Must it be bright lights, big (dangerous) city?

Where Americans are moving - interactive map

This article in The Sunday Age reminds us that, for all its virtues, there’s a dark side to density. In Melbourne’s CBD, it include drunks urinating in doorways, assaults, noise and rubbish dropped heedlessly anywhere.

Physical proximity has driven human progress for millennia, driving trade and exchange. But it also brought severe problems, like the water-borne diseases that ravaged Victorian cities and the crime wave that plagued New York in the 70s and 80s. According to Professor Edward Glaeser, New York was so bad in those days that skilled workers required and got a premium – ‘combat pay’ – to work there.

Improvements in water supply and sewage disposal technology in the nineteenth century overcame cholera. Mayor Rudy Giuliano’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy, based on the ‘broken windows’ theory of George Kelling, is credited with turning New York into one of the safest cities in the world, at least partly because large numbers of young black men were incarcerated.

So you’d think Melbourne could solve its problems with marauding drunks. The Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle, says the long term answer is a change of attitude – we need to expect more of each other, he says. That’s actually not a practical answer because there’s not much agreement on what the underlying causes of anti-social behaviour are and what to do about them.

New York didn’t become much safer due to some change in the underlying causes of criminal behaviour. Partly it became too expensive to live in for practitioners of street crime. But a key factor appears to be ‘zero tolerance’ policing. That approach relied on the regularity that people who commit serious crimes are the kind who are also likely to flout minor laws. Those who committed minor offences like fare evasion were arrested rather than, as had been the case hitherto, ignored. Offenders were frequently found to have outstanding warrants for more serious crimes and accordingly ended up in gaol. I think it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that ‘zero tolerance’ is a bit like transportation to Botany Bay – a whole cohort of criminals was simply locked up.

However I don’t think the New York experience has a lot of relevance for Melbourne. We’re not dealing with serious crimes like stick-ups. The drunks who brawl and piss in King St at 2 am on a Sunday morning are more likely to be bank johnnies, tradies and public servants than career crims from ‘the projects’.  They’re more like ‘good ole boys’.

I don’t think there’s any getting away from the reality that (1) there are some men who are prone to behave in an anti-social way when (2) they have a lot to drink and (3) the probability of detection and the severity of the consequences are both low. Combine that with a clustering of attractions like nightclubs and there’s bound to be trouble. In fact density might contribute to the problem. We’re used to clusters generating positive external economies of scale, but there’s no doubt they can generate negative ones too. Perhaps the density of night spots provides visibility, an audience and tribes and warriors to compete against.

Serious efforts have to be made to limit anti-social behaviour and noise in the city centre. More and more people want to visit and live at density, but that’s not going to be sustainable unless aggressive behaviour and nuisance is reduced. Inner city residents want buzz but they don’t want violence and intimidation. It’s no answer to say that these sorts of problems are just part and parcel of city centre living. People who’ve been threatened, or worse, by aggressive drunks don’t tend to feel it’s just all part of the rich tapestry of city centre life.

I don’t know what the answer to anti-social behaviour in the city centre is but I expect stronger disincentives – like tighter policing and more telling penalties – would figure prominently in the mix. The way density possibly reinforces anti-social behaviour would be worth looking at too.


9 Comments on “Must it be bright lights, big (dangerous) city?”

  1. Peter Hill says:

    It is due to the state of cultural and moral indiscipline. Not only filthy streets, but also filthy public transport facilities, including deliberately-fouled seats in vehicles. I am puzzled why Melburnians so meekly acquiesce, thus, in effect consent to the filth gestures deliberately posted in out trains, such as filthy seats. Symbolic protests, such as passengers placing clean white paper sheets (printed with a political message about unacceptable squalor) on seats prior to sitting down, then leaving these behind for Metro Trains staff to tidy up might then cause the operator to prevent the rubbishing of our public transport by preveting the fouling in the first instance. Introduce misdemeanour penalties such as offenders having to spend a significant amount of time cleaning public transport facilities during inconvenient hours.

    In my estensive travels around east Asia and Europe, I seldom have seen this indifference in combination with rebellious contempt for civic accord. Obedience is a bad word in Australian ocker “street sub-culture”, with its smart-arse contempt for public decency.

    I suspect the solution is a long term reason-based counselling by our public leaders backed up by quite harsh and humiliating penaltiers for offenders. Two decades ago, there were still the minor remnants of uncouth and uncivic behaviour in Singapore, such as spitting in public places and urinating in elevators, etc. in public housing towers. This is never seen now. Perhaps Michael Fay’s caning for spray can graffiti helped to instil the moral force of acceptable behaviour in Singapore!

