Crime-Friendly Neighborhoods

How "New Urbanist" planners sacrifice safety in the name of "openness" and "accessibility"


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

Zelinka and Brennan are the authors of Safe-Scape: Creating Safer, More Livable Communities Through Planning and Design, published in 2001 by the American Planning Association. As the subtitle suggests, the authors believe the right sort of town planning can reduce crime. Unfortunately, the planning principles they advocate were borrowed from the New Urbanists–a group whose philosophy, Zelinka and Brennan have written, "clearly plays an important role in eliminating fear of crime and the perception of crime."

New Urbanism combined two movements in the architecture and urban planning communities. The first, sometimes called neotraditionalism, focused on using urban design to give people a sense of community. The loss of community in "placeless suburbs," the neotraditionalists believed, caused all sorts of social ills, ranging from crime to teenage suicides. Neotraditionalists recommended design features such as sidewalks, front porches, parks, community centers, and other common areas, all aimed at getting people to interact with one another.

The second movement focused on the relationship between land use and transportation. Modern suburbs had made people "auto dependent," planners said, which led to pollution, obesity, and other social ills. To remedy this, planners recommended higher-density "compact cities" that mixed housing with retail and commercial uses so that people could walk to the grocery store or places of employment.

There clearly is a market for New Urban?style communities, mainly among young singles, double-income-no-children couples, and people who appreciate bohemian lifestyles. Families with children, empty nesters, and people who prefer a quieter neighborhood are not so interested.

For many New Urbanists, it isn't enough to build to the market. The Congress for the New Urbanism, founded in 1993, declares on its Web site that "all development should be in the form of compact, walkable neighborhoods." New Urbanists eagerly helped write zoning codes that forbade things that had previously been mandated–broad streets, low densities, separation of residential from commercial uses–while mandating things that had formerly been forbidden, such as narrow streets, high densities, and mixed uses.

To promote this crusade, its advocates oversold New Urbanism, promising it would solve every urban problem. Do you commute to work? New Urbanism will reduce congestion. Suffer from asthma? New Urbanism will clean the air. Are you a parent? New Urbanism will improve schools. (In fact, there is no evidence that New Urbanism can do any of these things, and plenty of evidence that it does the opposite. Denser development did not significantly reduce per capita driving; it just increased driving per square mile and thereby increased congestion. Since cars pollute most in congested traffic, New Urbanism also contributed to air pollution. Since New Urban developments mainly attracted singles and childless couples, residents had little interest in improving schools.)

With SafeScape, Zelinka and Brennan added one more urban malady to the mix. Their book asserts, without substantial evidence, that mixed uses, pedestrian paths, and interconnected streets (as opposed to cul-de-sacs) reduce crime. The book's publisher, the American Planning Association, has 30,000 members who work for city and county governments throughout the country, many of whom are New Urbanists eager for support for their preconceived notions. Police, lacking their own experts, often assume that planners know what they are doing: At least one police chief, Mark Kroeker of Portland, has taken it seriously.

The book relied heavily on Jane Jacobs' notion of "eyes on the street." Single-use residential suburbs, the writers claimed, are easily preyed upon by criminals because they "display clearly identifiable behavioral routines and patterns"–that is, most people leave for work all day. Mixed-use neighborhoods "contribute to a safer, more vital public realm" because shopkeepers and shoppers have eyes on the street at all hours of the day.

It might sound persuasive, but there are a few problems with this position. One, as we've seen, is that Jacobs was writing only about cities, not suburbs. Another is that this was one area where Jacobs wasn't even right about cities. Jacobs' claims were based solely on qualitative observations, not on any actual crime data. When the architect Oscar Newman took a look at those data, a quarter century before SafeScape was published, he found a more complex story.

Defensible Argument

A teacher of urban design at St. Louis' Washington University, Newman watched the decline of Pruitt-Igoe, an award-winning high-rise housing project that had closely followed Le Corbusier's vision of a Radiant City. Completed in 1956, the project suffered so much crime that it quickly became unlivable. Despite offering essentially free housing for many poor people, its high vacancy rates led to closure, and its 1972 demolition has come to symbolize the failure of government housing projects.

Newman noticed that there was a low-rise housing project across the street from Pruitt-Igoe whose residents were in the same socioeconomic class but that "remained fully occupied and trouble-free throughout construction, occupancy, and decline of Pruitt-Igoe." What, Newman wondered, were "the physical differences that had enabled one to survive while the other fell apart"?

