Less Crime, By Design

A cop’s most powerful tool is his … lawnmower?

March 2022

Script

Click to reveal bonus content (fun facts and additional insights) within script.

 

Fighting crime. It’s a tough business. But these city streets aren’t going to keep themselves safe.

You wanna keep the peace … you gotta be ready for anything … head on a swivel.

It takes more than instincts though. A cop’s only as good as his tools. You know the drill: handcuffs, nightstick, lawnmower.

Wait, lawnmower? What the hell?

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

People, there’s no easy way to say this: You are being manipulated. Probably every day. And in ways you don’t even perceive.

Here’s what we mean: All throughout America, there are businesses that have carefully designed their physical spaces to change your behavior.

You go into the grocery store to buy a gallon of milk … and it’s always in the back … so you’re forced to walk by a bunch of other products you hadn’t planned on buying.i

You go into a casino and there are no clocks or windows … so you can’t keep too close a track of the time.ii

You go into an IKEA and you … learn what it’s like to try to escape from a prisoner-of-war camp.

Now, this is all basically harmless. You’re still free to make your own decisions in those places. But it underscores an important point: Our environments subtly influence how we make decisions.

And that fact can be used for more than just making money. In fact, it can also be used to make our neighborhoods safer.

Here’s how it works. If you asked people to describe what a dangerous neighborhood looks like, chances are that — no matter where they are in the country — their answers will probably include some of the same things: abandoned or vacant lots, graffiti, trash on the streets, places where it’s dark at night.

In fact, the physical signs of high-crime neighborhoods are so distinctive that one team of researchers was able to train a computer to recognize them with 95% accuracy.iii

(Tragically, however, the experiment backfired and the computer is now leading a street gang.)

Here’s the important thing to keep in mind: All those little details that signal to you that a place is unsafe … also signal to criminals that it’s not a bad place to do business.

So, what would happen if … we just stop sending those signals?

For an idea of how this might work, we can look to an experiment that took place in Philadelphia. Many of the city’s vacant lots — dirty and overgrown — had become magnets for crime because they were easy places to avoid detection, hide from police, or surprise a victim.

Then, beginning in 2013, a team of researchers began randomly selecting some of these lots for rehabilitation. They’d clean them up, plant grass and trees, and turn them into small urban parks. Importantly, they’d also do things like keeping the lawn mowed, as a signal that someone was maintaining the property.

The result: crime around those lots went down. In the toughest neighborhoods, there was a 30% reduction in nuisance crimes like public intoxication or illegal dumping and a 29% reduction in gun assaults.iv

And here’s the most important part: The crime didn’t move to a different part of the city. It just went away. v

And this isn’t the only time that changing the environment changed the outcomes. In the early 90s, Los Angeles closed off 14 streets plagued by gang violence — and saw a 20% reduction in crime in the area within a year.vi

A study in Newark found that the use of closed-circuit cameras decreased auto theft by nearly 15% — at a time when thefts were actually increasing on lots without the cameras.vii

So, with those kinds of results, why don’t we see these kinds of initiatives more often?

Well, part of the reason is that they’re not cheap. Cleaning up the rest of the dangerous lots in Philadelphia, for example has been estimated to cost at least $35 million.viii Which, yeah, sounds like a lot.

But you know what else is expensive? Crime! In fact, it’s estimated that when you add up the costs to the victims, to law enforcement, and to society at large, that every dollar spent cleaning up these dangerous places saves $26 by reducing gun violence.ix

Now, not every one of these experiments is going to work for every problem. The cameras in Newark, for instance, reduced auto theft but not violent crime. And even when they do work, you still need good policing on top of it. But one of the reasons that rehabilitating public spaces has so much potential is that the number of places that are consistently plagued by crime is surprisingly small.

In Philadelphia, for instance, an analysis of over a decade’s worth of crime data showed that just 5% of the addresses where crime was reported … were responsible for 50% of all the crime in the entire city. x Which means targeting just a handful of the most dangerous places could give some cities a new lease on life.

The bottom line: We can potentially save lives and money just by rehabilitating a handful of the most dangerous places in our cities … which ought to be a source of hope. Because it might just mean that no place is beyond saving...

...I mean, except IKEA.

