Can parks help cities fight crime?

US Researchers explore the evidence to try to answer to the question: do parks make cities safer or more dangerous?

The short answer is: It depends on the park. 

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.

However, people in many US cities 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.

To identify trends, a 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.

They learned that more green space was associated with lower risk of crime across neighbourhoods in all 300 cities studied.

Only three cities in the 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.

There are 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 neighbourly 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.

However, examining four cities in different U.S. regions – Austin, Philadelphia, Phoenix and San Francisco –violent crime was 28% to 64% higher in neighbourhoods adjacent to parks than in neighbourhoods 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.

Outside of the four-city sample, there is evidence that some parks do a good job of deterring crime. Design and maintenance are critical if parks are to reduce, rather than attract, crime. 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 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.

The study concludes “Urban parks and greenspace 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 greenspace is managed.”

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