• Melinda Mills

Control over the built environment allows communities to reduce crime

Credit: Mitchell Henderson (

Why is crime concentrated in particular urban neighbourhoods? One tradition in criminology finds that neighbourhoods with high collective efficacy—a problem-solving capacity of community residents—have lower rates of crime. Another tradition finds that features of the built environment that provide criminal opportunities determine where crime is concentrated. A recent article in Criminology by LCDS and CSI Nuffield College researcher Chuck Lanfear reveals that while collective efficacy enables neighbourhoods to reduce crime directly, it also empowers them to reduce crime indirectly by preventing or removing features of the built environment that provide opportunities for crime. Because changes to the built environment are long-lasting, this provides long-term crime control effects that reduce the need to intervene against crime directly.

Lanfear’s research was inspired by field experiments that reduced violence in disadvantaged Philadelphia neighbourhoods by boarding up abandoned buildings and clearing vacant lots. Rather than intervening experimentally, he examines how natural social processes of communities control (or fail to control) problematic built environment features.

Just as community members apply their collective problem-solving capacities to directly intervene against crime, they also recognize that some features of the built environment provide opportunities for crime and act collectively to remove and prevent them. For example, residents may petition local government to demolish of abandoned building or file lawsuits to prevent the construction of a liquor store. Changing the built environment this way takes time, so Lanfear hypothesized that neighbourhoods with high collective efficacy years ago will have fewer crime-attracting built environment features in the future.

To study these processes, Lanfear used data on built environment features in 1641 city blocks inside 343 Chicago neighbourhoods with survey data on collective efficacy spanning a decade. Using structural models, he finds collective efficacy in the mid-1990s is associated with fewer abandoned buildings, commercial properties, and vacant lots almost a decade later. In turn, abandoned buildings are strong predictors of all crime, especially homicides and gun assaults, and commercial properties strongly predict robberies, violence, and property crimes. This suggest past collective efficacy reduces crime in the future through its enduring effects on the built environment.

While his recent work focuses on crime, Lanfear (pictured right) explains that the relationship between collective efficacy and the built environment has broader implications. For example, by enabling residents of advantaged neighbourhoods to prevent the development of properties they view as undesirable—such as affordable housing—collective efficacy may help maintain racial-residential segregation. In this way, the ability of one neighbourhood to exert control over its space has consequences for the entire city. This may foster the concentration of disadvantage, and thus crime, implicating collective efficacy as a source of neighbourhood inequality.

The full reference for the study:

Lanfear, Charles C. 2022. “Collective Efficacy and the Built Environment.” Criminology 60(2): 370-396.

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