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The Myth: Crime in cities is on the rise

The Reality: Cities are getting safer

For decades, the common perception about cities is that they were dangerous, dirty, and crowded. A look at the facts tells a different story: our cities are cleaner, safer, quicker, and healthier than ever. Today I’ll take a look at how urban neighborhoods have become safer despite public attitudes to the contrary.

On the whole, violent crime is declining in the Unites States. The overall murder rate has dropped by more than half since 1991 and property crimes like burglary have been on the decline. As a result, American concern about crime has ebbed: in 1994 a majority of Americans told Gallup crime was the nation’s most pressing issue; only 1 percent gave that answer in 2011. Even though we individually regard crime as less of a problem, people still tend to think of big cities as somehow dangerous. Consider the New York paradox: According to YouGov, Americans who have never been to the Big Apple are evenly divided on whether its safe or not, while those who have traveled their regard it as safe by a two-to-one margin.

This drop in crime has been greatest in the nation’s largest cities. Violent crimes of all kinds declined 29 percent in the central cities of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas — a significantly steeper decline than in the nation’s suburbs (down 7 percent). Property crimes in central cities fell even more — down 46 percent, compared to a 31 percent decrease in suburbs.

Survey evidence demonstrates that the drop in crime is not widely understood by the general public. A September 2014 survey by YouGov found that most Americans believe crime rates have increased over the past two decades. Their data show that 50 percent of Americans think crime rates are up; 22 percent think they are down, 15 percent think crime rates are unchanged, and 13 percent don’t know.

Hollywood continues to peddle the storyline of cities of the future as savage, crime-ridden dystopias (see for example this year’s remake of Robocop). Meanwhile the good news about safer cities goes almost unnoticed. A 2011 study by the Brookings Institution pointing to significant declines in 80 of the nation’s 100 largest cities has gone practically unnoticed, garnering just seven citations in other work, according to Google Scholar. (Google Scholar, August 19, 2014).

While crime has dropped, it’s not the only factor making cities better places to live. Wednesday, I’ll conclude the series by showing how traffic jams aren’t actually as bad as they used to be.

Photo courtesy of Danni Naeil on Flickr.