfortable density in 1957 might be perceived as congested with cars today.

Smart Growth Winners (Rich People) and Losers (Other People)
The Sustainable Northampton Plan presents Smart Growth (compact, transit-oriented development) as if it’s good for everyone. The problem is, different environments suit different living situations…

Smart Growth Hazard: A Confining Sameness

Smart Growth: When Polls and Reality Diverge
…the survey went on to ask, “where would you prefer development to occur?” The most popular response (34 percent) was “in a major city.” Another question: “Do you favor zoning laws that would encourage communities to have smaller houses on smaller lots within walking distance of shopping and work?” Yes, said 76 percent. But when asked, “Would you be interested in living in such a development?” 65 percent said no…

Planners must take into account how people will actually act when they make major life decisions for themselves as individuals. It is risky to rely on mere words and abstract propositions, especially when the “correct” answer is well known.