I have said before that urban living is not the only solution to our energy and environmental problems, but it is a very important factor. The increased density available in cities limits automobile transportation, lessens commodity distribution impact and frees up arable land that is currently slated for sprawling development. It leads us to a more sustainable future. I do think that similar results can be had in small walkable towns with public transit options for commuters, but the largest impact will be made in the cities.
This leads to one of the most popular questions posed to anyone who lives in an urban environment . . . is it safe? Meaning, I suppose, am I likely to get mugged on the way to the mailbox or catch the black death from a rogue sewer rat as I fight off the unwanted intentions of the local crack addicts?
This is not a surprising question. The danger of cities is an idea built into our culture (anyone watch The Wire?) and does, of course, have some basis in reality. There are definitely parts of Philadelphia where I would hesitate to wander. However, there are also parts of rural New York where I have felt a similar hesitancy. This fear of the city is also, I think, a residual emotion that we carry from the beginning of the industrial revolution when the image of cities truly became that of filthy, disease ridden and dangerous hovels. Smog filled the air, sewage ran down the streets and poverty was rampant. This image embedded itself in the national consciousness and was set against the pseudo-bucolic vision of suburbia.
Safety became wrapped up in a kind of inaccessibility. The cul-de-sac is probably the best example of this mentality. Those who could afford the move sought to distance themselves from the density of the city, a condition that was seen as inseparable from crime and danger. They took pains to assure that their homes were on the way to nowhere, surrounded by nothing that might attract strangers. Suburbia became the realm of a fearful middle class, gating their communities and turning their roads back on themselves to escort the unknown from their neighborhoods.
However, for the most part the city isn’t considerably more dangerous than the suburbs, and in fact may be safer overall. Sound crazy? Well, jump on the train to crazy town . . .
Urban Violence vs Suburban Violets
The city is certainly host to more violent crime than your average suburb or rural area. There are many reasons for this including, most notably, poverty. However, much of that crime is internal to sub-cultures that, for a variety of reasons, are more strongly represented in the city. The largest of these is the drug culture, a network of competing dealers, unstable users and the law enforcement assigned to deal with them. The average citizen in most urban neighborhoods will generally need to be very unlucky and/or very foolish to get caught up in this kind of violence. It does happen, but it is far more rare than your television might have you believe.
That said, the suburbs are not all sunshine and flowers (get it . . . violets?). Violent crime in suburban and rural areas is far from non-existent. In fact, in some areas the gap between urban and suburban crime per capita has decreased significantly. The difference is even less noticeable if you choose specific “safer” urban neighborhoods as the basis for comparison.
The Threat of the Unknown
One of the major concerns of those who pose the urban safety question is that of “the stranger” or the unknown person passing through a neighborhood. Many suburban developments have been designed for the expressed purpose of limiting sidewalk and street traffic only to those who “belong.” In the city this is, if not impossible, at least undesirable. There has been strong evidence showing that increased activity on a street or neighborhood is a preventer rather than a promoter of crime. Dense housing, visible and accessible from the street also provides a deterrent to crime as every activity is forced into the public view. I could go on about this, but its been done many places already (and probably better). Check out this article on Neighborhood Crime.
Cars = Danger
The most interesting bit of information on this topic is a study pointed out by Discovering Urbanism
on the relative safety of cities when all factors are considered. The study, performed by UVA, looked largely at traffic deaths and homicides throughout Virginia. Combining both homicides and traffic deaths one could get a basic understanding of the relative safety of an area. With this in mind, denser, more walkable areas appeared much safer. Cities were by far the safest places on the study’s list. Include traffic injuries, which are 50 times the death rate, and injuries from violent crimes, and I assume this disparity in relative safety would grow in the cities’ favor.
Basically, you are in much more danger in a car then you are wandering through a “bad” neighborhood in the city. The more isolated you are and the longer your daily commute, the more this danger increases. By increasing our reliance on cars in an effort to escape the dangers of the city we have, in effect, placed ourselves in greater peril.
There are dozens of other factors that could be discussed in terms of urban safety but I think this should give us a good jumping off point. What other factors, real or imagined, create fear of the urban environment? How can cities in the process of renewal be designed for greater public safety? How does architecture and design play into this? Even if the suburban model of increasing isolation is an effective safety measure, is that the type of class-segregated society we want to create?
Tell me I’m wrong. Say that I’m right. But do it respectfully and do it in the comments.
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