Can Zoning Reduce Crime?

Posted: March 8, 2013 in Research
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Jane Jacobs popularized the relationship between architecture and crime in her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and some research has continued since then into the connection between these two apparently disparate fields. Unfortunately, urban planing, zoning, and related areas of the law get very little attention as crime control strategies in the mainstream press. The focus instead is often on topics that seem more directly relevant, such as criminal law, policing strategies, sentencing structures, and efforts to rehabilitate individuals.

So, what can zoning law offer in the way of crime reduction?

Last month, the University of Pennsylvania Law Review published an article about the impact of zoning law changes on crime rates in high-crime areas of Los Angeles. The study’s authors examined 205 blocks in eight sections of the city and found significant crime reduction in many areas where residential zones had been added during the four-year period considered in the study (2006-2010). In fact, areas exclusively zoned as residential had the lowest crime rates, as compared with exclusively commercial or industrial zones. Mixed-use zones fell somewhere in between the two.

This partially supports Jane Jacobs’ assertions about the effects of mixed-use development on crime, although in the opposite direction than she had hypothesized. Instead of commercial zones having a protective effect on residential areas, the reverse was found to be true in the above study.  Nevertheless, Jacobs’ intuition that organic surveillance reduced crime has found some support in the Los Angeles study.

All of this raises the larger question of how to integrate zoning into an overall crime reduction strategy. Zoning doesn’t offer the same appeal that a new policing strategy or a community engagement project might, and it certainly doesn’t have the same sound-bite quality as does announcing the hiring of additional officers to provide targeted patrols.  It’s a slow strategy that will take considerable time to evolve in a given area.

Are you aware of any specific efforts to implement this type of crime reduction strategy in the U.S. or elsewhere?

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