What Makes a City Feel Safe

Safety from Environmental Clues

Walking through a city at night, most of us will not encounter any problems. Even in the most dangerous cities in America, violent crimes strike no more than about 2% of the population per year. But despite the fact that most people go about their day to day lives unharmed by criminals, some areas really just have "a bad feeling." Sometimes it is just our perception of a place that makes us feel as though it is unsafe; many "bad" areas actually have low crime rates. But what exactly is it about an area that can make it feel more or less safe?

It turns out, there are a lot of things that can make a perfectly nice area feel less safe. Take this picture for example. When I looked at this picture one of the things that stuck out to me was the uncollected trash; it looks rather foreboding. But no imagine the same view with no trash. Then I am apt to see a bike-friendly sidewalk in an open area. That feels like a much safer thought.

Now we will look at some specific examples of what makes a neighborhood feel unsafe.

Trash: As I already mentioned, trash is one of the biggest subconscious indicators of safety. When we see trash on the street we think two things. The first is that the people who live here are either rude or do not care about their community. Both of these things make us worried. The second thought it even more ominous. Uncollected trash is a sign of lackluster city services. If the trash man won't come, how can I be sure that police do? It's an anxiety laden trap, trash does not actually make an area less safe.

Feeling that an area is Lower-Class or Boring: Unfortunately in many people's minds, lower-class and boring go together. In a "boring" neighborhood buildings have similar designs and it is challenging to discern where exactly you are; no landmarks or notable buildings help to guide you. Wandering through an area that seems rather similar and nondescript you may think "why would anyone want to be here?" You assume that nobody makes the choice to be here unless they have to or are too poor to live somewhere else. You then think that because you are in an area that you perceive to be lower-class, your risk for becoming a victim of a crime rises. 

No Pedestrians: Seeing people walking around is comforting. When lots of pedestrians are roaming an area, we assume that it means that this is a tourist friendly area or simply an area where people feel comfortable walking around. We think that other people would not bother to walk if an area was really unsafe so we should not either. This is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than anything. Foot traffic is not actually indicative of fewer crimes.

Distance from Starbucks: I'm serious, Starbucks seems to count, at least in my book. People tend to associate Starbucks with upper-class or tourist areas. If you are visiting a city and see a Starbucks, you know that you are in a nice area. But if you keep walking and begin to realize that you haven't seen your favorite coffee shop for several miles, you may actually begin to worry. 

This map took forever to find so I hope you appreciate it! But look. The touristy areas of DC, namely downtown and the Northwest quadrant are full of Starbucks. Wander into areas where you feel less safe, namely Southeast DC across the Anacostia River, and there is only one location!