Reason Magazine's Bad Crime TIp

A top Libertarian magazine has given its readers some bad advice on crime and its relationship to urban form

Tags for this image:

Reason Magazine has given its readers some bad crime advice, publishing a piece with a shaky grasp of the relationship between safety and urban design. Just as bad, the article misses the point on a subject its editors should know a thing or two about - the regulatory environment governing what gets built and where in the United States.

The article in question - Crime Friendly Neighborhoods - hit the magazine's web site this past week. It's written by Stephen Town, a British police officer who specializes in fortifying communities against crime, and Randal O'Toole, an economist known for attention-getting critiques that caricaturize the principles of traditional neighborhood design and New Urbanism.

The piece purports to take on New Urbanism and its efforts to promote communities built around compact traditional neighborhoods, but spends most of its 3,000 words confusing New Urbanism with other very different planning trends.

Near the top of the piece, Town and O'Toole make the sweeping claim that the neighborhood designs of New Urbanists "almost invariably increase crime." But as Rob Steuteville, editor of New Urban News, notes in a rebuttal to the article, O'Toole and Town have a strange way of going about proving this hypothesis. "The 3,000-word article fails to mention a single New Urbanist community in the US that has increased crime," writes Steuteville. "Since nearly 500 sizable New Urbanist communities are under construction or built in the US ... why couldn't the authors come up with a single example...? The New Urbanism, after all, began the US more than 20 years ago."

Steuteville ticks off a list of well-known and well-received new communities where the authors could have tested their theories, including Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Maryland, Celebration near Orlando, Florida, and Orenco Station in Hillsboro, Oregon. "The idea that crime is a problem in these New Urbanist towns is laughable," says Steuteville.

And then there are the hundreds of infill projects that incorporate major elements of traditional urban design - projects such as Paseo Colorado in Pasadena, CA, and CityPlace in Long Beach, CA, which have replaced failed enclosed shopping malls with neighborhoods mixing residences and shops. They are associated with upturns in formerly struggling parts of their downtowns.

By far the strangest omission in the Reason piece, however, are the hundreds of public housing developments redeveloped according to New Urbanist design principles under the federal Hope VI program. Hope VI replaced towering and isolated housing "projects" with mixed-income neighborhoods incorporating townhouses, small apartment buildings and often schools or businesses, all on smaller blocks that connect with the surrounding street grid.

"The HOPE VI projects have been the subject of numerous studies, and they have come through with flying colors," reports Steuteville. "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 rates fell dramatically," says Steuteville, summarizing the results of a study by Sean Zielenbach for the Housing Research Foundation. At Diggs Town in Norfolk, VA, where a New Urbanist plan was put into place without displacing residents, police calls dropped from 25-30 calls a day to about three a week, according to one study.

The research that Town and O'Toole do cite at length is primarily from the 1970s and pre-dates the New Urbanism movement.
Ironically, this seminal research by Oscar Newman grew out of his early observations that design flaws in St. Louis' Pruitt-Igoe public housing projects - which towered in isolation on desolate superblocks - made them more prone to crime. New Urbanists agreed with him and made fixing such design flaws a hallmark of the Hope VI program.

For Town and O'Toole, the lessons of Newman's research are extremely narrow. The problems of Pruitt-Igoe and other unsafe neighborhoods is too much public accessibility and unclaimed public space. So anything that restricts public access - cul-de-sacs, gates, the replacement of public parks with large, fenced back yards - is good, while anything that aids public accessibility is dangerous.

Newman himself didn't see things this way at all, as Laurence Aurbach has noted at City Comforts Blog. In his book Design Guidelines for Creating Defensible Spaces, Newman recognized a multitude of ways to promote safety through design. While it's obvious that building gated communities full of cul-de-sacs is one way of creating defensible space, Newman noted that safety improvements can also be gained from traditionally urban techniques that allow people to observe and claim responsibility for a space, even as it's shared with the public.

