Neighborhood Security: Feeling vs. Reality

Research on why some neighborhoods feel safer:

Salesses and collaborators Katja Schechtner and César A. Hidalgo built an online comparison tool using Google Street View images to identify these often unseen triggers of our perception of place. Have enough people compare paired images of streets in New York or Boston, for instance, for the scenes that look more “safe” or “upper-class,” and eventually some patterns start to emerge.

“We found images with trash in it, and took the trash out, and we noticed a 30 percent increase in perception of safety,” Salesses says. “It’s surprising that something that easy had that large an effect.”

This also means some fairly cost-effective government interventions ­—collecting trash—could have a significant impact on how safe people feel in a neighborhood. “It’s like bringing a data source to something that’s always been subjective,” Salesses says.

I’ve written about the feeling and reality of security, and how they’re different. (That’s also the subject of this TEDx talk.) Yes, it’s security theater: things that make a neighborhood feel safer rather than actually safer. But when the neighborhood is actually safer than people think it is, this sort of security theater has value.

Original paper.

EDITED TO ADD (8/14): Two related links.

Posted on July 30, 2013 at 1:44 PM28 Comments


Chris G July 30, 2013 2:31 PM

There’s a significant difference between feeling safer in a neighborhood and feeling safer at the airport. If people feel safer in their neighborhood, they’re more likely to do things – go for walks, play outside with their kids, hang out on the porch with the neighbors – that will actually make the neighborhood a bit safer. Plus cleaner streets, etc. are social goods in their own right.

If people feel safer at the airport, on the other hand, that just means they’re not very good at math.

Kirk July 30, 2013 2:50 PM

Hmm. Maybe people who choose to pick up after themselves and spend a few dollars to repair a light actually make good choices in general and are safer people to live around than people who make poor choices in hygiene and other choices in general. Leaving hazards like trash in the streets, neglecting good lighting conditions, and having a broken window all seem like unnecessary vulnerabilities to me. Why on earth wouldn’t people consider these signs before determining a neighborhood’s safety level? No neighborhood is absolutely safe but we must find some risk factors in order to judge whether one location is safer than another. I think I’ll keep to the areas of town where people actually care about their neighborhood and don’t rely on the police to create a false impression of safety.

Adrian July 30, 2013 3:31 PM

I have a friend who devised a scheme for ranking neighborhoods: Drive around counting the number of abandoned shopping carts.

haha July 30, 2013 3:32 PM


Yes, but I think there’s another element to it here. IIRC the Broken Windows experiment showed that a well-maintained space suffers a lot less from vandalism, etc. than a space that falls into disrepair. Nobody wants to break the first window, but if the space falls into disrepair then nobody feels bad about letting it get worse or even deliberately doing things that make it worse. So there is a stigma or self-restraint against messing up a well-maintained space.

This shows that they actually feel safer in a well-maintained space too. Even a bit of trash makes it feel less safe, although it probably has little to no effect on the actual safety.

…Though one wonders, if some criminals have a stigma or self-restraint against mugging someone in a well-maintained space. (Probably not, unless they subconsciously expect a more active response from police/security in a well-maintained space than in a run-down neighborhood.) Cleaning up the trash might improve actual safety for that specific area, by making the criminals feel uncomfortable committing crimes there.. like security cameras I’m sure it would just shift the crime to some other neighborhood though.

Miramon July 30, 2013 3:40 PM

It’s interesting that trash-hauling is one of the traditional businesses often taken over by organized crime. Not merely in places like Napoli, but in places like New Jersey and upstate New York.

Joe July 30, 2013 3:48 PM

Removing trash is actually more than security theater. It has the additional effect that thugs don’t feel that much at home – so they will eventually be lurking around elsewhere.

I remember a very famous (well, at least over here in Germany) autobiography written by a former petty crook and drug addict who explained that whenever she travelled into a city she didn’t know but where she had to find a drug dealer, she looked for “signs of neglect” like graffitis, trash, broken windows, car wrecks etc. She knew that she would find what she was looking for in exactly those spots.