    • Michael says:

      There is a lot to be said for Singapore policing and enforcement (although I can’t abide capital punishment), but like a lot things in Singapore it’s not easy to transfer them to Australia. One prominent feature of Singapore that nobody ever seems to advocate bringing to Australia is affordable high quality government housing for 80% of the population. That and guaranteed universal access to good quality education. It is a tantalising thought to wonder if caning would deter anti-social behaviour.

    • Alan Davies says:

      For all our myths and legends about mateship, some people seem to have real difficulty in contributing to the community, the collective, the public good, or whatever you want to call it. Really need some objective evidence here, but in my experience, Americans seem to be more civic-minded than us despite their more individualistic rhetoric.

  2. Simon says:

    Fingering “density” as one of the cplrits in this is a stretch. The drunken men in Melbourne are predominately from the low-density suburbs, and are simply visiting the high-density centre. The causes of their behaviour may have more to do with low-density living than with the attractions of high-density nightlife.

    But ultimately Australia has had a culture of public drunkenness and violence ever since Europen invasion in the late 18th century. In this respect our culture resembles Britain and differs from the US and Europe, let alone Asia.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I’m referring to the clustering of activities like night clubs in the CBD rather than to density of population or employment. The density of venues in the CBD is certainly not the underlying cause, as I make clear, but I think it’s plausible that it’s an exacerbating factor. Some of the policies that have been suggested — such as limits on movement between venues after certain hours — seem implicitly to acknowledge that density is a factor.

      • Simon says:

        It seems a bit of a bait and switch to use the word “density” to refer to “density of venues”.

        And you never answered my implicit question – is it sprawl or density that is the underlying cause? It’s certainly not the inhabitants of density that are causing the problem, and I say that as a resident of the highest-density residential area in Australia by a long way – Kings Cross – a place with a bit of a problem on Friday and Saturday nights of suburban blokes coming in and doing their fighting/vomiting/general unpleasantness thing.

        • Alan Davies says:

          Sorry Simon, I like my questions explicit. I don’t think density – whether high or low – is an underlying cause of anti-social behaviour. It’s not fundamentally about the physical environment. But in some cases high density (alright clusters) of venues might be an exacerbating factor.

          As for ‘bait and switch’, no comment – I think we’re on different wavelenths.

  3. Q.Maisie says:

    My 15 year old son and I headed out last night to the Comedy Festival in the CBD. The crowds were all well behaved BUT when it came time to head home, for one reason or another, it looked like we would travel home separately, with him on the train around midnight. HE WAS AGHAST! Not that he had to take public transport per se (he practically lives on it) but at the threat he perceived. He then went on to share a whole load of tales of woe of he and his peers being intimidated on late night trains. One story included a friend being chased with a hammer, and he tells me the number one rule is to not make eye contact with anyone! He asked me if it was as bad when I was his age, and while I recall the skinheads, the Oak Park Boot Boys on the Broady line, I was never scared to travel alone as a woman on the trains.
    Something’s gone awry, and while the notion of armed PSOs at train stations makes me anxious for different reasons, I do think that something’s got to give. While I don’t want to live in a Singapore-like rule-bound public space, I agree that low level anti-social behaviour, as subjective as that may be to define, is the thin end of the wedge that needs to be addressed.

  4. Bruce Dickson says:

    These are difficult issues to dissect and try to assign causes to. However one underlying thing is eminently clear, and has already been highlighted by another comment … the tolerance of public drunkenness, but not just at the level of throwing the problem over to policing and enforcement … more the fundamental cultural attitude towards drinking itself … drinking to get not just tipsy (fine) but totally deliriously drunk via binge drinking. The community attitude here has to change towards a more civilized outlook. Particularly at the time of greatest propensity … when young.

    The extra challenge here though seems to be one of explaining why previous generations of Australians, many of who also binge drank and wrote themselves off, were seemingly less violent, destructive and threatening in public. Some other factor has obviously entered the scene. One rural taxi driver describes a change taking place when licensing hours were extended deep into the night from the previous 10pm. He would observer semi-decent behavior from the drinks taken up til midnight and then for every hour of drinking that followed that time, an increasing likelihood of anti-social or violent behavior occurring on the part of some.

    Some people say a fundamental issue at stake with gangs and other troubling and troubled kids in LA and elsewhere (including amongst kids from ‘minority’ communities) is one of their desire to be given greater respect – this would seem to be one logically important starting point for exploring what is going on underneath the surface of a lot of these changes in behavior. Then there is the issue of, even if some core factors have been identified, can a successful response be found and implemented.


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