Who can fix urban crime rates?

Urban street in New York City

Urban street in New York City

In my last post, I wrote about how we may intuitively, but probably wrongly, assume that urban places are more dangerous than suburban places.  At least one data set points the other way.

However, that data set was non-illness deaths.  Deaths are certainly an indicator of personal safety, but there are many other types of data, such as non-homicide crime rates, that also affect perceived personal safety.

I’m not going to dig through crime statistics.  There are many, many studies on the internet that dig into the data more than I can or wish to.  Instead, I’ll stipulate that certain crimes, such as muggings, are almost certainly more frequent in San Francisco and Oakland than in Sonoma and Cotati.  (Although I’ll note that there has been a slow migration of poverty and crime to drivable suburbia, which factors into the growing appeal of walkable urbanism.)

I’ll further stipulate that crime rates in urban cores affect the perception of walkable urban life and are likely impediments to urbanism.

Which gets to the topic about which I really want to write.  Who’s responsible for reducing urban crime rates?

Almost everyone points toward big city mayors.  Here in the Bay Area, blame is often directed at Oakland Mayor Jean Quan.  And a good friend recently emailed me to complain about the mayor of the large city in my friend’s metropolitan area.

But there’s a logical flaw with the finger-pointing.  Although crime has always been a part of urban life, a lot of current crime is tied to the unfortunate intersection of four areas of public policy.

Public housing policies which for too long put lower-income folks into settings which lacked role models and which allowed bullies to intimidate other residents.  These flawed public housing projects quickly became breeding grounds for crime.

Safety net policies which for too long had the unintended consequence of encouraging the breakup of families, further reducing possible role models.

Gun policies which, whatever one’s perspective on the law, have left guns in the hands of those who would use them with ill intent.

Drug policies which created the potential for an illegal, but highly profitable, underground economy.

And compounding these policies is the diversion of locally-generated revenue to higher levels of government, from where is it returned to cities with constraints imposed from above.  And often with a portion of the money diverted to less urban areas where it propped up financially unsustainable land uses.  The cities are left with a lack of funds and a lack of discretion on how to use the remaining dollars.

Do you see the problem?  Not one of those policies is city-driven.  All are set at the federal and/or state government levels.  We’ve given our big city mayors a difficult problem to solve, put them in shackles, taken away most of their tools, and then kicked them for failing.  If we treated our children that way, we’d be guilty of child abuse.  Instead we treat it as politics as usual.

This failure to give cities control over their own destinies is consistent with a long-term trend in human history.  Despite cities being the birth place of civilization, the continuing source of most economic activity, and arguably the inherent way that we organize our affairs, nation-states have gradually usurped the primacy of cities.

This isn’t meant as a criticism of any particular politician or political party, unless we want to point at Henry VIII as a key figure in making England more important than London.  Instead, I’m only trying to aim a spotlight on the unreasonableness of taking authority away from cities while also expecting them to successfully tackle difficult problems.

We may not need to return more authority to cities to reduce crime or to encourage urbanism, but it’d be a good step.

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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