Wesley Parish July 30, 2013 6:27 PM

And the mad anthropologist in me rises to the surface. Palaeoanthropologist actually.

One of the points made by various such people in the various popular and serious science books I’ve read on the subject, is that burial customs have a dual function – keeping disease at bay, and making sure that predators such as lions, hyenas, wolves, etc, don’t find the neighbourhood congenial. Leaving the dead lying around is in effect inviting them to have a free feed.

FWLIW, one must remember that the length of time humanity’s been a domesticated city-dweller is miniscule compared to the length of time humanity was a wandering piece of lunch on the plains and in the forests.

You can consider rubbish removal a burial custom.

MingoV July 30, 2013 6:35 PM

I agree with the broken windows experiment that nicer areas are less conductive to crime. The exception seems to be nice new cars: they get keyed and dented (by car doors in adjacent parking slots) more often than junkers.

pancho July 30, 2013 6:43 PM

Security theater maybe, but if “good citizens” feel safe enough to decide to make use of the area, you have real safety, right? You get some threshold number of citizens in the picture — at that point, criminals don’t want to be surveilled, accosted, or photographed in the act, and choose not to do crimes there. So if you can “sell” the area as safe (i.e. “successful” security theater), get enough people to use it, it probably becomes statistically (factually) safe.

This idea predates the BWT — I read it in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and it most likely predates that book, too — Urban safety/security has a long history.

Gord Wait July 30, 2013 7:33 PM

An area that is trash filled is more likely to contain people with little or no respect for their living space. It isn’t a stretch to imagine the same people are potentially more dangerous than other better kept areas..

Having said that, I don’t feel safe in an overly “detailed” neighborhood where not a single blade of grass is out of place in an obsessive display of “Victorian Ideals” either. The locals are more likely to call the police to harass anyone who “looks like a stranger”..

Dirk Praet July 30, 2013 7:43 PM

I guess this stems from our subconscious association between order and safety, and between chaos (trash, pet excrements, broken windows, missing streetlights …) and insecurity. It’s not exactly a quantum leap from there to implicitly assume that if for whatever reason a town is incapable of keeping a neighbourhood tidy and clean, it’s probably not capable of maintaining law and order either.

When the City Council about ten years ago decided to clean up our local red light district, not only did they crack down heavily on all forms of crime – petty and organised -, they also spent a serious budget on long overdue infrastructure maintenance and renovation works. It was the former that ended the stranglehold of Russian and Albanian maffia on the area, but the latter that eventually attracted new people and businesses.

Harry July 30, 2013 7:58 PM

I don’t think this very often: Bruce, I think you’re wrong. Signs of official or neighborhood involvement – such as taking away trash, fixing broken things, being outside – actually do contribute to security. Chris G, haha, Joe and pancho cover the details nicely.

Shachar Shemesh July 30, 2013 9:42 PM

You might just find out that the reason the trash piled high is because the cleaners are afraid to go into that neighborhood….

newyorkcity NY, USA July 30, 2013 11:29 PM

Why is Columbia University, NYC, NY, USA 10032 a dangerous area for
1.)rich folks including students
2.)poverty folks including drug addicts located in Harlem, NYC.
3.)students and Columbia U associated persons are NEW TO THE city
environment. So, they are NOT as prepared in their new role as ‘prey.’
4.)Amsterdam Avenue is closed to Morningside Park and Central Park.
These areas are NOT well patrolled by Law Enforcement. Some standing
orders of the NYPD or police department is not to pursue for a long time
in the park environment.
5.)the criminals or predators have plenty of time. they practice running
in sprints and getting over fences and obstacles.
6.)so, the police is pursuing IN HOT PURSUIT. suddenly a child stands right
in front of the police running and even a baby carriage is knocked over.
There would be a sudden assemblage of persons and the parade and march
on the mayor’s office would be set in motion.
7.)some time ago, I’ have seen motorized bicycles and even ATV – all terrain
vehicles at higher speeds in the park, which is likely illegal. Perhaps
practicing escape and evasion techniques?

