Perceptions of urban risk

Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn Bridge

Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn Bridge

Five years ago today, I was in New York City.  I was in the midst of a ten-day trip to view ballgames in Major League ballparks that I hadn’t yet seen.

Before the trip was over, I saw games in Fenway Park, Shea Stadium, Citizens Bank Park, Camden Yards, Nationals Park, and Yankee Stadium.  (Fenway was my favorite, but my goodness are those seats tiny.  Also the Yankee Stadium that I saw in 2008 was the dumpy Yankee Stadium that had been rebuilt in the 1970s, not the Steinbrenner mausoleum that would soon replace it.)

On this particular night, I rode the subway from my hotel near Penn Central Station to Yankee Stadium.  As was true for most of the trip, I was traveling alone.  Upon arrival in the Bronx, I walked a quarter of the way counterclockwise around the stadium to reach my entrance gate.  But when I exited the ballpark after the game, I couldn’t backtrack my way to the subway.  The police had blocked off the route and were directing us to continue our counter-clockwise loop around the remainder of the stadium to return to the subway.

Yankee Stadium with the Bronx beyond

Yankee Stadium with the Bronx beyond

It seemed a long and unnecessary walk.  When most of the folks around me began moving away from stadium in a route that seemed likely to return to the subway station more efficiently, I walked with them.

But they were heading to parking lots.  As we walked, the group gradually dissipated.  In a couple of blocks, I found myself alone on a Bronx sidewalk at 11:00 pm, with an expensive camera around my neck and neither the stadium nor a subway station in sight.  It was uncomfortable.

I continued on a route that I thought would bring me back to the subway.  In a couple of blocks, I came across a young mother casually walking her twin infants in a double stroller.  Not only did her presence reassure me about the neighborhood, but she also gave me directions to a subway station that was only a block away.

Even with the successful completion of that mini-adventure, I was still unsure about the short walk to my hotel after my subway ride back to Manhattan.  Once again, my fears were unreasonable.  I found myself walking behind a pair of attractive young women, still wearing party dresses after an evening event.  And they were so comfortable in the setting, and so uncomfortable in their shoes, that they had removed their footwear and were walking barefoot down a Manhattan sidewalk at nearly midnight.

Did I feel silly about my fears?  Yeah, a bit.  But I’ve seen worse.

I attended a public hearing in a Northern California city a few years ago.  Ahead of my project on the agenda was a proposal to split a half-acre lot into two quarter-acre lots.

I knew the area of the proposed lot split slightly from having grown up nearby.  The subdivision had been developed shortly after World War II and was comprised of large lots in a semi-rural setting.  But with metropolitan growth, it was now surrounded by more dense development and had become an island of drivability surrounded by an area that was, if not walkable, at least transit-friendly with areas of walkability.

Allowing market forces to gradually increasing the density of the older project seemed reasonable.  Splitting a lot seemed a miniscule step in the right direction.

But some neighbors saw it differently.  To them, smaller lots would allow less expensive homes, which would allow lower-income homeowners, which would promote the distribution of drugs and which might even lead to meth labs.  Yeah, quarter-acres lots in quiet, upscale neighborhoods are a well-known gateway to meth labs.  And their particular concern was that buyers, having secured their fix, would speed through the neighborhood, endangering the nearby homeowners.

I’m sure only a few of the neighbors had taken a hit from the bong of paranoia.  As is usual in land-use hearings, most of the commenters were likely from the fringe, with the more reasonable people staying home to watch television.  The hearing body apparently felt the same, approving the proposed lot split with little discussion.

But the hearing comments, and my unease at finding myself in an unfamiliar Bronx neighborhood after dark, illustrate the irrational fears that can be attached to urban settings.

Indeed, that fear is often invoked by opponents to planning concepts that would increase density.  But is the fear justified?  Not really.  Yes, it’s true that homicide rates are often higher in areas of greater density.  But driving to the metropolitan fringe carries its own risks.

A comprehensive study by the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which looked at more than a million accidental deaths between 1999 and 2006, found that the rate of accidental deaths became greater as population densities decreased.  Perhaps the chance of getting killed in a drive-by shooting goes down in the suburbs, but the chance of being a motor vehicle fatality went up and there are far more vehicular deaths per year than homicides.

This isn’t to say that all urban settings are safe.  If you choose to wander through a high-crime neighborhood at 3:00 am with a roll of hundred dollar bills hanging out of your pocket, don’t call me from the hospital claiming that I wrote that you’d be safe.  I did no such thing.  There is still a place for common sense.

But arguing that urbanism increases personal risk is a flawed argument.   Arguing against urbanism on the grounds of personal safety is fear-mongering that interferes with rational discussion.

Although the next time I visit Yankee Stadium, I will probably follow police direction.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at

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