During my recent trip home to Stockton, I noticed that crime was the topic of conversation with nearly everyone I talked with. Cousins, aunts and uncles, friends all at some point discussed how crime was getting out of control. And it’s true; Stockton is facing a huge problem with spiraling crime rates. As dismaying as these conversations were, it gave me reason to think about the ways in which smart growth policies could affect public safety in Stockton and how good planning could potentially stem crime. Instinctively, this notion may not make sense: How can the way you plan a neighborhood be good or bad for crime? Well, there are a lot of factors that go into public safety and municipal resources that have a lot to do with urban planning. While it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how growth and development can manipulate these issues, there is a fairly large body of evidence that does suggest planning that incorporates tenets of good urban design can have a positive effect on public safety. Today I would like to discuss the implications of such strategies on crime rates and public safety. When considering the city’s growth in the future, Stockton leaders would be smart to consider how their decisions may affect public safety for all Stocktonians.
First, let’s debunk some myths about density and crime..
A common question urban planners face has to do with crime. Why build densely? We don’t need to give criminals easy access to potential targets. If you pack more people into an area, there are more homes to burglarize, cars to break into and people to rob. In an earlier post, some commentators worried that dense development downtown would just be a magnet for crime. This is a natural response. The 40 year flight to the suburbs trains us to believe escaping the central city makes us safer. If we surround ourselves with fewer people, then there should be fewer people that will rob us. Any infill attempts in older neighborhoods will just fall victim to criminals and vandals.
So, do lower-density neighborhoods keep us more safe from criminals? Not really. There turns out to be a large amount of literature showing that there is no real difference in crime rates when it comes to the density of neighborhoods.
A study in Irving, Texas found no correlation between density and crime rates. Using spatial analysis techniques (using GIS), the researchers found that higher-density areas did not exhibit higher-levels of crime because of their density. The study did find that the crime that opponents of density claim is there is actually correlated with socioeconomic conditions, not density itself. Building densely does not foster higher crime rates on its own.
On the other hand, there is literature that contradicts the argument that higher density leads to less crime. In Baltimore County, researchers discovered that the theory of “more eyes on the street” used when advocating for higher density did not hold true. Violent crimes actually had no correlation to density. When taken together, we find that density is not directly correlated with crime rates, either positively or negatively. So, at the very least, dense development does not make public safety worse off.
While we know density and crime are not correlated, some studies do point out that there are clear benefits in terms of public safety when it comes to smart urban planning. For example, a sample of 911 calls for service done in Phoenix, a city that sprawls much like our own, found that the demand for police services for apartment complexes was nearly half of the demand from single family houses. In Tempe, an even larger sample of calls showed that apartment units needed 14% less service than single family houses. Furthermore, an Urban Land Institute report on Greenwich, Connecticut found that higher-density homes (i.e. apartments, townhomes) are significantly less likely to be burglarized than their single family counterparts. These studies serve as evidence that building communities that incorporate the right mixture of housing can help mitigate against dwindling public safety resources.
In a city facing police staffing shortfalls and budget problems, single home developments, particularly those that expand Stockton’s footprint, stretch our already thin public safety net to the brink. When we build on farmland, officers have more ground to cover without the necessary resources to ensure that this new coverage on the outskirts does not come at the expense of residents in established neighborhoods. However, smarter development that incorporates a mixture of apartments and townhomes (preferably with infill development) creates less ground to cover for officers (and for that matter, firefighters).
I want to make it very clear: the answer to Stockton’s crime troubles is NOT density. Building better communities is not some sort of magic bullet that will magically improve public safety for everyone. There are clearly several other factors at play when it comes trying to control crime in our city. However, I do believe that quality urban planning does play a role in public safety and at the very least, does not make the city more dangerous. In the future, as we decide how the city manages growth, we should consider the impact our decisions will have on the city’s ability to provide public safety services to all of its citizens. If we keep building single family homes and expanding the city’s footprint, our already taxed police department will be challenged to serve not just these new areas, but everyone else in the city. As the research shows, housing on the periphery might feel safer, but Stockton’s outward expansion actually takes away services for existing neighborhoods, making everyone worse off.