8.)the robbers with a big knife got me when they were hiding in the alleys
and the GARBAGE CANS and garbage heaps. Escellent camouflage is
a black garbage bag.

10.)alternative escape routes are the nearby public housing projects.
Some police and LEO FEAR THE highly accurate stones thrown from the
roof. A direct hit could be fatal.

11.)crowded and messy scene. Younger kids or alleged gang members just
tossing a ball back and forth, but this is a city street.’
12.)dog poop or excrement is left as a way of marking territory for the
‘organized clubs’ or alleged criminal gangs or loose knit predators.
14.)not illegal yet to be carrying a scewdriver or baseball bat. These are
potential weapons.
15.)is ‘broken windows theory’ just a FALSE THEORY? Is it in the
classification of SECURITY THEATER? Answer – NO.
16.)answer – fastest way to find out if the car has been moved is to put
soda bottles next to the tires. Fastest way to find out if superintendent
or building manager is in is to to dog poop and garbage RIGHT IN FRONT OF

17.)best time to strike is December, during gift buying time. People have
cash in their pocket. You can use an umbrella or a FACE MASK AND ‘BIG
HOODIE’ to conceal your face..

18.)expecting trouble from one or two prey that are male students?
Have the accurate thrower hit one in the back of the head with a thrown
bottle. This will stun the prey or even KNOCK THE PREY UNCONSCIOUS.

19.)co occurring factors does NOT imply causation. The reason why everything
is run down in poverty areas is LACK OF TIME. Workers are working
two or three part-time jobs to pay the rent. Even, I when a student did NOT
do enough exercise and get OVERWEIGHT. Children get the idea of
just live for today and after you smoke the cigarette, just throw the garbage on
the street.

20.)There are no FREE and cheap gyms or boxing areas in HARLEM.
So, there is a LOT OF FRUSTRATION and pent-up anger, perhaps from a
sociological viewpoint. Why not take out your frustrations by littering and
even noise pollution like SCREAMING or playing ‘angry rap’ music loudly?

Beethoven and even meditation music is rarrely heard and if it is then
you know you have found a fellow MUSIC student at Columbia U or City

This is also known as ‘anti-social behavior.’ Alas, it appears to be somewhat
common. There are plenty of seats available at the local PUBLIC LIBRARY in
Harlem. When I was there, no one asked me any questions or seemed to have
any interest in learning something intellectual or even computer related.
Of course, there are some who are trying to sleep after too much alcohol,
illegal drugs, legal sniffing of nutmeg, etc.

What you mean that as a tourist or sociologist you ALWAYS GO TO THE
local folks up close?

28.)too much garbage is A SIMPLE CLUE, Mr. Sherlock Holmes. It means
that there are too many people living in the apartment building. Likely too many
‘visitor’ or even illegals. Too many ‘recreational drug clubs’ with too many
pizza boxes. The pizza boxes at the student housing buildings only arrive
on thursday, friday and rarely saturday nights. Why rarely on Saturday nights?
Because the parties move downtown and to the ‘clubs’ or the informal parties
run at the Brooklyn warehouses.

PS. I have seen a LOT of Brooklyn warehouses and I am there for the party.

So, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I have no degree in criminal justice nor sociology.
But I still study (after 30 years) BSD Capsicum, engineering and security

PPS. your next topic. Trayvon Martin and Zimmerman. Since I live in Florida.
0.)it is relatively easy to get gun permit
1.)you are old, retired and live in a TRAILER PARK (it is cheap). So, you
need a gun to protect your wife or your dog.
2.)stand your ground. You get shot and your life insurance pays off. You
meet two young guys who are high school dropouts who wave their fists in
your face. If you fear for your life, pull your gun.
3.)in some areas of Florida including Tampa, DO NOT GET OFF THE MAIN
ROADS. Assume that many security GUARDS are carry firearms and
are making near MINIMUM WAGE. WTF? what the fool? See craigslist.
Only way to make a living, while on the wait list to become a deputy in
some out of the way town in Florida. or wait up in Atlanta, GEORGIA.

