The recent killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida has sparked debates about gun laws, self-defense and race. But among a certain subset of experts, it has also sparked a discussion about how the built environment — so streets, buildings, and that sort of thing — can influence crime.
Specifically, this article from Better Cities and Towns argues that one culprit in the tragedy was the type of community where the shooting took place:
But there is another factor: a poorly planned, exclusionary built environment.
The shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin took place in The Retreat at Twin Lakes, a 260-unit gated development of townhouses that are linked to the rest of the world (or cut off from it, depending on your point of view) by arterial roads with rapidly moving traffic and single-use commercial buildings. The development has a very low Street Smart Walk Score of 26. The Retreat at Twin Lakes is in the middle of vast central Florida sprawl—and nearly everybody who has a choice drives.
That’s a pretty blistering indictment of sprawl, but it’s also one that applies to communities across the county. Provo doesn’t have many gated communities, but numerous neighborhoods — including conventionally desirable ones such as the Tree Streets, Indian Hills, etc. — also require driving and have relatively low walk scores.
Author Robert Steuteville goes on to criticize gated communities, but the salient point is that over the long-term, single use neighborhoods that require driving are less likely to be safe than walkable mixed-use communities.
This cuts against the accepted wisdom that has dominated American middle class life since at least WWII, and there are safe neighborhoods in Provo that currently require substantial driving — again I’m thinking of most of the east side.
But just think about it: is your house more likely to be burgled when the streets are bustling with possible witnesses or when no one is around? Jane Jacobs would argue that an empty street is the most dangerous street, and as a crime reporter I typically see more burglaries in areas with low walkability.
This concept also applies to the Provo River Trail. Sections of the trail have been plagued by crime and despite significant recent progress (as well as a focus on a variety of prevention methods of varying long-term effectiveness) the issue remains rooted first and foremost in infrastructure: secluded areas are always going to be preferred by criminals over highly exposed, well-used streets.
So, the best way to stop crime is to build up the surrounding land with higher density housing, offices and retail in order to spill more people onto the trail. In other words, short of eliminating crime entirely — which is probably impossible — troubled areas need to become well-used streets.
That’s not likely to happen everywhere in Provo and especially on a “trail”, but the point is that discussions about crime and safety — in neighborhoods, on the river trail or elsewhere — are fundamentally inadequate without a corresponding discussion about how and when people interact with the physical makeup of the city.