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.
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 crimemapping.com, 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.