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America’s Cities and Suburbs Becoming Safer

Last week the FBI’s report on crime in 2010 showed that both property and violent crime rates had fallen to their lowest levels in 40 years. A recent post by Richard Florida raised some interesting points about the latest numbers, particularly in parsing the trends in big cities versus smaller communities and pointing to what demographics might tell us about these changes.

Steven Raphael and I recently took a look at crime trends in the nation’s largest metro areas to figure out how the large national declines in both violent and property crime rates since the 1990s have played out across cities and different types of suburbs within these regions. Like Florida, we found communities didn’t share equally in these trends over the last several years. While cities and suburbs alike are much safer today than in 1990, central cities--the big cities that make up the hubs of the 100 largest metro areas--benefitted the most from declining crime rates.   Among suburban communities, older higher-density suburbs saw crime drop at a faster pace than newer, lower-density emerging and exurban communities on the metropolitan fringe.

Florida mentions a number of factors that might be contributing to these crime declines. It’s clearly a complicated and multi-faceted issue that has engendered plenty of debate and discussion over the years. Case in point: the economy’s role, or lack thereof. While many might be surprised the downturn didn’t push crime up, other research has suggested that the economy isn’t quite the lever we might expect it to be. 

At the top of the list he says, “one factor frequently cited by criminologists is demographics.” While he goes on to talk about the role of age, we looked specifically at a range of other characteristics like the share of residents that is poor, African American, Hispanic, or foreign-born. Since 1990, all types of communities within the country’s largest metro areas have become more diverse. Crime fell fastest in big cities and high-density suburbs that were poorer, more minority, and had higher crime rates to begin with.   At the same time, all kinds of suburbs saw their share of poor, minority, and foreign-born residents increase.   As suburbia diversified, crime rates fell. 

Taking all these shifts together, we found the relationships between crime and these demographic characteristics have significantly weakened over time. Today, changing demographics are much less predictive of where crime trends might go, and, in fact, growing diversity in lower-density suburbs explains none of the slight uptick in violent crime those communities experienced over this time period.

Florida offers a number of other potential explanations for why crime has fallen, and there are even more explanations circulating out there, currently being suggested and debated. It’s an important step for policymakers and public safety officials to identify what factors shouldn’t be on that list. 

It’s also important to realize the metropolitan nature of these issues when looking for effective solutions. Falling inner-city crime, and the fact the city and suburban crime trends move together over time, show us that crime is not a uniquely urban issue that stops at the city’s borders. It’s an increasingly metropolitan one, and addressing it from that perspective can open up opportunities for collaboration and information sharing--figuring out lessons learned and promising strategies in similar neighborhoods and regions--that could help continue the two decades of progress made in making our cities and suburbs safer.