Must it be bright lights, big (dangerous) city?Posted: April 12, 2011 | |
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.