4.)perfectly legal for HOA home owner association TRAILER PARKS ‘citizen
watch’ to patrol. Use your golf cart if you want to join the security guard.
OK to carry armed, but see the legal stuff on armed american radio details.

5.)of course, like Arizona there is a sizable amount of Hispanics. Some non-
document aliens or ILLEGAL ALIENS with KNOWN TATTOOES.
6.)cars can vanish on the side roads, dirt trails and even NOT MARKED
farm or ‘lake preserve.’

6.)Is there a lot of zoning in Florida? Land restrictions? Factories, propane
storage and even chemical fertilizer plants scattered all over the place?
6a.)answer – just search for “Blue Rhino Propane Explosion.” Not that far
from the Lake Preserve and not far from Orlando and ‘disney world empire.’
Can the employees smell a leak? Of course not, there are small leaks every-
where. Propane is a bit more dangerous because it HEAVIER than air,
Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
It tends to spread in a cloud or even wikipedia will refer to the Russian
analysis of fuel-air bomb.

7.)do not forget. The fire department is local and ‘part-time’? and lower
training? Are some fire departments VOLUNTEERS who are not paid?
Isn’t FLORIDA cheap to live in and has few taxes? This is NOT New York
City and you get what you paid for.

PPS. any Walmart you can see the pictures of BLUE RHINO PROPANE tanks
stored out in front or in back.

PPS. actually have work experience in THE INDUSTRY. natural gas –
tends to high pressure, but lighter than air and sometimes STRONGER PIPES.
Propane tanks are everywhere. Restaurants, fishing stores… hmmm oddity.
there is no really good survey of the pervasiveness of cheap propane just
about everywhere, just like the cheapo WIFI signals with those cheapo boxes.

Figureitout July 31, 2013 12:26 AM

PPS. any Walmart you can see the pictures of BLUE RHINO PROPANE tanks stored out in front or in back.
newyorkcity NY, USA
–Same at a place I used to work at; same place where workers would take their smoke breaks and yes observing where the keys were would be something I’d expect any half competent criminal/terrorist to see and possibly exploit. No explosions though.

The cleaner the neighborhood, also the SOFTER the neighborhood. Meaning they are also much less likely to even own a gun, have a knife handy under their pillow, or be willing to fight and/or kill the intruder. Will work more so during the day but during the night, security theater.

They must rely on exterior sensors that will automatically call the police but if someone has some intelligence on the house he/she/they got maybe a few minutes to get in and out and running from the cops on foot in a neighborhood is doable w/o a drone army above.

officerX July 31, 2013 3:45 AM

People who care will always be a more difficult target as they pay attention to the environment, making an attacker’s life harder. On the other hand, slightly smarter folks might also be a more lucrative target, but the benefit should outweigh the risk. I don’t think it is pure theater though, just like combing your hair or wearing a suit isn’t just theater, just reflects your attitude.

name.withheld.for.obvious.reasons July 31, 2013 9:54 AM

Speaking of cleaning up the neighborhood, the mess that is congress, in particular the filthly U.S. Senate, proposals are being proffered to pick up the mess made by the NSA surveillance debacle are starting to collect in the garbage bin that is DC. I am waiting for the bill that establishes another FISC for the current FISC/R. Who will head the new FISC/R^2

f(I) = C(U) + RF’d

Q July 31, 2013 1:09 PM

@Figureitout: They must rely on exterior sensors that will automatically call the police but if someone has some intelligence on the house he/she/they got maybe a few minutes to get in and out and running from the cops on foot in a neighborhood is doable w/o a drone army above.

Back in college one of my housemates (female) had a home invasion situation. Some guy followed her home and forced his way in.

It took 30 minutes for the cops to arrive. This was IN a densely populated city!

Housemate called me, at college, 20 minutes away by car. I gathered some friends together and drove home. We beat the cops there by a good 10 minutes.

