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Safe in the City

by Nic Darling on February 9, 2009 · 12 comments

in Philosophy

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.

Your Turn
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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1 Ape Man February 9, 2009 at 9:14 pm

I would only note that if you are going to play the game of picking safe urban neighborhoods it is only fair you compare them to safe “rural” neighborhoods.

But this is really only a nitpick. It is sadly true that the traditional rural culture in this country is falling apart with an accompanying rise in crime. In some areas this is more pronounced then others, but it seems to be a trend all over.

2 Grant February 10, 2009 at 12:11 am

You make some good points… Some are down right compelling…

Now for the other side of the coin.

Families choose neighborhoods based upon schools… The wealthy suburbs have strong tax bases that fund excellent school systems. The cities, in contrast, have much more diverse demographics. Those demographics affect the quality of the available education. While adults can avoid the impact of the city crack heads, their kids can’t so easily avoid their children at school.

Inner city schools tend to have innumerable “distractions” that prevent a concentrated focus upon education. Whether it be as benign as English as a second language barriers that slow down communication, or as malignant as kids involved with gangs and selling/using drugs. Many parents choose suburbs based upon the college prep effectiveness of the available school systems, and the “protected environment” for their kids.

Not to say that the homogeneity of the suburban schools is necessarily a completely good thing… In fact, kids from a more diverse background usually learn how to work with and get along with others better. But the college testing prep is usually better even if the social skills development is sometimes lacking in the suburbs.

Whether this “smacks of elitism” or not, it is an actual social dynamic that influences the flight to suburbia. Of course, as you have pointed out, the flight to suburbia brings numerous other problems along with it. But once again I contend that most people select their neighborhoods based upon the schools fo rtheir kids. That makes all of those other factors become secondary.

3 Nic Darling February 10, 2009 at 11:42 am

Ape Man – I agree, but I think the growing similarity of crime rates, while worrying, is less compelling than the largely ignored danger of cars. Increased reliance on automobile transportation correlates directly with an increased risk of injury or death regardless of the crime rate. Forgetting for a moment the automobiles impact on the environment and energy policy, this fact alone supports an argument for increased density and walkability.

Grant – Education is, without question, a huge concern. It is something that worries me regularly. However, it may be an entire other blog post to even introduce the topic which is why I skirted it in this effort.

I will say that the educational issue is linked directly to income levels. Poor rural schools suffer from many of the same issues as poor urban schools. This is not simply related to the funding the school itself receives. The home life of its students, the general desperation level of the community and the attendant lack of hope or vision that is tied to poverty play a role in the overall educational environment.

I could go on about this at length. It is something I have studied in my student past and taken an interest in after as a teacher and friend of teachers. But, as I said, that is probably another post.

4 Brandon February 10, 2009 at 3:52 pm

Who said the suburbs were “class segregated”? I grew up in rural northern Virginia (not so rural anymore) and there were lower and upper class sections of my city/town. The same can be said of all the surrounding counties of where I grew up and practically every rural area I’ve ever visited, ever. Contrary to popular belief the suburbs are not just a “safe” escape for middle class people. Just as contrary to popular belief cities are not over run by crime, drugs, disease, and poverty.

Also I think the argument about how dangerous cars are has little, if any relevance to suburban life vs city life. In my personal experience I never came close to getting in an accident while living in the suburbs, not once. Since moving to cities (NYC, DC, Philly) I’ve come close to an automobile accident (as a driver, passenger, pedestrian, biker) at least once a month. Based off my personal experiences people drive far more dangerously in cities than they do in rural areas. In regards to the UVA study which was done long after I’ve left I will concede that the roads where I grew up are far more dangerous now than they used to be. The roads are incredibly over crowded all over northern VA. Poor planning, combined with insane population growth is to blame.

As for the environmental/energy impact I doubt the amount of cars in this country will ever change much so the real problem is one of better standards, etc. (which is a whole other topic). This is America and people like their cars, or their 7 cars for that matter. My neighbor, who is a single mom living with her daughter, has 3 cars. My best friend, who is single and lives alone, has 3 cars. Take a trip to South Philly west of Broad St. and you’ll see that people double park (legally) because they have so many cars in that area. Just because a person lives in the city, doesn’t necessarily mean they care to take use of the walk-ability they have at their doorstep. People are not going to forego car ownership and thus decrease the danger that comes with it simply because they live in the city.

As for reasons to flee the city in favor of the suburbs there is a simple one that I think you’re just over looking. Sometimes people just get sick of living on top of each other. City life is hectic, it’s crowded, it’s loud, and it’s definitely not for everyone. Currently I love living in the city, but I’m not going to pretend that I’m not going to end up back in the suburbs at some point in the future (far future). It comes down to space more than anything I think. Right now I’m content with my 900sf home on a tight South Philly block. But that feeling won’t last forever I know, and there is little if anything the city can do to provide me with more “space”.

5 Nic Darling February 10, 2009 at 4:50 pm

Wow. A lot to respond to Brandon.

