Live Free and Die of Boredom

In "Live Free and Die of Boredom" (February), Nick Gillespie suggests that most people will "pay a steep premium to live in more densely populated places where things inevitably cost more money and take more time, where there are more regulations, higher taxes…most of us choose to live under the yoke of economic oppression."

No, most of us choose to stay employed. When we graduate from college, we search nationwide to find anyone willing to hire someone with no professional experience. After three to five years, assuming our specialty is not too obscure, we may have the luxury of choosing some particular major metropolitan area in which to relocate. Beyond that, our choice of residence is only to choose a neighborhood within that metropolitan area based on some sort of balance of price, safety, and commute time.

Bruce Hamilton
Redondo Beach, CA

Crime-Friendly Neighborhoods

Thanks for publishing the eye-opening "Crime-Friendly Neighborhoods" (February). History points to the securest forms of neighborhoods. In ancient and medieval times, urban residents made up for the lack of a reliable police force by building homes with walled courtyards. With the front gate closed, the family house became a fortress. A walk through Beijing's hutong neighborhoods (before they were made multifamily during the Communist era) or even a stroll through New Orleans' French Quarter grants one a view of this design style.

Tim Hammack
Saint Charles, MO

Stephen Town and Randall O'Toole assert that the safest neighborhoods are dominated by cul-de-sacs that are as isolated as possible from stores and from other streets, implying that any neighborhood in which residents can walk anywhere at all is "custom made for easy crime" because of the possible influx of strangers.

But the experiment of imprisoning residents in order to protect them has been tried in the American Sun Belt, with dismal results. In my former hometown of Atlanta, the traditional street grid disappears about two or three miles from downtown, to be replaced by a maze of cul-de-sacs. Yet in 2002 Atlanta had 1,964 burglaries per 100,000 people–more than five times as many as New York City, and more than twice as many as San Francisco. (I focus on burglaries because that crime is most likely to occur inside a house, and thus most likely to be connected to street design and land use.)

Atlanta's suburbs have tried similar techniques with equally dismal results. According to a Smart Growth America survey, Atlanta has the third lowest "street connectivity" score in America –that is, its streets do not connect with each other, just as O'Toole would like. Yet the region boasted 924 burglaries per 100,000 people in 2003–more than twice as many as in New York City, the region with the highest level of street connectivity for which 2003 regional crime statistics are available. Rochester and Syracuse, the two most cul-de-sac?dominated regions in America, also have burglary rates higher than the New York metropolitan area.

Segregating housing from commerce is no panacea either. The three regions with the lowest mix-use levels are Raleigh (854 burglaries/100,000), Greensboro (1,198/100,000) and Riverside (853/100,000)–all more burglary-prone than the national average of 757 burglaries per 100,000 people. By contrast, the three most mixed-use areas for which crime statistics were available (Providence, Allentown, and Oxnard) all had fewer than 600 burglaries per 100,000 people.

To be sure, regional crime statistics include a wide variety of neighborhoods. But plenty of small suburbs have a vibrant, mixed-use core and extremely low crime rates. For example, East Aurora, New York, is dominated by a gridded 19th-century downtown, yet it had fewer than 150 burglaries per 100,000 people (20 in a town with just under 14,000 residents).

These neighborhoods are, admittedly, high-income enclaves. But how do they stay that way? If East Aurora?style urbanism were so inherently undesirable, high-income people would stop living there.

Michael Lewyn
Visiting Associate Professor
Southern Illinois University School of Law
Carbondale, IL

Randal O'Toole and Stephen Town contend that community designs by New Urbanists "almost invariably increase crime." Yet their 3,000-word article fails to mention a single New Urbanist community in the U.S. that has increased crime. Since nearly 500 sizable New Urbanist communities are under construction or built in the U.S.–far more than in Britain or any other country–why couldn't the authors come up with a single example, let alone enough examples or studies to lend credence to their theories? The New Urbanism, after all, began in the U.S. more than 20 years ago.

The answer: Their contentions are theoretical and ideological, not based on reality. The idea that crime is a problem in New Urbanist towns like Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Maryland; Southern Village in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Celebration near Orlando, Florida; and Orenco Station in Hillsboro, Oregon, is laughable. Crime is rare in these communities, which are among the most highly sought-after places to live in their regions.

New Urban design also has inspired scores of market-rate neighborhoods on infill sites in historic cities and towns, most of which also are exceedingly popular in the marketplace and enjoy good reputations as places to live. The toughest projects that New Urbanists have undertaken are public housing redevelopments, including more than 100 projects associated with HOPE, a program that closely follows New Urban design principles. The HOPE VI projects have been the subject of numerous studies, and they have come through with flying colors.

The gaping chasm between crime rates in public housing census tracts and their cities as a whole had narrowed from 141 percent in 1990 to only 26 percent in 2000 in places where HOPE VI plans had been put in place. And this change took place while citywide crime rates fell dramatically. The HOPE VI neighborhoods were substantially safer in 2000 than their cities were in 1990.

The case of Diggs Town in Norfolk, Virginia, is also instructive, because a New Urban plan was put into place without tearing down any public housing units or displacing residents. Police calls dropped from 25?30 a day to about three a week, according to one study.

It seems O'Toole and Town cannot conceive of safe communities with open streets and pedestrian networks and without gates. Yet that is how all American towns and cities were built prior to World War II, when crime rates were lower as a whole than they are today and when gated communities were unknown. New Urbanism is based on empirical study and observation; O'Toole and Town let ideology drive their analysis.

Robert Steuteville
New Urban News
Ithaca, NY

Randal O'Toole and Stephen Town reply: Neighborhood design is only one factor that influences crime, and to discern its influence you must examine crime at the neighborhood level. Comparing crime at the regional level, as Michael Lewyn does, or across decades, as Robert Steuteville does, loses the neighborhood effects. Atlanta neighborhoods with cul-de-sacs, for example, may have less crime than Atlanta neighborhoods without cul-de-sacs. It is also likely that East Aurora's mixed-use downtown has more crime than its single-use neighborhoods.

Steuteville is correct that no one has systematically examined crime rates in America's New Urban neighborhoods. But criminologists have confirmed that U.S. neighborhoods with mixed uses, alleys, and other New Urban traits have more crime than single-use neighborhoods without alleys.

Steuteville claims our article is driven by ideology while New Urbanism is based on empirical study. What is our ideology? We favor freedom of choice, and have no objection if someone wants to live in a New Urban neighborhood. We object only when planners promote coercive schemes and claim they offer benefits they do not. Where is their empirical study? While defensible space advocates from Oscar Newman to British police have compared crime with design on thousands of city blocks, New Urbanists base their ideas on untested hypotheses and ignore any data that challenge those hypotheses.