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Newman carefully compared crime rates with the design features of thousands of blocks in hundreds of urban neighborhoods that collectively housed nearly half a million people.

The result was his 1972 book Defensible Space, which showed that the safest neighborhoods maximized private space and minimized common zones. Safe areas also minimized "permeability," that is, the ease of entry to and exit from the neighborhood or housing area. Cul-de-sacs are thus a crime-prevention device, and any breaching of cul-de-sacs will predictably increase crime. Newman didn't include suburbs in his study because they had much lower crime rates than the urban neighborhoods he did examine. This, he believed, was because the suburbs were less permeable and more defensible.

Relying more on mid-rise developments than high rises, New Urbanism claims to have fixed the problems of Le Corbusier's Radiant City. Yet New Urbanism shares many features with Pruitt-Igoe, including the large communal areas and permeability that Newman found caused so many problems.

The authors of SafeScape were familiar with Newman's work, but they chose to misrepresent it. "Newman took the 'eyes on the street' concept," Zelinka and Brennan wrote, and "argued that the reason 'eyes on the street' provide safety in urban, mixed commercial and residential areas is because there is a visible link between residents and the street." In fact, Newman specifically criticized what he called "the unsupported hypotheses of Jane Jacobs." Newman's work showed that mixed-use development led to significantly higher crime, while he couldn't find any evidence that "eyes on the street" would reduce that crime. "'Natural surveillance' is not automatically created by high-density environments," he wrote, "unless the grounds around each dwelling are assigned to specific families."

Table 1 contrasts some of the major differences between the models advanced in SafeScape and Defensible Space. Newman's book shows that virtually all of the things that Zelinka and Brennan want to change about the suburbs actually would lead to higher crime.

Public space vs. private space: One New Urbanist concept built into SafeScape is the idea of maximizing common areas to create "a sense of community." While one of SafeScape's principles is "stewardship and ownership," the authors don't want private areas so much as they want to give people a "sense of ownership" in community property. To that end, say the authors, "Communities should include places that support the coming together of people," such as shops, pedestrian paths, parks, and community gardens. While these things are fine if people want them, when planners impose them on neighborhoods, the results are often disastrous.

Newman took exactly the opposite approach. "The larger the number of people who share a communal space," he found, "the more difficult it is for people to identify it as being in any way theirs or to feel they have a right to control or determine the activity taking place within it." To solve this problem, "'Defensible Space' operates by subdividing large portions of public spaces and assigning them to individuals and small groups to use and control as their own private areas."

Mixed uses vs. separate uses: "Mixed land-use patterns contribute to a safer, more vital public realm," say Zelinka and Brennan. In contrast, Newman found, mixed uses "generate high crime and vandalism rates," and housing units next to commercial areas "suffer proportionally higher crime rates." More recent research in Baltimore and Philadelphia by Temple University criminologist Ralph Taylor and several colleagues confirms that mixed uses increase both crime and the cost of policing.

The reason mixing retail with residential areas increases crime is simple: Space is only defensible if residents have the clear right to influence and control what takes place there. In commercial or public areas, everyone has the right or excuse to be present, and offenders are indistinguishable from law-abiding citizens. Mixed use therefore reduces residential control over the neighborhood and provides criminals with anonymity as they merge into the background.

Alleys vs. no alleys: New Urbanists like alleys because they allow people to hide cars in back while keeping the fronts of homes close to the street. Yet alleys make houses easier to burgle and are dangerous routes for pedestrians. SafeScape recognizes that alleys "provide easy access and escape routes into/from a neighborhood by nonresidents, while allowing those individuals relative anonymity." Yet instead of gating alleys, as the defensible-space approach would, SafeScape's lame solution is "to provide 'eyes on the alley'" by redesigning buildings to face alleys.

In sharp contrast, Closing Streets and Alleys to Reduce Crime, a new report from the U.S. Department of Justice, urges cities and neighborhoods to close alleys and take other actions to block off escape routes for burglars.

Houses close to the street: New Urbanists want to create "active, vibrant," pedestrian-oriented streets, so they design homes and businesses close to the street and place parking in rear courtyards. Such rear courtyards increase burglary by providing criminals with more public access to private homes and create needless common areas that are costly to protect.

Pedestrian paths: New Urbanism promotes pedestrian paths both to encourage alternatives to the auto and to create a sense of community. Defensible space restricts footpaths.

