Related Materials on Safety in New Urban Neighborhoods
By Laurence Aurbach
February 19, 2005

Mixed use, alleys and gated communities

The empirical evidence on crime in mixed use areas is, appropriately enough, mixed. Some studies have found higher rates of crime, while others have found that the character of the commercial districts can have a beneficial effect. The presence of lively, bustling shoppers tends to inhibit criminal activity. See the article, "Architecture as Crime Control" for some citations on this topic. Those who say it's about tradeoffs are exactly right. The point of my rebuttal was that the tradeoffs are not nearly as draconian and frightening as Town and O'Toole would have us believe.

[Update August 29, 2006] Space Sytax researchers Bill Hillier and Ozlem Sahbaz studied the relationships between crime, mixed use and urban design in their report, High Resolution Analysis of Crime Patterns in Urban Street Networks. In the concluding remarks, they write:

Mixed use is context sensitive: it depends how you do it. The critical thing is that the more residential outweighs non-residential, the better it tends to get. There is more crime in and around urban centres at all scales (we have yet to clarify the role of tube stations), and where this leads to isolated dwellings, or dwellings with very few neighbours, then this is associated with higher burglary. But to the extent that the ratio of dwellings to non-residential uses is increased -- we might say to the extent that a residential culture is established -- this disadvantage is very much reduced. We need to look at some high residence town centres, perhaps in France. Robbery rates are likewise higher in and around centres, but less than the increase in movement rates, so risks are reduced during the times when movement levels are good. Main streets are dangerous without good movement rates, as they are late at night, but when movement rates are good, the less integrated and less connected spaces associated with centres are the dangerous places.

Alleys must be properly designed also. Techniques to ensure natural surveillance are extremely important. Carriage houses (a.k.a. "granny flats") facing the alley can be a very helpful component, and they can bring in rental income too.

If O'Toole and Town are correct that new urbanism increases crime, where is the evidence from new urbanist communities? To quote Rob Stueteville: "Since nearly 500 sizable new urbanist communities are under construction or built in the US -- 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?" Stueteville's letter to the editor answers this question in detail.

It's interesting that studies of gated communities find no difference in crime rates compared to similar non-gated communities. And, speaking of tradeoffs, there are other threats to consider besides crime. Here are a couple: Exurban cul-de-sac developments often have below-standard fire, police and ambulance response times because the street pattern is so inconvenient and development is so dispersed. The excessively wide, curvilinear streets and arterials of suburbia encourage drivers to speed, making collisions with pedestrians more harmful or fatal when they occur. There is more risk of dying from from an automobile crash in the suburbs than there is from homicide in the center city.

Multifamily housing

Many studies have confirmed that crime in multifamily housing is related to demographics, not density. Regional policies to deconcentrate low-income housing are crucial to maintain flourishing neighborhoods. A limit of approximately 10% low-income housing in any given building and/or neighborhood can work well.

Some critics make the blanket assertion that all multifamily housing has a higher rate of crime, a charge that can be compelling. It fits with the generally fear-based policy discussions that are currently (Feb. 2005) running nonstop on C-Span and other media outlets. However, I have found no rigorous support for that assertion, and the National Multi Housing Council actually labels it an "apartment myth."

This report cites an Arizona study that found:

" when police data are analyzed on a per-unit basis, apartments actually create less demand for police services than a comparable number of single family houses. In Tempe, AZ, a random sample of 1,000 calls for service shows that 35 percent originated from single family homes and just 21 percent came from apartments. Similarly, a random sample of 600 calls for service in Phoenix, AZ found that an apartment unit's demand for police services was only 42 percent of the demand created by a single family house." (Elliot D. Pollack and Company. Economic and Fiscal Impact of Multi-Family Housing. September 17, 1996. Arizona: Arizona Multihousing Association.)

One critique of that study is that the Arizona multifamily market is composed largely of retirement communities where one would expect low crime rates. If anyone knows of other research on this topic, I would surely like to learn about it.

Some related facts about multifamily housing:

1) Forty percent of Americans living in an apartment do so by choice and not because of their financial situation. That percentage has increased steadily from 28 percent in 1999. Households earning $50,000 or more are the fastest-growing segment of the apartment market, and now total more than 3.6 million.

2) Multifamily housing - and even public multifamily housing - does not diminish nearby housing values. In some cases, it even increases housing values by creating the population base necessary to support shopping, commercial and civic activities, a civic realm with more people out walking, as well as convenient transit service.

(Source: From NIMBY to Good Neighbors: Recent Studies Reinforce That Apartments Are Good For a Community)

Of course, good building design and competent management are always important in achieving high quality multifamily residences.

Background on Randal O'Toole

Randal O'Toole is a forest economist who holds a bachelor's degree in forestry. He runs a small think tank called the Thoreau Institute, based suburban Portland, OR. His organization received $271,000 over 1997-2002 from the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Charlotte and Walter Kohler Charitable Trust, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. These are well-known foundations that aggressively promote the neoconservative agenda. They send funding to Reason magazine too.

A liberal critique of those foundations can be found in this report. There is also this article which goes to the heart of the matter, despite its odious, hysterical title. If I were a neoconservative funder, interested in maximum privatization, the most logical case for supporting O'Toole's vendetta against new urbanism is that new urbanism advocates public space and the civic life that takes place there. But there is undoubtedly some ideological confusion taking place. The current zoning and permitting regime in most of the U.S. is hardly an example of the free market in action, and new urbanists advocate a greater range of choices. Or consider this: The Bradley Foundation was a major promoter of school vouchers in Milwaukee, a program that was endorsed by Mayor John Norquist -- who is now president of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

The irony is the strong support for the Bush administration that exists in many new urbanist communities. In late 2004 and early 2005 I toured new urbanist developments in Virginia, Alabama and Florida, where I saw scores of Bush/Cheney signs and bumper stickers and few for Kerry.


1. Correcting the Crimogenic Crowd
2. O'Toole's Response to Aurbach
3. A Reply or Two to O'Toole
4. Related Materials on Safety and Neighborhoods