Sunday, October 2, 2011

Is mixed use crimogenic?

In Euclid v. Ambler Realty, the Supreme Court upheld single-use zoning; one of the arguments that the Court credited was that a “place of business in a residence neighborhood furnishes an excuse for any criminal to go into the neighborhood, where, otherwise, a stranger would be under the ban of suspicion.” After Euclid, cities everywhere adopted single-use zoning codes; nevertheless, crime exploded and cities decayed in the 1960s.

As neighborhoods built under Euclidean zoning began to fail, the intellectual tide turned. In the 1960s, Jane Jacobs wrote that the presence of shopkeepers creates “eyes on the street” and thus actually reduces crime. Her views are popular among new urbanists, who have occasionally created neighborhoods with more of a mix of uses than under typical Euclidean zoinng.

Some recent scholarship has discussed criminological literature which apparently supports the Euclid Court’s point of view, by drawing a correlation between nonresidential land uses and crime or disorder. But in my view, this scholarship fails to support the Euclid Court’s view.

For example, one criminology article by Profs. Samson and Raudenbush in the American Journal of Sociology asserts that “Mixed land use has been shown to be a robust but understudied correlate of crime and disorder.” (1) Samson and Roudebush then discuss a study of Chicago census tracts which (according to them) proves the point.

Based on videotapes of 196 Chicago census tracts, Samson and Raudenbush find a positive correlation between mixed land use and forms of minor social disorder such as littering and “loitering” (whatever that means).

But the kinds of disorder Samson and Raudenbush are interested in did not translate into crime (as measured by surveys of neighborhood residents). According to them, the relationship between disorder and predatory crime is “spurious”; after controlling for a variety of other factors, “the coefficient for [physical and social] disorder is reduced to insignificance.”

The same table they use to prove the point shows that the correlation between mixed land use and personal violence is in fact negative, and that the correlation between mixed land use and burglary is (although positive) insignificant.

Samson and Roudebush also seek to measure crime through police reports (as opposed to surveys, which pick up crimes not reported to police). This measurement also does not support a correlation between crime and mixed use; as to homicide, burglary, and robbery, the correlation between mixed use and crime is not significant.

In support of their critique of mixed use, Samson and Raudenbush cite an article by Ralph Taylor asserting that mixed-use blocks have “more physical deterioration” (to quote the title)(2) But the whole point of Samson and Roudebush’s work is that crime doesn’t necessarily correlate with minor disorder; if this is the case, then a correlation between mixed use and disorder, even if true, proves nothing about the relationship between mixed use and crime.

Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I cannot claim to have reviewed every possibly relevant article, just a couple that I have seen cited in law reviews.


(1) Robert J. Sampson and Stephen W. Raudebush, Systematic Social Observation of Public Spaces: A New Look at Disorder in Urban Neighborhoods, 105 American Journal of Society 603 (1999). In particular see id. At 622, 627, 629.

(2) Ralph Taylor et. Al., Street Blocks with More Nonresidential Land Use Have More Physical Deterioration: Evidence from Baltimore and Philadelphia, 31 Urban Affairs Review 20 (1995).

Michael Lewyn

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