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What works? The 6 most common initiatives for safer cities

Public sculpture Cloud Gate, also known as the Bean, in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Photo/Getty Images

New Zealand can learn from the initiatives to improve security and living conditions in cities around the world.

1. CCTV cameras

Many cities have tried to increase authorities’ “eyes on the street” by installing closed-circuit TV cameras. London, Beijing and New York are some of the most surveilled cities in the world, with about 51,000, 46,000 and 17,000 cameras respectively. In 2017, Auckland had 5577 publicly owned cameras.

Does it work? It’s inconclusive. Surveillance cameras are thought to have helped reduce crimes such as vehicle break-ins, but they don’t seem to have much effect on violent crime. And they don’t bring down crime on their own; they work best when combined with other tactics such as community policing and better lighting.

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2. Better lighting

It seems logical that brightening up darker thoroughfares would reduce crime. A 2015 study from Spain even found that certain kinds of street lighting – white lights with a high level of blue wavelengths – made people feel safer than old-fashioned yellow streets lights.

Does it work? Again, it’s inconclusive. When researchers looked in detail at crime in cities before and after extra streetlights had been installed, they couldn’t find any solid evidence to show that more lights equalled less crime. Results tended to be inconsistent, whether there was more or less lighting. Some criminologists have even pointed out that better lighting also helps the criminals see better.

3. Community policing

The term describes a style of policing in which officers foster better ties with the communities they’re working in, the aim being “to empower communities rather than control them”.

Does it work? Although many US police departments have boasted that community policing has seen urban crime rates decrease, detailed empirical research says that the jury is still out. Community policing seems to work better on certain kinds of crime and is more effective in small towns than in cities. Anecdotally, it also seems to work better in the long-term, encouraging more trust and better communication. Community policing has also been shown to reduce fear of crime.

4. Hot-spot policing

This involves a police presence in certain areas where crimes are, statistically speaking, more likely to be committed. It’s often supported by the better kinds of data and “crime mapping” that’s become available to law enforcement agencies in recent years.

Does it work? This is one method for which the evidence mostly says that, yes, it does make a difference, although criminologists say it’s best used alongside other tactics, too.

5. Less graffiti

Removing graffiti has often been seen as part of the “broken windows” theory of crime and disorder. Experiments have shown that people are more likely to disobey the rules if they see that others have, too. But most researchers now say there is a big difference between so-called street art, which includes murals, and tagging – that is, scrawling your initials or name on a building. It’s all about context. In fact, one British university study found that street art indicated “improving economic conditions of urban neighbourhoods”.

Does it work? It’s very subjective. There is certainly proof that graffiti, often described as one of the “most visible crimes”, can make people anxious. But doubts still exist about the broken windows theory. Critics are still arguing about whether signs of disorder alone equal more crime and whether removal of those signs decreases it. 

6. Public art

This is the opposite of the broken windows theory. Advocates say public art invites ownership, pride in the area and a way to explore urban identities. In Sweden, special digital billboards have been used on subways to try to lessen locals’ anxiety or fear. In other cities, murals and graffiti have been commissioned for the same reason.

Does it work? It’s difficult to quantify. Researchers say that having at-risk youth engage in arts activities helps the individuals directly. A project in the US city of Philadelphia suggests it helps “racial and ethnic diversity, lower rates of social distress, and reduce rates of ethnic and racial harassment”. But whether public art has a direct effect on crime remains unclear.

This article was first published in the July 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.