How to find a safe neighborhood
Areas designed with safety in mind
Now, do you see people? Are they out and about? Can you clearly see the children playing in the park and the man walking to the store?
Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, a program that brings safety considerations to the drawing board, asks these questions, and the solutions usually align with the adage "There's safety in numbers." Safe neighborhoods are those in which people are physically able to see each other. It means they need desirable places to go, and places that are visible from sidewalks and windows.
If you're walking the neighborhood, here's what to look for:
- Multiple-use areas: A park is used — and watched — when it's near a coffee shop or post office. Think about it: Would you rather send your kids to a playground bounded only by tall shrubs and the backs of a few homes?
- Recreational areas with clear entries and exits: This is a form of marking territory. Places that have marked, visible entrances give users a sense of ownership and are less likely to be hijacked for criminal use. It need not be a tall fence, just a clear boundary.
- Land and buildings that are well-maintained: A homeowner, or homeowners association, that takes the trouble to maintain areas will be heavily invested in protecting those areas from crime.
- Unobstructed lines of sight: Shrubs and fences that border walkways should not be taller than 3 feet. Places where people walk and play should be visible from house windows. You want eyes on the street, Saville says.
- Real house fronts: Wait, don't all houses have fronts? No, some have driveways and giant doors that are always shut. "If I drive down the front of a residential street and all I see is garages, that tells me the life of the house is in the backyard," says Saville, who also blogs on safe neighborhoods. "What it does is it abandons the life of the street to the cars."
- A neighborhood nightlight: "Do people keep their porch lights on? They don't have to be high, bright lights that suck the energy out of the grid," Saville says, just enough to see approaching figures, as if under a full moon.
- People out walking: "The more walkable a street is, the more likely it is that people are outside to watch you and protect you," Saville says. "An active street life is one of the best defenses against street crime."
As a hefty bonus, all of the above also help create a sense of community. This improves the quality of life and bumps up home values.
These boots were made for walking
To get eyes on the street you need feet on the ground. And those feet also need to be safe. For a neighborhood to be safe (and good) for walking, it needs three things:
- Sound sidewalks: You want sidewalks that are free of big pavement breaks and obstacles, such as utility equipment or parked cars. Many suburban developments put up after WWII don't have sidewalks at all. Is it safe to walk on the street?
- Conscientious crosswalks: Walk across a few busy streets. Are there enough crosswalks? Do drivers stop? "Do you feel comfortable? Would you feel comfortable letting your 13-year-old cross there?" Wetmore asks. "When you're making your list of pluses and minuses, you want to make sure that these are on your list."
- Desirable destinations: Even on a warm weekend day, people aren't going to be out without someplace to go. Are there stores within a mile? Restaurants? Parks? Trails?
In addition, look for:
- Well-marked bike lanes or bike paths.
- Parking lots that remain well-lit at night.
- Walking trails that can be seen and aren't shrouded in overgrowth.
- Routes that avoid alleys or places where people loiter.
- People. "If you're in a place that has a lot of people walking, it's going to be a better place for you to walk," Wetmore says.
(For more on the benefits of walkability see "Walk your way to higher home values.")
Crime data on the Web
Now back to the crime data online. A growing number of sites are incorporating crime statistics into informative — dare we say, at times visually stunning — maps that can be searched by neighborhood, date and type of crime.
We've noted a few. Just keep in mind, says Saville, the former cop, that these don't tell the whole story. Incidents are logged only when a person has reported a crime, police have responded and an officer has filed a report. This can skew the results.
The best bet, real-estate agents say: talk to your prospective neighbors. Or, rather, let them talk. Chat with a few and a decent picture of neighborhood concerns will become clear.
Still, the sites do offer useful comparisons. Many area police departments have their own, so check there. Here, too, are a few more:
- EveryBlock.com: Owned by MSNBC, the site compiles news and data for neighborhoods in 15 cities and includes a section for crime. Users can specify an area (up to an eight-block radius) and search by date and types of crime. The crime reports also appear in list form.
- CrimeReports.com: A national site that's expanded to include information from 600 law-enforcement agencies in North America. Offers free searches.
- NeighborhoodScout.com: A multipurpose site that compares your neighborhood criminal stats with those of the city, state and the nation. It relies on statistical modeling to do so, but claims 87% effectiveness.
- Oakland Crimespotting: An easy-to-view, integrative map that shifts before your eyes. The developer appears to only have a map for Oakland, Calif., but the model could be adopted by other cities.
- National Sex Offender Public Web Site: A U.S. Department of Justice site that links to the public registries for all 50 states, the territories and the tribes.
- Family Watchdog: A national site, searchable by neighborhood, that shows where offenders live and work, and provides e-mail updates. Points out that nine out of 10 sexual assaults against children are committed by a person the child knew.