1. I had a feeling someone would comment on the class segregation line and perhaps I should have been more clear in my delivery. I did not mean that rural living is a form of class segregation and I am certainly not grouping the trailer park denizens of my home town with the McMansion dwellers two miles away. I was specifically talking about the suburbia of sprawling production house neighborhoods, turned in on themselves with cul-de-sacs and “road to nowhere” loops. I am making a comparison between the increasing isolation of those neighborhoods and the sort of extreme class segregation we see in the walled compounds and communities of Brazil or South Africa. The extremity of appearance differs but the mentality seems the same. Ah, the things we are willing to create in the name of safety.

2. I believe the car danger argument remains relevant despite your own anecdotal experience. I would be willing to bet that the UVA study conducted anywhere in the US would yield similar results. Cities are safer than suburbs and rural areas when one combines car fatalities and homicides. The further and more often you drive, the greater the likelihood of accident. Suburban and rural individuals drive further and more often. So much further and more often that the perceived “dangerousness” of city driving habits does not close the accident gap.

3. I think you point out an important concern here. Car ownership is a very American ideal. Philly seems to have a particular fascination with machines. However, ownership in the city is actually decreasing as are the number of miles driven. This is a result of a number of factors, including car sharing (though they are apt to claim it’s all their doing), revitalization of neighborhoods, more in-city job opportunity, higher gas prices (however temporarily), the troubled economy and an influx of individuals intent on embracing car-lessness as a benefit of urban living. Even prior to this decrease, people in urban areas owned fewer cars than their suburban counter parts. They have foregone car ownership though I agree . . . not necessarily because they wanted to.

4. This, as with Grant’s education comment, is probably another post as it doesn’t involve safety specifically. I will say for now that I think some sacrifice in this area is inevitable. As energy prices and food costs increase (and they will) the rewards for density will outweigh the desire for quiet. However, knowing this we are in a position to plan new neighborhoods and urbanized centers that make density and walkability more comfortable. I honestly believe that such a thing is possible and hope some individuals like you stick around to help us achieve it.

6 lavardera February 11, 2009 at 5:21 pm

The comments on schools and education are interesting, but I have to say that my observation is that in affluent suburbs there are many very busy parents, and many children that can be a combo of spoiled, or alternatively raised by disinterested nannies. This leads more often than you’d think to a well funded youth that is contemptuous of the very social structures they are beneficiaries of. Its a sad and pathetic combination of good standardized test grades and poor social values. This is only partially solved by private school, where you escape some of the hand tying created by public funding. You may get some of the worst of the worst (best funded, worst behaved) kids, but they of course can be kicked out of private school.

Anyway, my point is the suburbs are no educational nirvana. YMMV.

7 tom toolbag February 12, 2009 at 11:14 am

First off, there are some things that have to be understood. A crime has a perpatrator and a victim. An accident is only an accident, regardless of who is at fault. Auto safety falls into the accident category, even if it’s dui related.
Another thing to consider is: a crime has a reporting, a complaint, an arrest, a conviction. With our type of legal system, police cannot just stop or arrest someone without cause. Then again, if there is a high-crime area, is it because of any of the above reasons? Or is it the possibility that if police are somewhere, there will be “more” crime because people are caught in the process of committing it. If the police were in a low-crime area, would they catch as many people? Where I live, in the rural areas in the county sometimes only has 2-5 deputies patrolling the whole rural area of several hundred square miles. Granted, it is less populated, but property crimes are common. An average farmer could have tens of thousands of dollars in tools and equipment in his shop that are routinely stolen. One thing is also common, thieves take their chances trying to commit a crime in the rural area, they run a very high, real risk of being shot. That isn’t as common to thieves in a city setting. The noise and distractions of city life hides a lot of crime. I’m not saying someone wouldn’t shoot a thief if they caught them, it’s just that they aren’t caught as easily.
There was a stat a long time ago about the chances of an auto accident is greatest within 5 miles of your home. The rural and suburbs have changed a lot over the years, the rural environment used to have a lot of family farms but that has drastically reduced. When I was younger, there were no suburbs. Farmers worked where they lived, so the daily commute wasn’t an issue. In a city setting, heavy traffic is a big issue, with all the vehicles, traffic lights and such. The speeds are lower, but the chances are greater, whereas in the rural environment, the speeds are higher are more likely to be greater injuries, but a lot of the accidents are one car due to weather.
When populations become more dense(inner city) more problems arise, especially when there are differences in the people in that confined area. The urban sprawl around here is attributed 100% to wanting a better school for the homeowners children, and maintaining property values which is tied to the school. Elderly people also buy because of schools for the equity reason, but try to weigh it out in relation to taxes and the fact that noone in the household is using the school.
Personally, I like living in the country. The peace and quiet can’t be matched, and the wide open space is wonderful. I grew up in that type of environment, maybe that’s why I like it so much. Some of my friends grew up in town or the city and couldn’t imagine living out in the middle of knowhere and being far from services/grocery/restraunts/bars. I guess it’s up to each person.

8 lavardera February 12, 2009 at 11:30 am

It does not have to be about cities. I’d love if we developed dense village scaled towns, 10 minute walk from one end to another, with farms and open space right outside the town limits. Market, school, workplaces, could all be walkable, or bikeable, bus or light rail to the next town over if thats where you happen to work. Sprawl is the culprit in forcing driving and related accidents. But “I don’t want to live in the city” does not justify sprawl.

