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If someone told you planting a tree could prevent muggings, would you believe them?  What if they said picking up litter would reduce break-ins?

Surprisingly, these details do appear to make a difference.  Neighborhoods that are greener and cleaner are often safer, and some researchers have even used Google Street View to correlate and predict crime patterns.  

Let’s examine how surprising neighborhood factors like trees and trash affect crime rates.

Perception Matters

In many neighborhoods across the United States, perception makes a difference.  If the area feels safe, it likely has a lower crime rate.  But what exactly contributes to that safe feeling?  Cleanliness seems to matter; broken bottles, garbage and neglected properties can all create a sense of jeopardy, and a sense that laws are not heavily enforced.  Other factors like good lighting and welcoming public spaces can make a neighborhood feel safer.

Broken Window Theory

One theory is that the little things actually make a huge impact on crime rates.  Thus, logic suggests aggressively pursuing smaller infractions can prevent bigger ones.  When explaining their theory, Professors George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson said: “If a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.”  They believe maintaining public order is essential to reduce crime.

Studies show people are more likely to break the rules when there’s litter on the ground or graffiti on buildings.  The rate of theft, vandalism and other crimes all go up.  An Environmental Quality Survey in England found a link between the presence of garbage and more serious crimes.  “We can see that on streets where litter, graffiti and fly-posting exist, there is also a higher risk of crime when compared with places where they are not present.”

When people witness small problems, like litter or broken windows, they can perceive that it’s okay to bend or break the rules; other people are obviously doing it, and nothing is being done about it. 

By sweating the small stuff, society can possibly reduce bigger, more dangerous problems. 

The Right Kind of Greenery

According to one study by the University of Vermont, tall trees that create an overhead canopy were correlated to lower crime levels.  Researchers from the University of Vermont compared crime rates to tree cover in various parts of Baltimore, Maryland to see if one can really influence the other.

After studying the relationship between trees and crime rates, the study’s authors said: “we found that there is a strong inverse relationship between tree canopy and our index of robbery, burglary, theft and shooting.  The more conservative spatially adjusted model indicated that a 10% increase in tree canopy was associated with a roughly 12% decrease in crime.”

They published their findings in an issue of Landscape and Urban Planning, concluding in part that “tree planting prioritizations should incorporate public safety concerns.”

But when it comes to crime, not all trees are equal.  Areas with neglected trees or bushes, like those found near industrial areas, are often linked to higher crime rates.  This hike in vandalism, damage and illegal activity is likely due to the lack of monitoring and security in the area.

In urban and suburban areas, low-lying shrubs seem to have a negative effect on safety.  Hedges can provide privacy and cover for hiding.  It’s much easier for burglars to break into a home when they can’t be spotted from the street. 

Trash, Trees and Crime RatesCan You Really Reduce Your Neighborhood’s Crime Rate?

Although not everyone is convinced trees or litter make a difference, the data is starting to add up.  Neighborhoods with lower rates of theft and break-ins are often better maintained, cleaner and greener.  A neighborhood that looks well taken care of seems to discourage would-be crime. 

So what can you do with this new-found knowledge?  First of all, set the example.  Start by making sure your properties are clean and well maintained.  Mow the grounds regularly, trim back hedges and get rid of clutter.  Hide ugly garbage cans out of sight.  Urge renters to keep the sidewalks clean and pick up litter when they see it, and do whatever you can to instill pride in the tenants and neighbors.  You want to show renters, neighbors and potential criminals alike that you keep a close eye on your property.  Consider planting more trees around the property.  None of these changes cost a lot of money – it’s all in creating the feeling of a safe, clean space. 

But you can’t change your neighborhood’s crime rate alone.  If break-ins or other crimes are a problem in your area, talk to the neighbors.  Odds are they would like a nicer, safer neighborhood as well.  If property management, renters and neighboring homeowners all coordinate to start making these small changes, it may very well change the perception, and consequently the safety, of your area.

Related Reading:

How the Crime-Free Association Helps Property Managers Lower On-Site Crimes by 75%

Reurbanization and the Growing Trend Towards "Walkability"

Hoarder Tenants: Risks, Prevention and Avoiding Fair Housing Trip-Ups


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