Public Safety: Thinking Outside of the Box

In the League’s April 2022 newsletter, Doug Linkhart, President of the National Civic League, encouraged us to remember that police oversight is not the responsibility of the President of the United States, and that even if there is still more to be done, a lot has been accomplished with respect to police reform and racial equity, at the state and local levels, since the murder of George Floyd. In addition to the efforts of the cities and local governments highlighted in that article, it is also important to acknowledge that public safety encompasses far more than the police. In addition to meaningful work on racial equity and police reform, over the past few years, cities, local governments, and civic organizations have also championed improvements to the physical environments of communities to increase public safety.

While discussions of public safety are often coupled with discussions about the effectiveness of law enforcement, there is significant research to indicate that public safety is substantially increased with changes and improvements to the physical environment of communities. Examples of this include increased lighting, the addition of sidewalks and stop signs, greening and tree canopy programs, and the repair and improvement of vacant lots and decaying homes.

Example from the City of Brotherly Love

In Philadelphia, The City of Philadelphia, The Center City District (CCD), Central Philadelphia Development Corporation (CPDC), and the Center City District Foundation (CCDF) have worked in conjunction to increase lighting in Philadelphia in an effort to increase public safety, stimulate commerce, and reduce energy costs. By moving all city street lamps to LED lighting, the city believes it will see a drop in crime similar to Los Angeles which saw a 10% decrease in nighttime theft and burglary after the switch. Proponents of the switch to LED argue that in addition to making individuals feel safer, the brighter more energy-efficient lights also improve the effectiveness of security cameras, serving as a crime deterrent. The Center City District (CCD), Central Philadelphia Development Corporation (CPDC), and the Center City District Foundation (CCDF) are non-profit organizations that have partnered with the city to install more than 2,000 pedestrian-scale lighting installations throughout downtown Philadelphia. In addition to public safety, the organizations, which are economic in focus, argue that increased lighting contributes to visual excitement and stimulates nighttime commerce, spurring increased economic investment and development of the city.

In a place-based study review, the Brookings Institute found a strong negative correlation between the presence of vacant lots and dilapidated housing and a strong positive correlation between increased investment in community buildings and significant reductions in violent crime rates. In one study, researchers found that structural repairs to the homes in a low-income, predominantly black community in Philadelphia were associated with a 21.9% reduction in crime. In another study, researchers, also in Philadelphia, found that a 29% reduction in violent crime could be directly tied to the cleaning, repair, and improvement of vacant lots in low-income neighborhoods.

Brookings also found that other improvements to the physical public space, such as plans for expanded green space and tree canopy programs, result in a significant reduction in violent crime, particularly adolescent gun violence. In one Philadelphia neighborhood, researchers found that increased street lighting, painted sidewalks, public transportation, and parks were associated with a 76% decrease in the likelihood of homicide. These studies, and countless others, suggest that investing in green spaces is an effective means of increasing public safety and improving life outcomes, particularly in historically underinvested communities.

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