Criminal Effects of Bad Urban Design

By Dan Goodman


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What makes a “bad” neighborhood? Most people would say that it starts with poverty. People tend to relax once their basic needs are met and they feel hopeful for the future. Impoverished neighborhoods often lack opportunities for young people to channel the turbulent energy that precedes the full development of a frontal lobe. Young men in particular are prone to letting their raging hormones lead them into violent directions. Sports and discipline have been long touted as useful tools in alleviating this problem. Athletic events have been used during peacetime throughout history as a substitute for battle in order to prevent the fighting aged men from growing restless. Unfortunately, it takes more than a basketball court to tackle the problem of violent crime.

Let’s take a look at the most dangerous neighborhood in America in 2018 according to NeighborhoodScout and FBI data:

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A picture says a thousand words. This image of the S 4th Street neighborhood in Memphis, TN shows a distinct lack of any building worth caring about. Areas like this one all over America evoke a sense of hopelessness even when passing through. Imagine what it feels like to live in one.

Now in my hometown of New Orleans things are a little more complicated. Many crime ridden areas of New Orleans are mixed in among more affluent areas. Beautiful victorian mansions can be found next to blighted houses. Another thing that sets many of the less safe New Orleans neighborhoods apart from those in other parts of the country is just how pretty they can be. Tourists here have been known to wander into the wrong neighborhood completely oblivious because of the disarming effects of the city’s unique link

These areas also have the benefit of a vibrant, fun loving culture. Music, food, art, and local businesses all come together to fuel a neighborhood’s sense of optimism, and although not quantifiable, I believe these forces play a role in reducing violent crime. These positive forces may help combat the nihilism that so often infiltrates disenfranchised areas. Shared culture helps fuel the self esteem of a community, and a cohesive, shared urban environment is fertile ground for such a culture to grow.

Upon further investigation it’s clear that poorly planned, sprawled neighborhoods in the greater New Orleans area are more likely to be dangerous. Looking at a list of the ten most dangerous neighborhoods in New Orleans it’s not hard to notice how the vast majority of these areas are sprawled out.

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Why is sprawl bad for safety? The same reason the wild west was such a haven for gunfights. When more lots on a given block are vacant than occupied, an area becomes isolated. There are no eyes on the street in such a barren urban landscape.

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Contrast that with the intimate nature of an old Italian street. It’s difficult to imagine getting away with stealing an old lady’s purse on a street like this:photo link

Now I’m no psychologist, but I know people are more likely to commit crimes when they know they aren’t being watched. I think we’d all like to avoid living in a world that’s constantly surveilled by police cameras, so why not police each other? As uncomfortable as that may sound, most of us do this in some way or another on a daily basis simply by being conscious of our surroundings. The more intimately a neighborhood is laid out, the more people who will be observing a street at any given time. Is it a coincidence that Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world and their streets look like this?

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I’m not saying fixing crime is as simple as building narrower streets, but a traditional human scale neighborhood can do a lot to foster a sense of community. This has a lot to do with local businesses as well. A corner store on a block full of homes and other businesses is less likely to be robbed than one in the middle of a sparse city block. Additionally, when people feel connected to the businesses in their neighborhood there is a shared responsibility to look out for one another.

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And then there’s the issue of policing. With such a strained relationship between police and the people they are supposed to protect, particularly in high crime areas, we must assess the dynamic created by our urban environment. In a spread out, car-centric neighborhood, police patrol from the safety of their vehicles. This furthers the divide between them and the residents of a dangerous neighborhood. Consider the phenomenon of road rage. It’s highly unlikely for someone walking down the street to feel comfortable giving a fellow pedestrian the finger, but in a car it’s commonplace. We become emboldened when we’re in our big metal bubbles, and are more likely to view other people as inconveniences rather than fellow human beings just going about their day. I have to imagine it’s the same way for cops. After all, cops are people too, and they act accordingly to their environment.

A cop walking or cycling through a well scaled neighborhood is more likely to form relationships with the people who live there. This idea has been attempted by city governments attempting to repair relationships between police and citizens, but in order for it to work as a sustained practice there needs to be infrastructure that facilitates it.


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So there you have it, I think I just solved crime. Call your local politicians and share the news.



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