Where places have adequate "natural surveillance," Newman did not generally advise closing off streets and paths. Some of his own plans improved circulation. In the case of an Indianapolis public housing development, he proposed “a system of streets to penetrate the entire site” and said increased circulation would “greatly facilitate” the work of police.

In urban neighborhoods, Newman promoted "the close juxtaposition of the building with the street so that as many apartment interiors and building entries as possible face the street." Residents more easily extend their zones of influence over narrower streets, rather than wider ones, he said.

New Urbanists know these strategies well. Their goal is not adding accessibility and public space, willy-nilly, as Town and O'Toole allege. It's to create harmonious urban places that combine private spaces with active and well-observed, well-connected streets and other public spaces. Streets, squares and plazas are compact and lined with buildings whose many doors and windows help occupants provide ongoing natural surveillance. In places ranging from Brunswick, Maine to Savannah, Georgia to New York's Greenwich Village, these strategies create a satisfying level of safety. The logic of well-observed places is well-understood publicly - it's why today's parking structures are built with glassy stair towers facing streets and why they're now viewed as far more friendly and inviting.

With few real facts on their side, Town and O'Toole keep distorting the image of New Urbanism. In their opening anecdote, they cite the simple act of adding a bike path to the end of a British cul-de-sac as a New Urbanist act. Note to authors: Bike paths aren't a particularly urban form and inserting them into an area of cul-de-sacs hardly makes them urban. No New Urbanist would expect it to lead to a reduction in crime. So why blame us when the new path gave vandals from a nearby school easier access to the neighborhood?

The authors also portray cul-de-sac subdivisions as a sort of natural state of suburbia and New Urbanist reforms as attempts to regulate conventional suburbia out of existence. In truth, suburbia is already highly regulated. New Urbanism is a reaction against the arsenal of regulations and standards governing community design and real estate development in the United States. These mandates force the separation of businesses, residences, and civic facilities onto widely dispersed parcels reachable only by automobile. If you love the way the court house, church, school, shops and residences frame the public green in a place such as Woodstock, IL (better known as the setting for Bill Murray's Groundhog Day), you can almost forget about building another community like it without having to change a lot of regulations, which is no easy task.

Don't just take it from us. Here's Catesby Leigh, writing in the National Review: "The idea that suburbia is a spontaneous, market-driven phenomenon is completely false... Modernist planning is deeply entrenched. In most of the country, getting traditional, mixed-use neighborhood projects approved is a Herculean task, for the simple reason that they are illegal under postwar zoning ordinances. Under the modernist regime, builders specialize in plopping down substantial quantities of homogeneous 'product' in self-contained precincts. One builder does apartment houses, another single-family homes, another hotels, another office towers, another warehouses, and so on."

Strangely, Reason joins O'Toole as defenders of this heavy-handed regulatory culture - and opponents of reform efforts that seek better options for community leaders in shaping their communities, as well as more options for citizens in choosing a community. Adds Leigh, "Officials at all levels of government should do what they can to level the playing field for competition between two very distinct approaches to shaping the human environment by making sure the [New Urbanist] SmartCode approach is an option for local communities - which, of course, should have the final say on land-use issues." Hear, hear.

CNU President and CEO John Norquist invites the editors of Reason and other libertarians to have a true dialogue on community design. He notes that the Congress for the New Urbanism invited O'Toole to a debate at its annual Congress in Chicago last year and even paid his air fare. That makes the poorly substantiated attack puzzling. "There's a bitterness emanating from this man towards New Urbanism that's hard to understand," said Norquist. "We welcome a true exchange with the libertarians. When you get past stereotypes, it's clear that New Urbanism seeks to broaden consumer choice. We strongly advocate for the benefits of traditional neighborhood design, but it's not about forcing that choice on anybody. The desirability and safety of well-designed urban places speak for themselves."
—Stephen Filmanowicz