How better zoning can curb crime

Last year, I wrote about the effect that planning can have on crime, noting that a well-planned city or community can have a direct affect on public safety. Even more recently, I have mused about how crime seems to revolve around Stockton’s big box retailers, namely Walmart. Probably not coincidentally, some new research has emerged shedding even more light on these topics explaining how strip-mall development may be unnecessarily taxing our already razor thin public safety system.

Near by stores such as Target and Petsmart stand to lose business to the Super Wal-Mart opening up across the street in Spanos Park West

Strip mall developments like Park West Place suffer from higher crime rates than mixed-use developments

A recent study published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review conducted by RAND researchers found that zoning does indeed play a significant role in public safety as more walkable, mixed-use commercial/residential areas exhibit lower levels of crime than their commercial-only counterparts. The study examined levels of crime by different neighborhoods in Los Angeles, each with different zoning designations (mixed-use, residential, commercial, etc) and similar demographic characteristics. Some of their findings were not surprising. For example, the study found that areas zoned for residential only experienced the lowest crime rates of all. However, maybe more surprisingly, the researchers also discovered that areas with a mix of uses– retail and residential, for example– exhibited lower levels of crime than those areas zoned only for commercial purposes.

In other words, an area with a balanced mix of apartments, condos or townhomes and commercial development actually experienced less crime than a commercial-only shopping center. Moreover, the study found that when commercial-only areas were rezoned to include residences, crime fell by about seven percent. The researchers do not provide an answer as to why this is the case, however some speculate that Jane Jacob’s “eyes on the street” theory or the Broken Window’s theory employed by William Bratton could provide some explanations. In any case, the evidence is pretty clear that incorporating residential with commercial is an ideal option when considering the effects of development on crime.

In Stockton, this is something we know all too well. I have previously discussed the high volume of crime associated with the city’s Walmarts. For example, when using the crime mapping database website, it is pretty clear that the Walmarts on Hammer Lane and Trinity Parkway generate a disproportionate amount of crime. However, this is not a phenomenon limited to Walmart, as the same can be said of most retail centers in Stockton. I may have been too harsh on Walmart, as the stores themselves may not be the problem in terms of public safety as crime appears to be more of a symptom of poor zoning choices. Large, commercially zoned areas such as Weberstown and Sherwood Malls and the Park West Place shops, experience a high volume of car break-ins and petty theft. Given the research conducted in Los Angeles, we shouldn’t be surprised as these type of single-use zoned commercial areas are simply more crime-prone.

These findings have some important implications for cities like Stockton as zoning codes may be unnecessarily taxing our public safety system. If we know that large shopping-only developments generate more crime, why do we build them? Especially if a more mixed-use approach can reduce crime and alleviate the demand on public safety resources.

Clearly, encouraging mixed-use development instead of commercial-only areas is the way to go, especially when dealing with scarce resources. Not only does a mixed-use approach lessen the burden on the police department, but can yield greater economic benefits for the city as well, as I have previously discussed. Not coincidentally, the best place for these types of developments to take root is in older areas, such as downtown, where the infrastructure already exists to accommodate both residential and commercial development.

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Categories: Community Commentary, Smart Growth

Author:David A. Garcia

David A. Garcia created SCL in March of 2012. Garcia is a Stockton native with a background in urban policy and planning, holding a Bachelor's Degree from UCLA as well as a Master's Degree in Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. He currently serves as the Policy Director at the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation. David was also COO at Ten Space, a real estate development firm focused exclusively on Downtown Stockton, and continues to advise on their projects. Prior to that, he worked three years as a researcher/analyst for a Congressional research agency in Washington, DC. The views expressed on this site are entirely of the author's

4 Comments on “How better zoning can curb crime”

  1. Jon Seisa
    June 18, 2013 at 10:40 pm #

    Hi David, did you see the latest FBI data on the 2013 Top 10 Most Dangerous U.S. Cities? Unfortunately, Stockton is 6th on the list. However, what I find extremely alarming is that of these top 10 cities with this dubious honor, Stockton ranks lowest in adults with a high school degree at 75.1%. This surely is not good.

    The article states: “Low educational attainment also goes hand-in-hand with high crime rates. In all of the 10 most dangerous cities, the percentage of adults with a high school diploma was below the 86% national average. In five of these metro areas, the percentage of adults with a diploma was below 80%.”

    • David Garcia
      June 20, 2013 at 6:23 pm #

      Hello Jon. I have seen these numbers. FBI puts out the list every year, and the low educational attainment in the city has always been a concern.

      On the bright side, crime has decreased this year since the SPD has started working collaboratively with other agencies to stem violent crime. Murders and other violent crimes are down markedly from last year. Obviously, the city still has a long ways to go, but we are trending in the right direction.

  2. Jon Seisa
    June 20, 2013 at 7:36 pm #

    Well, that’s good; a down trend on crime is at least in the right direction, indeed. Are there any plans or ideas in the works on closing the gap on education? I guess that is what funding from Prop 30 is supposed to address and as promised by Governor Brown.

    Here’s some great food for thought…..

    Helping Hands: Cities Need Capacity for Education ReformJul 2000 –

    KICK-STARTING REFORM: Three city-based organizations sowing how to transform public education

    Ohio’s big cities are rapidly becoming national school reform leaders –

    • David Garcia
      June 21, 2013 at 6:44 am #

      It is my understanding that Prop 30 mostly just maintains funding, most of that money will never actually see the classroom. I admit that I do not know very much about education policy, nationally or locally. What I do know is that there are a lot of different approaches being used in cities and states across the country, many of which could provide examples of what could be done here.

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