The writer is former chairperson, UP Forest Corporation; former principal secretary, forest & environment; former chairman, UP Pollution Control Board, and former Honorary Secretary, Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), UP Regional Branch
It is well known that presence of green spaces like parks has been linked to many health promoting benefits including recovery from mental fatigue and healthy childhood development and also to neighbourhood social cohesion. But, is there any significant association between how green spaces are designed and maintained in a city and the crime situation of the city?
Research studies on this subject were conducted between 2000 and 2015 in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Youngstown (Ohio). In a study published in 2015 for Youngstown, the treatment lots (greened spaces) had lower rates of property crime like theft, burglary and violent crime. The researchers also looked at crimes in areas surrounding the test sites to make sure the park improvements were not simply displacing crime to nearby areas. The data indicated that rates of crime were indeed falling in the surrounding areas and not just shifting location. On the whole, the study suggested that cities should revitalize and make green vacant lots not just for aesthetic reasons or economic reasons but to fight crimes as well.
When scientists analysed crime statistics in Chicago, both before and after the construction of the Bloomingdale Trail, a 2.7-mile elevated greenway known as the 606, they found a reduction in crime in neighbourhoods closest to the trail. Researchers compared neighbourhoods with similar socioeconomic conditions and crime rates prior to the Bloomingdale Trail installation. The result of the study was published in February, 2017 in the Journal “Environment and Behaviour”. Kuo and others examined the relationship of vegetation, trees and grass to crime in 98 apartment buildings across Chicago, Illinois, USA. They found that property crimes and violent crimes occurred less in areas with taller trees. This was also true of total crimes. The areas with taller trees that did not obstruct visibility had fewer overall crimes. Similarly, a study in Austin, Texas, USA by Shel Groe and others also showed a negative correlation between greenness and crimes , with the prominent component of greenness being tree cover. Donevan and others in Portland, Oregan, USA in their study found that the crown area of street trees and the crown areas of trees that share the lot with the home, were associated with decreased crime occurrence.
Other findings are also similar in that areas abundant in tree cover have reduced crime rates when compared to similar areas with less tree cover. The authors explained that though it is the crown of tree that obstructs views and provides locations for criminals to hide and larger trees have higher crowns, larger trees may also encourage people to spend more time outside and, with more individuals outside in a community, the probability of a criminal being observed increases, thereby decreasing criminal activity.
Studies in New York City have shown that crime rates were lower in widely spaced green spaces with high canopy trees and grassy areas, as opposed to paved areas. The collected data encourages an increase in green spaces in urban areas. The further from a public park one travels, the higher the prevalence of murders. A similar trend follows instances of rape. For both murder and rape occurrences in Manhattan North , the prevalence of crime instances decreased when four blocks or farther from public parks.
Urban greening can play a bigger role in urban planning to reduce crime in the cities. This brings more urgency to cities’ maintenance of greenery on public land. It is often the case in urban areas for property managers, realtors, landowners and architects to remove vegetation in the name of safety and management concerns. Vegetation can, however, be retained and managed to reduce risk. Studies have shown that open green spaces that preserve visibility, as opposed to closed green spaces that limit views, increase feelings of personal safety , as a person is better able to detect potential safety risks. Greater openness is associated with less perceived danger. However exclusively open green space is not necessarily the right design technique.
Broken Windows theory proposes that signs of physical disorder (graffiti , vacant lands and presence of trash etc.) send messages that the space in uncared for and that the surrounding community is not invested, hence criminal activity can proceed without consequences. Though most of the research about the relationship between green spaces and crime rates has been done in the USA, the lessons can be learned with profit and can be applied to Indian cities. This requires a planning of urban green areas by the Development authorities and urban local bodies. In the light of the above to reduce crimes, authorities in urban areas may consider implementing one or more of the following proposals:
1. Enhance the presence of current trees and green spaces. It can be a cost-effective method to aid in the reduction of crime than creating new green areas. Municipal bodies can invest in renewing landscaping and current structures as a means to improve tree health and the aesthetics of green spaces.
2. Educate citizens on the need for trees and green spaces: Educating citizens can serve to introduce projects and provide opportunities for participation. This approach provides a platform for interaction with citizens while exploring how they can play a role in the success of the project. Not only in education but also in the planning process, the citizens should be included. This can also avoid many problems often associated with a top-down approach from the government.
3. Provide incentives for home-owners and residents to support efforts that increase the number and condition of trees and green spaces. This will increase the likelihood of citizen participation. Incentives may include development incentives, grants, rebates, installation financing, awards and recognition programmes.
4. Create partnerships with local business and industry to aid in tree plantings and greening efforts. Local governments can incentivize these partnerships by providing opportunities to promote businesses, by giving tax credits or other incentives. The businesses can provide money for purchasing of supplies, volunteers for labour or individuals to promote and support tree-planting and greening. Many businesses actively look for opportunities for better community relations.
It may take several years for the trees to grow and to achieve the desired outcome of lower and less violent crimes. However, in areas that have well established trees, proper pruning and care may result in a more immediate positive result. Obviously, the above steps do not in any way substitute an effective police system, but certainly help in reducing crime rates.