(Housemate was okay, just shaken. Barricaded herself in an inner room and stalled for time until we got there.)

Drones might be great at spotting a single individual all alone out in the woods. How well can they hope to track an individual in a densely crowded city? What if the individual goes inside, or changes clothes?

There was a rather brazen thief down in Florida a while back who did quite well just completely ignoring the alarms. Break in, take the valuables, sometimes 2 or 3 trips to her car, and leave all while the alarm is going off.

The only folks who believe alarms are effective are selling you alarms. When was the last time you paid any attention to a car alarm that was going off?

MikeA July 31, 2013 1:15 PM

Aware that “The plural of anecdote is not data” (Actually, it is, but that’s a topic for LanguageLog), I offer a counter to “safe neighborhoods”. Some years ago (before the Dogpatch, San Francisco, neighborhood gentrification started), my wife and I had a conversation with an older woman who had lived there for some time. She had been mugged three or four times. “Have you considered moving?”. No, she said she had never been mugged in Dogpatch. Always in “nice neighborhoods”, including Pacific Heights.

Figureitout July 31, 2013 2:38 PM

When was the last time you paid any attention to a car alarm that was going off?
–Not much. In my dream: long and short distance narrow and wide radar/microwave, IR, video, audio sensors connected to a let’s say 150dB alarm and flood lights, that rely on regular power w/ dedicated backup generators and batteries, cords enclosed in steel and will sense an intruder before being cut. Wired (buried 20 ft.) and digital mode radio transmissions of compromise to dedicated devices, frequency changes under my control. Of course electric fence and literal mines and bear traps. I sleep soundly in my underground bunker w/ my electronics and books and other stuff I couldn’t live w/o. Along w/ my lab, it includes a gym so little need to go outside besides supplies. Water supply is a natural spring and is also heavily fortified and monitored for tampering. I kill the intruder w/ my bare hands after having his leg blown off, who turns out to be a FED conducting an illegal search on my property trying to subvert my computer system and steal my research and then frame me as a terrorist.

Rasmus July 31, 2013 3:15 PM

I learned something traveling in Italy. I consistently saw very expensive cars parked in the courtyards of houses that almost looked neglected, or at least unattended for half a century. So one day I asked a bartender in a small bar just opposite one such house with a brand new Ferrari parked in the courtyard why someone who could afford a Ferrari didn’t renovate a cracked plaster facade or paint the window framings. And the bartenders answer was that in Italy rich people don’t want their houses to look like there might be anything worth stealing inside. So even if the interiors are top class in every way they wont touch the exterior of the house. And if they can they rather park their expensive cars in garages that looks like abandoned barnes.

I’ve since noticed the same pattern in other places where there is “old money”. In places where the rich people have been rich for generations they tend to avoid displaying their money.

Brandioch Conner July 31, 2013 5:49 PM

I live across from a small park. I pick up the trash there and around the block in the morning. I believe that a cleaner neighborhood helps reduce crime but I don’t have any stats to support that.

But it does mean that my neighbors know me and I know them and I know the people who regularly walk their dogs and jog.

All in all, property values are going up so no one is likely to open a crack house here. Which brings up a different point on “security”.

a. Is your neighborhood one where crime originates (crack houses and criminals).

b. Is your neighborhood one that criminals travel to so that they can rob you.

Howard August 1, 2013 6:08 PM

Sure sounds a lot like the Broken Windows theory of community management. If a location appears to be well taken care of, people – both criminals and the rest of us – semi-consciously come to conclusions about the location.

Criminals will decide the area will be more difficult to operate in and act accordingly (they may still do their deeds, but if so will probably be more careful).

The rest of us will do about the same thing … decide the area will be easier to operate in and in some ways let our guard down (being 100% on-guard is expensive in terms of energy, time, resources, and generally not fun).

Trash, and overall maintenance, is a cue about how well an area is taken care of, as it shows what the people there think of it (obviously, that it’s worth taking care of … or not).

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