Environmental criminology, not to be confused with green criminology, looks at how the environment we live in can effect whether or not we will commit crime. It does not necessarily blame the environment for causing the crime, but is more based around the possibility of ‘designing out crime’. It believes that by designing buildings and spaces in a certain way, we can stop crime from occurring within the area. It has gained greater popularity recently and for good reason because if there is any validity to the idea we may be able to eradicate crime completely by designing areas that do not allow for it.
The Chicago School of Criminology refers to a set of theories that are based on this premise, whereby the environment affects our behaviour. It was based on work done in Chicago, where criminologists noticed that within some areas crime rates were very high, while in others they were virtually non-existent. In other words the total crime in the city was concentrated into just a few specific parts. The Chicago School of theories refers to all those which attempt to explain this phenomenon. Some say that it is because in these areas more past offenders live, who can then pass down their criminality to younger people in that area, meaning that crime stays within those certain neighbourhoods while others, as we’ll discuss, pose that it is the layout and design of the neighbourhood itself that induces criminality.
Routine Activity Theory is based on the perhaps outdated view that individuals commit crime based on a rational decision making process, which in some cases will be more or less true yet, often the criminal will be a victim of circumstance such as those living in poverty or the crime will be passionate, such as accidental murder in a fit of rage. This is not premeditated and so cannot be explained by any rational decision making based theory. This theory in particular is very straightforward. It believes that whenever there is a likely criminal, a suitable target and the lack of a capable guardian for that target, a crime will be committed. This theory makes sense of environmental criminology since by adding ‘capable guardians’ to targets it will reduce the likelihood of crime being committed. An example of this is CCTV cameras in rough areas to deter people from committing crime there or high fences with barbed wire around buildings that are likely to be robbed.
A second theory that links environment and location to criminal behaviour is ‘Broken Windows’ theory. This poses that if even one window in an area is broken, shortly the whole area will go to ruin. This is because when people see the broken window it promotes the idea that no one cares about the area, and so crime is seen as acceptable there. This will lead to more vandalism until the whole area becomes infested with criminality. Because of this it is recommended that to reduce crime in an area we should decorate it pleasantly and keep it tidy since this promotes the idea that disorder and criminal activity is unacceptable here.
There are many more theories about how the environment can cause or supress criminal behaviour, but the majority focus on four key ideas about how an area can reduce crime. Firstly, by strengthening target areas, such as with CCTV cameras or fences, by increasing visibility with more windows and better lighting, by increasing feelings of community, by keeping the area tidy and designing houses in a similar way so that people feel connected and by increasing territoriality. This involves using gates, or even arches to enter the area, making criminals feel that they are entering someone else’s territory and that they are not welcome there.
This is certainly an area of study that will become more and more popular as time goes on. There is no doubt a lot more to discover in terms of how we are affected by the environment we find ourselves in, and it is possible that if the area is studied further then in 15 years or so we could be living in a far safer society.
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