9 Rita February 14, 2009 at 10:55 am

Like most debates one can come up with numbers to justify almost any side of an issue. There is no right and wrong here. But I’m hard pressed to accept the clam that cities are safer than suburbia. You can go to most any sprawling commuity within 25 miles of Philadelphia and the number of murders and assaults are infrequent if non-existent. Philly had so many last year they asked the news media to stop reporting the count becasue it was hurting tourism. The fact that six police officers, one yesterday, have been killed in the past year doesn’t bode well for the argument that cities are safe. Even on a per capita basis.
People moved to the suburbs to get some space and largely to give their children a better education than what was being provided by a somewhat failed system.
Look at it this way. Your a hard working mom and dad in the city. You work and you save. People in the neighborhhod get robbed. People on the corner are selling drugs. The city takes additional tax out of your paycheck. Your car insurance is higher than anywhere else. Your son just got beat up in school because some jerk wanted his I-pod. Your daughter keeps getting harassed because she’s attractive, smart and a potential victim. The couple living next door in your rowhouse fight like cats and dogs all hours of the night. Your car was stolen three months ago while parked on the street. What do you do?

Probably the last thing is think about cul-de-saks, winding roads and communting a few extra miles each day. You think, I gotta get out of here becuase even though I can put up with all of these minor irritations I’m afraid that one day something more serious is going to impact my family. And each time a good family like this leaves the city the percentage of victims (those wronged and those doing wrong) increases to the point where those remainig are in a survival mode where like Jack Bauer rules don’t matter.
If your are an eight year old kid and everyone in your neighborhood that’s doing well is selling drugs, ripping people off or working for or with a gang what the heck will you most likely decide to do? Especially while your dad’s in jail and not around and your mother is working her rear end off on two jobs that don’t pay beans. You work like crazy to obtain a “get out of town” pass.
The single biggest four problems today are: drugs, family, education & wages.
Everyone wants to get guns off the street while drugs are the single biggest factor ripping apart society.
Divorce, lack of morality & jail keep creating children without fathers. Society needs a father figure to guide and control. And my hats goes off to every mother and grandmother that’s alone doing the job of two.
If you don’t get an education you beocme a victim to all that I have described.
Finally wages. Who the heck can prosper on eight bucks an hour. Nobody. After taxes that’s $1,000 per month. At that rate you are stuck in the city. In some cheap run down room, with no car, no health insurance living week to week. No wonder we have problems.

10 Pinkrobe February 17, 2009 at 3:35 pm

Great comments from all – I really enjoy this site.

I’ll give a perspective from up North. I live in Calgary, AB, Canada, a city of about 1 million people. In 2007, we had 26 homicides and 49 traffic fatalities [depending on whose stats you go with]. The locations of the homicides are shown on this map: Unfortunately, I don’t have a map of the traffic fatalities, but from what I know they are almost all outside of the downtown core. My take on those numbers is: stay away from the ‘burbs [most murders and traffic deaths happen there].

I don’t believe that living close to downtown Calgary is a dicey proposition. Traffic is slow and low, everybody sees everything that goes on at street level, the neighbors gossip and I don’t have to worry when I walk to the pub in the evening. There’s almost always people around. I get a bit creeped out when I’m in the ‘burbs – it’s like walking through a ghost town or something. The houses are dark, there are no streetsigns [not that they would help - damn fractal road layouts] and no police. ‘Tis spooky. Oh, and forget riding a bike in those areas. Minivans and SUVs everywhere…

I don’t see the issue with the schools either. There are two highly-regarded private schools, plus 4 of the best public schools in the city within walking distance of my house. The schools in the outlying areas tend to be much newer and shiny, but chronically overpopulated.

11 Thomas February 27, 2009 at 4:30 am

I’m also from Calgary so I just want to comment on schools up here since they have popped up in the comments. I preface this with the fact that my information on the American school system comes from what I gleam from the news and “The Wire.”

In Calgary the schools are actually worse in the suburbs in that there are no schools in the suburbs since the city allowed development without the money to build schools (or forcing developers to build schools). So kids in those areas get bused around. Only now has this shortfall been recently made up, and only to a point.
As well there is not nearly as much inequality in the public school system because the province (state) pays for schools not the city so there is a more even distribution of funding for schools. Living in a poorer area does not automatically translate into poorer schools. So according to this model the entire state of Maryland would pay for the upkeep of Edward Tilghman Middle School in West Baltimore, not just the city of Baltimore.

Federal transfer payments among the provinces make sure funding is fairly equal among the provinces rich or poor, though this also for all government services not just education.

We do have private schools in Calgary and the seperate Catholic School system, but both systems use public funding. I do not have particularly in depth knowledge on the student bodies of the various charter schools (what we call private schools in Calgary) but there is much less pressure on middle-class parents here to find good schools in Calgary. In general the public system has not been as roughly handled here as in the states, which I would attribute to decoupling their operations from local funding.

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