Can parks help cities fight crime?

In cities, people tend to think of parks as dangerous.

city parks can reduce crime rates

The relationship between parks and crime remains the subject of debate.


Some scholars say parks and other urban green spaces prevent violence. When vacant lots and deteriorating urban spaces are transformed into more appealing and useful places for residents, violence and crime typically decline in the immediate vicinity.

In a study of public housing developments in Chicago, researchers found 52% fewer crimes reported near buildings surrounded by trees and other vegetation. In New York City, neighborhoods with higher investment in public green space see an average of 213 fewer felonies per year.

Similar relationships between green space and crime have been observed in Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia and Portland, as well as in cities outside the U.S.

In many cities, however, people see parks as dangerous – magnets for illicit activities like drug dealing and places for criminals to access potential victims who, while engaged in recreation, may be less vigilant about their belongings and personal safety.

Research supports this idea, too. One 2015 study of multiple U.S. cities found that property crime rates are two to four times higher in neighborhoods near parks. Violent crimes rates were up to 11 times worse.

So do parks make cities safer or more dangerous? The short answer is: It depends on the park.

Green space leads to lower crime

One reason that evidence on the relationship between parks and crime is so mixed is that most studies on this subject have focused on a single city or location.

In an effort to identify nationwide trends, our team of researchers at Clemson and North Carolina State universities in 2017 began gathering information on crime, green space and parks in the 300 largest cities in the United States.

Unlike many studies that use the terms “parks" and “green space" interchangeably, our analysis distinguished between these two urban environments.

Green space was measured by the amount of grass, plants, tree canopy cover and other greenery on the landscape. We defined urban parks as designated open spaces managed by a public agency – a subset of green space.

To distinguish the impact of green spaces from social factors typically linked to crime – population density, income, education, diversity and social disadvantage – we controlled for those factors when evaluating crime data.

We learned that more green space was associated with lower risk of crime across neighborhoods in all 300 cities we studied.

Burglaries, larceny, auto theft and other property crimes occur less often in greener neighborhoods in every city in our sample. Violent crimes like murder, assault and armed robbery were also less common in greener neighborhoods in nearly all the cities we studied.

Only three cities in our sample did not benefit from green space. In Chicago, Detroit and Newark – all places with notoriously high and stubborn crime rates – more green space was associated with higher levels of violent crime.

Scholars have identified several reasons why the presence of green space may lead to lower crime.

Contact with nature reduces precursors to crime like stress and aggression, making people feel happier and less inclined to engage in criminal acts. By giving people a place to participate in outdoor activities together, parks also promote positive social interactions and neighborly connections within diverse urban communities.

And when people gather in parks and other green spaces, it puts more “eyes on the streets," exposing criminals to constant community surveillance.

Finally, there's some evidence that more green space makes nearby areas safer simply by pushing crime into nearby neighborhoods – not outright eliminating it.


Parks: Crime hot spots or safe havens?

In the second step of our study, we narrowed the focus of our analysis to just urban parks. The results were less positive.

Examining four cities in different U.S. regions – Austin, Philadelphia, Phoenix and San Francisco – we found that violent crime was 28% to 64% higher in neighborhoods adjacent to parks than in neighborhoods located a mile from the same parks. Property crime was 38% to 63% higher in areas close to parks.

The only exception was Phoenix, where proximity to parks had no impact on property crime.

Zooming out from our four-city sample, we found evidence that some parks actually do a good job of deterring crime. Design and maintenance are critical if parks are to reduce, rather than attract, crime.

New York's Bryant Park, in Midtown Manhattan, was once a notorious haven for criminal activity – a place office workers avoided walking through after dark. In 1985 Bryant Park was closed for a massive renovation effort that included the addition of activities and events there. When it reopened in 1992, police reported a 92% decrease in local crime.

In Los Angeles, a citywide Summer Night Lights program started in 2007 to promote positive activities in parks after dark is credited with reducing crime in nearby neighborhoods by 40% over three years.

And construction of a new elevated trail in Chicago seems to have made the neighborhoods it runs through safer. Between 2011 and 2015, areas on The 606 trail saw 2.8 times less violent crime and 1.6 times less property crime than comparable low-income Chicago neighborhoods over the same period.

Parks that are designed for safety, heavily programmed on an ongoing basis and well maintained tend to attract residents whose presence serves as a crime deterrent.

That means not just amenities like ball fields and cultural facilities but also the active involvement of the local community and sources of sustainable, ongoing funding. When parks are allowed to deteriorate, the decaying infrastructure and bad reputation of parks can turn them into magnets for crime.

Critically, both program and landscape design must also reflect the broader community in which a park sits, creating public spaces where everyone from office workers to local teens can appreciate and enjoy the entire range of social, economic and health benefits that parks offer.

More legitimate park users means increased monitoring and sense of ownership over a public space. This process known as "territorial reinforcement" is a key tenet of crime prevention through environmental design.

Urban parks and green space enhance the well-being of city residents, promoting physical activity, mental health and a sense of community.

Whether they also reduce crime depends on the park, city, the neighborhood and, critically, how well an urban green space is managed.The Conversation

Lincoln Larson, Assistant Professor, North Carolina State University and S. Scott Ogletree, PhD Candidate and Researcher in Parks and Conservation, Clemson University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
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Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

"Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

"There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

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Megalodon attacks a seal.

Credit: Catmando / Adobe Stock.
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