Why Did Urban Crime Rates Drop the Last 20 Years?

There have been a number of explanations put forward, new policing techniques and the waning of the crack epidemic among them. But I think the most important explanation has been largely overlooked: planners (mostly) stopped mucking about poor neighborhoods.

To understand my point here, consider Jane Jacobs:
Statistical people are a fiction for many reasons, which is that there treated as if infinitely interchangeable. Real people are unique, they invest years of their lives in significant relationships with other unique people, and are not interchangeable in the least. Severed from their relationships, they are destroyed as effective social beings--sometimes for a little while, sometimes forever. 
In city neighborhoods, whether streets are districts, if too many slowly grown public relationships are disrupted at once, all kinds of havoc can occur--so much habit, instability and helplessness, that it sometimes seems time will never again get in it's licks.
She goes on to quote Harrison Salisbury:
When slum clearance enters area it does not merely rip out slatternly houses. It approves the people. It cares out the churches. It destroys the local businessman. It sends the neighborhood lawyer to new offices downtown and it mangles the type skein of community friendships and group relationships beyond repair. 
It drives the old-timers from their broken-down flats or modest homes and forces them to find new and alien quarters. And he pours into a neighborhood hundreds and thousands of new faces... (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, pp. 136-137)
The heyday of these vast urban renewal projects was the 1950s. The 1960s saw race riots ravage many American cities and crime rates begin to soar. By the 1970s the urban renewal mania was dying out.

Neighborhoods, even ones as badly built for urban life as the large-scale housing projects of the urban planners' dreams, eventually repair themselves. Man is an animal meant to live in a polis. People find a way to cope.

And the crime rate drops.


  1. Kevin Drum wrote an interesting piece in Mother Jones a year back, arguing that the proximate cause of the crime wave and ensuing crime drop was not government action or social problems, but rather lead poisoning (e.g. from gasoline) which made people in urban areas more violent.


    It seems like a far-fetched and insufficient explanation at first, but the hypothesis has a lot of evidence.

    1. I'm not sure that it's such a great hypothesis. We would expect areas with higher lead pollution than average to have much higher crime rates? Some places have had high lead pollution for hundreds of years. That's the best place to look for evidence (as other blogs have pointed out recently).

    2. I looked at this a bit: there is a problem with soaring crime rates in inner city areas not near a highway versus flat rates in middle-class areas right along a highway.

  2. It would be interesting to test this by comparing with other countries. In Britain this kind of thing still happens. Near where I was born, in Scarborough, the Edgehill council housing estate was demolished in 2002 and it's residents spread throughout Scarborough and the adjoining towns. It'll be interesting to see what happens in the next few years.

    1. Current, that example is interesting, but it is sort of a "reverse-50s-urban-renewal" case: the council housing estate (built in the 50s?) is being dismantled.

      By the way, that is not at all the approach Jacobs recommended for dealing with these projects: she advised "neighborhoodizing" the projects (council flats) by introducing businesses on the first floor and so on, not disrupting the whole social scene anew.

    2. Yes, that's right, it's reversing 50s projects. I know it goes against what lots of urban planners recommend.

  3. That's a just-so story.

    It's so easy to make up just-so stories that explain everything with your favorite bad guy, government.

    Current has the right of it that it would be possible to ground the story in evidence, showing correlation of crime with renewal at multiple times and locations to eliminate confounding factors. It might also be that gentrification, a non-governmental process, brings about the same harms. Would you oppose gentrification as strongly as you oppose urban renewal if they were equally harmful?

    MathMan points to the best recent explanation, based on sound epidemiology. One more detail: "The lead industry obstructed government regulation of lead in paint and gasoline for more than 50 years after it was discovered to cause retardation. This resulted in millions of children poisoned by lead, a process that is still continuing because of ubiquitous lead paint in older houses." Hurray for capitalism!

    And finally, if you'd like to know what's wrong with the thinking in that just-so story, I recommend my own Parable of the ship: why Austrian Economics fails.

    1. "That's a just-so story."

      No, Mike, it is an *hypothesis*. That is why I wrote "I think," rather than "it is proven."

      This is a blog. I throw out ideas here.

      "Current has the right of it that it would be possible to ground the story in evidence..."

      Yup. If I get around to exploring this idea further, I will do tons of research to see if the idea holds up. I am a trained researcher, and I know very well the difference between an hypothesis and a well-defended theory.

      "It's so easy to make up just-so stories that explain everything with your favorite bad guy, government."

      Really, Mike?! You haven't seen my many defenses of government on this very blog? I thought you were busy linking to them?

      Here is the really killer for your nonsense comment: *governments* themselves have recognized that the urban renewal projects of the 50s were harmful, and none of them are doing this kind of thing anymore. Even Current's example is of a government *undoing* such projects, but perhaps in a harmful way.

      Apparently, you believe tat if anyone criticizes *any* government program, then government is "their favorite bad guy." Are critics of the Holocaust or the Gulag just dumping on their favorite bad guy as well?

      Jeez, Mike, I quoted someone from the *NY Times* talking about how destructive these programs were for inner-city neighborhoods! Do you think the NY Times's "favorite bad guy" is government as well?!

    2. I have a new hypothesis: my life would be much better if Mike Huben never appeared in it again.

      I am going to begin testing it out... now.