Economists have established a clear link between urban architecture and crime; they can shed some light on whether local crime is contagious. They can tell us what difference law enforcement really makes when the streets are peopled by those who try to kill for no reason, writes Financial Times columnist Tim Harford in the Washington Post.
Armed with computer simulations, economists use the insight of economist Thomas Schelling to explore ways in which societies can “flip” from bad situations to good ones. Two new-wave economists, Edward Glaeser of Harvard and Bruce Sacerdote of Dartmouth, matched crime figures with data on building height and discovered that the residents of high-rise apartments are much more likely to be victims of crime — specifically street crime. The effect remains similar after statistically adjusting for poverty, demographics, and public housing: It’s the height of the building itself that matters. Steven Levitt of the University of Chicago, co-author of “Freakonomics,” used state-by-state differences in the juvenile punishment system to show that teenage delinquents paid close attention to the threat of punishment. Economists Alex Tabarrok and Jonathan Klick found that crime dropped noticeably in Washington, D.C., when extra police were placed on duty because of terrorism alerts. In both cases, the result is not a surprise — you’d expect tough sentences and more cops to deter crime — but the researchers were able to tell policymakers how big the effect was.