Burras Road was a pleasant cul-de-sac of 21 new homes in Bradford, England. Its residents were blissfully unaware that, just east of the site, approval for a proposed new shopping center required the breaching of their cul-de-sac by a bicycle-pedestrian path.
Planners favored this requirement because, they say, cul-de-sacs do not encourage movement and therefore are "auto-dependent" and "anti-urban." Opening up the site would connect residents to local services, and the path would promote walking and cycling.
The path connecting the shopping center to the cul-de-sac opened in 2000. Although there is no evidence that the path has led residents to drive less, it did have a profound effect on their lives. During the next six months, a neighborhood that had been virtually crime-free saw its burglary rate rise to 14 times the national rate, with matching increases in overall crime, including arson, assault, and antisocial behavior.
Because a secondary school was located west of the cul-de-sac, the pedestrian path opened the neighborhood to a constant stream of students and others going between the school and the shopping center. Crime and vandalism became commonplace. "The path turned our piece of paradise into a living hell," one resident complained.
At a late stage, the local police crime prevention officer had tried to prevent the route from opening, predicting it would be a disaster, only to be told that the path was "sacrosanct." Residents' quality of life apparently was less important than the dubious goal of reducing auto dependency.
Architects and urban planners who call themselves New Urbanists say their proposals, including developments that mix residential and commercial uses, have homes with tiny private yards and large common areas, and feature pedestrian paths, will solve all sorts of social problems, including crime. Yet the housing and neighborhood designs they want to substitute for the modern suburb almost invariably increase crime.
Eyes on the Street
The idea that mixed-use neighborhoods reduce crime goes back to 1961, when the social critic Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs described her book as "an attack on the principles and aims that have shaped modern, orthodox city planning." More specifically, she attacked urban renewal, the planning fad of the 1950s and '60s.
Much of urban renewal was inspired by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, whose Radiant City envisioned modern, high-rise apartment buildings separated by green spaces and broad avenues. Le Corbusier claimed this would provide the "three essential joys of urbanism: sun, space, and greenery." Unfortunately, he forgot an even more essential joy: privacy.
To get federal funds for urban renewal, cities had to find that the areas to be renewed were "blighted." Jacobs, who lived in Greenwich Village at the time, believed federal funding gave cities incentives to find blight everywhere, and she demonstrated that the "slums" planners wanted to clear were often living, thriving neighborhoods.
Jacobs also wanted to show that inner cities were not necessarily as crime-infested as people feared them to be. She observed that mixed-use neighborhoods had people watching the streets throughout the day, both from the ground-floor shops and the mid-rise apartment buildings above those shops. These "eyes on the street," she argued, reduced crime.
Whether or not Jacobs was right, her "great American cities" really included just a half-dozen or so dense cities that were largely built before the 1890 invention of the electric streetcar: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, and perhaps Baltimore and a few others.
Jacobs 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.
The Overselling of New Urbanism