Neighborhoods that combine residential and business developments have lower levels of some types of violent crime, suggests a new study.
The findings were equally true in impoverished areas as they were in more affluent neighborhoods, possibly offering city planners and politicians a new option in improving crime-afflicted areas, according to the researchers.
But the study’s findings are a bit tricky. In sparsely populated neighborhoods, increases in business-residential density initially lead to more frequent violent crimes. However, once the building density reached a certain threshold, certain types of violent crime began to decline.
“A residential neighborhood needs more than the addition of one or two businesses to see any positive impact on violent crime,” said Christopher Browning, professor of sociology at Ohio State University and lead author of the study.
“There needs to be a sufficient density of businesses and residences throughout the community to really see the benefits.”
The findings are significant as more cities across the country move toward mixed developments as a way to bolster downtowns and run-down neighborhoods, said Browning.
But the question has remained as to whether these mixed-use neighborhoods would have positive or negative effects on crime rates. Some have disputed that businesses attract more foot traffic to neighborhoods, and that the increased street activity brings more “eyes on the street” which in turn helps curb crime.
On the other hand, there are those who think that increasing businesses causes residents to withdraw into their homes to avoid crowds and strangers in their communities, which could make crime more likely.
To see which theory holds true, Browning and his colleagues examined data from 184 census tracts in Columbus, Ohio. They determined how much of each census tract was devoted to businesses and how much was residential in 2000. Then they studied 1999-2001 rates of homicide, aggravated assault and robbery in each census tract.
They focused on these violent crimes because they will less likely occur in public places when there are more “eyes on the street.”
The researchers discovered that homicides and aggravated assaults initially increased in low-density mixed-use neighborhoods as the density increased, but then began to decline once a threshold of density was met. However, robberies continued to increase right along with the rise in commercial-residential density.
Browning said that robbery, unlike other violent crimes, is possibly more of a strategic crime that is easier to hide from potential witnesses, and not as easy to control by watchful citizens.
In general, Browning said the results show that the interaction of customers visiting businesses with residents of a neighborhood really does decrease violent crime – at least once there’s sufficient density.
The results aren’t number specific in revealing how much business-residential density is required to cut crime for individual cities, Browning said. But in Columbus, violent crimes began to drop when density levels reached about average for the city.
Browning explains that in neighborhoods with low density, a few new businesses may bring strangers to the area, and without enough people around to keep an eye on things, there could be an initial increase in violent crime.
“You can’t develop a mixed-use community in a limited way, with just a few businesses in one corner of a neighborhood. You need enough business and enough housing to have a vibrant pedestrian community, with people walking around and watching what’s going on around them.”
Browning said it was especially hopeful that, even in disadvantaged neighborhoods, mixed-use developments could help cut back on some violent crimes.
“Some people have wondered if mixed-use developments are only helpful in preventing crimes in more affluent areas, but that’s not what we found,” Browning said.
“If anything, mixed land use was slightly more effective in preventing crime in disadvantaged areas. That suggests there is the possibility of creating more viable streets and public spaces in blighted neighborhoods with properly planned development,” he said.
Browning conducted the study with Ohio State colleagues Catherine Calder, associate professor of statistics; Lauren Krivo, professor of sociology; Mei-Po Kwan, professor of geography; and Ruth Peterson, professor of sociology. Other co-authors included Reginald Byron of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas and Jae-Yong Lee of the Korea Research Institute in Daejeon, Korea.
The study appears in the current issue of the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency and was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Source: Ohio State University