Gridded streets vs. cul-de-sacs: Zelinka and Brennan approvingly cite a case in Madison, Wisconsin, where cul-de-sacs were eliminated to provide more eyes on the street. Yet the British Crime Survey, regarded by the U.K. government as the most reliable guide to crime, found that houses on main roads were at more than twice the risk of being burgled as those in a cul-de-sac. The Department of Justice's Closing Streets cites numerous studies in the U.S. showing that reducing connectivity reduces crime. It also finds that "most research supports the idea that burglars avoid houses in cul-de-sacs."

When Dayton, Ohio, asked Newman to apply defensible-space concepts to a neighborhood suffering high rates of drug-related violence and property crime, his solution was to gate numerous streets–in essence, to turn a traditional street grid into cul-de-sacs. Within two years, violent crime in that neighborhood fell by 50 percent and overall crime by 25 percent, even as crime in Dayton overall increased by 1 percent.

Out of 17 case studies included in SafeScape, only one offered any data indicating that crime declined after application of Zelinka and Brennan's principles. Ironically, that one example relied primarily on street closures, as recommended by Newman, not by the New Urbanists.

"I am not very impressed with the work of the New Urbanists," Newman wrote shortly before he passed away in April 2004. "It is nostalgia–a throwback to the past, with little thought about what made those environments work then (long-term occupancy by an identical economic class and ethnic group), and unworkable today. The residential environments they are creating are very vulnerable to criminal behavior, unless, of course, these environments are exclusively occupied by high-income groups." The New Urbanists, of course, abhor exclusive, high-income neighborhoods and insist that communities should include people of all incomes.

The Advantages of Private Space

The defensible-space approach has been most influential in England, where a team of land-use researchers led by the Kings College geographer Alice Coleman in the early 1980s replicated and expanded Newman's research by carefully examining nearly 6,000 residential blocks, including both suburban and urban areas. Affirming most of Newman's conclusions, they found that neighborhoods of single-family detached homes had the fewest problems, and those that did have problems were across the street from apartments. Apartments could reduce problems, Coleman found, by minimizing the number of dwellings accessible from a single entrance and privatizing common areas.

Today all British police departments have architectural liaison officers who review proposed developments and help developers find ways to minimize crime. British police have developed a national award program called Secured by Design, which is based on Newman's defensible-space ideas. The program's success is apparent from dramatic reductions in crime that have followed its implementation.

Developers in public housing have a financial incentive to achieve the Secured by Design award, which includes a package of design and security measures in their plans. All applicants are volunteers, though the program gives police power to impose things on developers that will significantly reduce the cost of policing. Americans may or may not want to give police departments that much power over developers. But they certainly don't want planning departments promoting designs that will increase crime.

One of the British architectural liaison officers' clear findings is that assigning common areas to individual families in a multifamily housing project can virtually eliminate burglaries and vandalism. When people own an area they have the right to influence and control it in a way that is impossible in common areas.

For example, Royds was a West Yorkshire public housing development of about 3,500 homes sheltering some 12,000 people. Royds was originally built in the 1950s, but by the 1990s it had gone into serious decline, with parts resembling a slum. The burglary rate was one of the worst in the country, at seven times the national average. So the government regenerated it in the early 1990s using secured-by-design principles. The result, for nearly a decade, has been a virtual elimination of burglary.

Even Britain has its New Urbanists, and one architectural liaison officer was moved by pressure from the New Urban movement to compare defensible space with New Urbanism. Peter Knowles, of the Bedfordshire Police, compared the design features of 24,000 housing units with some 20,000 incidents of crime. He concluded that New Urban?like housing had five times the crime and cost police departments three times as much to keep secure as neighborhoods designed to defensible-space standards.

British New Urbanists consider Hulme, in Manchester, a model of New Urban design. It consists of a mixture of low-rise and four-story apartment buildings with a semi-public interior courtyard. The latest Police Crime Pattern Analysis found that it suffers three and a half times the national average rate of crime, and a recent survey found that many children felt unsafe even in their immediate home environments because of the public nature of the streets.

"The design of streets and buildings should reinforce safe environments," says the Congress for the New Urbanism, "but not at the expense of accessibility and openness." With accessibility a euphemism for mixed use and openness a euphemism for permeability, it is clear that New Urbanists make safety from crime a low priority. That is fine if residents understand what they're getting. But they should not be misled by books like SafeScape into believing that one of the things they're getting is less crime.

Urban design can enable crime or it can limit crime. As Jane Jacobs wrote more than four decades ago, "To build city districts that are custom made for easy crime is idiotic. Yet that is what we do." And that is what Zelinka, Brennan, and the New Urbanists would have us do today.?