Sources

  1. Everyone Goes To The Store To Get Milk. So Why's It Way In The Back? — NPR, Morning Edition
  2. "Odds of Finding a Clock In a Casino Just Got Better" (John Corran) — Washington Post
  3. Classifying Crime Places by Neighborhood Visual Appearance and Police Geonarratives: A Machine Learning Approach (Md Amiruzzaman, Andrew Curtis, Ye Zhao, Suphanut Jamonnak, Xinyue Ye) — Journal of Computational Social Science
  4. Citywide Cluster Randomized Trial to Restore Blighted Vacant Land and Its Effects on Violence, Crime, and Fear (Charles C. Branas, Eugenia South, Michelle C. Kondo, Bernadette C. Hohl, Philippe Bourgois, Douglas J. Wiebe, John M. MacDonald) — Proceedings of the National Academies of Science 
  5. Cleaning Up Vacant Lots Can Curb Urban Crime (John M. MacDonald, Charles C. Branas) — Manhattan Institute
  6. Using Traffic Barriers to "Design Out" Crime: A Program Evaluation of LADP's Operation Cul-de-Sac (J. R. Lasley) — U.S. Department of Justice — Office of Justice Programs
  7. The Crime Prevention Effect of CCTV in Public Places: A Propensity  Score Analysis (Eric L. Piza) — CUNY John Jay College
  8. Cleaning Up Vacant Lots Can Curb Urban Crime (John M. MacDonald, Charles C. Branas) — Manhattan Institute
  9. Urban Blight Remediation as a Cost-Beneficial Solution to Firearm Violence (Charles C. Branas, Michelle C. Kondo, Sean M. Murphy, Eugenia C. South, Daniel Polsky, John M. MacDonald) — American Journal of Public Health
  10. Cleaning Up Vacant Lots Can Curb Urban Crime (John M. MacDonald, Charles C. Branas) — Manhattan Institute

 

Shownotes

SOUND | Premium Beat: "Dream Man Dance" (MVM Productions) / "Dark Trap Vibes" (High Street Music) // Musicbed: "Cherry" (Chair Model) / "Soul Shine" (Harrison Amer)// Pond 5: Sounddogs // Pro Sound Cloud Effects Library

FOOTAGE | IKEA // Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences // Manhattan Institute: Cleaning Up Vacant Lots Can Curb Urban Crime // SRITA: Camel // Life: Domino Sugar // Getty: South_agency, 4x6, Themacx, Ralfgosch, ll1111, Nathan Griffith, Robtek, Urbancow, EllenMoran, Peter Dazeley, MirageC, Steven Puetzer, Subjug, Cveltri, Jeff Schear / Stringer, Jason Kempin / Staff, Brandon Bell / Staff, StockSeller_ukr, Helivideo, Ranta Images, Spencer Platt / Staff, LiliGraphie, Beerlogoff, Cyano66, Shorrocks, Ultima_Gaina, Shironosov, Miodrag Ignjatovic, Yelizaveta Tomashevska, Michael Regan / Staff, WiangyaGorodenkoff // Flickr: Warren LeMay, Bengt Nyman, Joe Haupt, State Library of Queensland, Davebloggs007 // Pexels: PhotoMIX Company // Unsplash: Tim Arterbury, Jamie Street, Robert Linder, Liam Martens, Duncan Kidd, Vladimir Kudinov, Olga Thelavart, Tim Mossholder, Samuel Bryngelsson, Guillaume Bleyer, Mick Haupt, Benoit Dare, Valentin Balan, Drew Beamer, Caleb Ekeroth, Thought Catalog, Martin Jernberg, Daniel J. Schwarz, Sergei Wing, Wendy Aros-Routman, Van Mendoza, Scott Rodgerson, Franki Chamaki, Christopher Ryan, Kvnga, Emiliano Vittoriosi, Ricky Singh, DJ Paine, Jason Dent, Mukesh Naik, JC Gellidon, Setyaki Irham, Keith Kasaija, Wilhelm Gunkel, Mackenzie Marco, Dylan LaPierre, Yonghyun Lee, Jason Leung, Mehdi Sepehri, Power Lai // Vecteezy: Dumbmichael, Better Your Life // Frankie Fouganthin // Krzysztof Golik // Snopes: Dan Evon // ActionVFX // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION.

 

 

Sources

  1. NPR, Morning Edition
    Everyone Goes To The Store To Get Milk. So Why's It Way In The Back? 
  2. Washington Post
    "Odds of Finding a Clock In a Casino Just Got Better" (John Corran)
  3. Journal of Computational Social Science
    Classifying Crime Places by Neighborhood Visual Appearance and Police Geonarratives: A Machine Learning Approach (Md Amiruzzaman, Andrew Curtis, Ye Zhao, Suphanut Jamonnak, Xinyue Ye)
  4. Proceedings of the National Academies of Science
    Citywide Cluster Randomized Trial to Restore Blighted Vacant Land and Its Effects on Violence, Crime, and Fear (Charles C. Branas, Eugenia South, Michelle C. Kondo, Bernadette C. Hohl, Philippe Bourgois, Douglas J. Wiebe, John M. MacDonald)
  5. Manhattan Institute
    Cleaning Up Vacant Lots Can Curb Urban Crime (John M. MacDonald, Charles C. Branas)
  6. U.S. Department of Justice — Office of Justice Programs
    Using Traffic Barriers to "Design Out" Crime: A Program Evaluation of LADP's Operation Cul-de-Sac (J. R. Lasley)
  7. CUNY John Jay College
    The Crime Prevention Effect of CCTV in Public Places: A Propensity  Score Analysis (Eric L. Piza)
  8. American Journal of Public Health
    Urban Blight Remediation as a Cost-Beneficial Solution to Firearm Violence (Charles C. Branas, Michelle C. Kondo, Sean M. Murphy, Eugenia C. South, Daniel Polsky, John M. MacDonald)

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