Planning safer suburbs: do changes in the built environment influence residents' perceptions of crime risk?

Sarah Foster, Lisa Wood, Hayley Christian, Matthew Knuiman, Billie Giles-Corti
Social Science & Medicine 2013, 97: 87-94
A growing body of evidence has reiterated the negative impacts that crime and perceptions of insecurity can have on the health and wellbeing of local residents. Strategies that reduce residents' perceived crime risk may contribute to improved health outcomes; however interventions require a better understanding of the neighbourhood influences on residents perceptions of crime and safety. We examined the impact of changes in the objective built environment following relocation on changes in residents' perceived crime risk for participants in a longitudinal study of people moving to new neighbourhoods in Perth, Western Australia (n = 1159). They completed a questionnaire before moving to their new neighbourhood, and again 36 months after relocation. Individual-level objective environmental measures were generated at both time points using Geographic Information Systems, focussing on the characteristics that comprise a 'walkable neighbourhood'. Linear regression models examined the influence of objective environmental changes between the two environments on perceived crime risk, with progressive adjustment for other change variables (i.e., perceptions of the physical and social environment, reported crime). We found that increases in the proportion of land allocated to shopping/retail land-uses increased residents' perceived crime risk (β = 11.875, p = 0.001), and this relationship remained constant, despite controlling for other influences on perceived crime risk (β = 9.140, p = 0.004). The findings highlight an important paradox: that the neighbourhood characteristics known to enhance one outcome, such as walking, may negatively impact another. In this instance, the 'strangers' that retail destinations attract to a neighbourhood may be interpreted by locals as a threat to safety. Thus, in areas with more retail destinations, it is vital that other environmental strategies be employed to balance any negative effects that retail may have on residents' perceptions of crime risk (e.g., minimising incivilities, improved lighting and aesthetics).

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