In some communities, there is a sense that crime is insurmountable. As part of our occasional series on community development research, LISC's research chief, Chris Walker, says that the data tells another story. “The sense of futility that pervades some conversations about safety is wildly misplaced,” he writes in his latest blog. He points to research that details the success of place-based strategies. The challenge, he says, lies in tailoring them to fit local circumstances.
When people ask me what I’ve learned from research on community safety, I can’t help but think, “All politics is local.”
In the context of crime, that doesn’t mean a particular town or neighborhood. Pathbreaking analysis by David Weisburd shows that crime is an intensely “micro” challenge. Throughout a city, crime varies greatly block-by-block, even in those places where crime is highest. Why? Because both physical and social circumstances that encourage or prevent crime vary, too.
That’s important because the place-specific nature of the problem means that solutions must be customized accordingly. They depend not only on the right policing policies, but also on the knowledge, values, and commitment of particular officers and residents who walk local streets every day. That’s why LISC’s safety program, currently touching more than 60 urban and rural communities, takes an integrated view of how buildings and public spaces, social relationships, and policing strategies interact in specific places to either encourage or prevent crime.
Our report Place, People, Police, released this spring, takes a close look at outcomes in three communities where LISC has advanced place-centric approaches to crime prevention. We analyzed the number of crimes on individual street segments before, during, and after the initiatives were implemented and compared them to segments nearby. Using advanced statistical methods, we traced changes in crime and assessed their levels compared to what they would have been without our partners’ efforts.
I encourage you to read the study if you want details, but bottom line: crime dropped—in one case by more than 40 percent.
The programs we looked at were adapted to each place, but the common thread running through them is thoughtful effort to combat blight, organize communities, and connect law enforcement and residents. There is no better way to solve problems than to bring the people who live on those blocks and the community-based organizations that work there together with police to make communities safer.
Simple meet-and-greet conversations between residents and police aren’t nearly enough. Mutual mistrust may run deep. That’s why we invest in helping residents and police solve concrete problems. And we place great weight on efforts to build social cohesion – stronger communities make better partners.
Social cohesion might sound more nebulous than new housing, health facilities and schools, but it is nonetheless powerful. Lately, I’ve been looking at that from the perspective of creative placemaking: the embedding of arts and culture in efforts to build communities, combat blight, and grow businesses and jobs in low-income neighborhoods.
As yet there is no demonstrated tie between creative placemaking and crime reduction. But there is a compelling chain of evidence. Sociologists like Robert Sampson have shown that collective efficacy - social cohesion plus shared expectations for behavior – acts as a crime suppressant in even the poorest neighborhoods. Other researchers have shown that place attachment is a building block of social cohesion.
If that’s the case, then, a community music festival or public art that celebrates local accomplishments don’t just promote the area’s culture. They affirm the value of place to those who live there, and undercut the disparaging narratives that outsiders often tell about America’s poorest communities.
We know from our own experience that stronger and safer communities take time to build. But the sense of futility that pervades some conversations about safety is wildly misplaced. There are strategies that work, and they are backed by data. The challenge lies in cutting them to fit local circumstances and tying them to efforts in other fields, even participation in the arts.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Walker, Director of Research & Assessment
Chris is responsible for assembling, conducting, sponsoring and disseminating research on community development’s contributions to the well-being of individuals, families and communities. He also supports the research activities of our local programs throughout the United States. Prior to joining LISC in 2005, Chris directed a community and economic development research program at the Urban Institute, where he led studies of affordable housing, community lending, arts and culture and other community development issues.