The physical environment of street blocks and resident perceptions of crime and disorder: Implications for theory and measurement

Perkins, D. D., Meeks, J. W., & Taylor, R. B.

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Perkins, D. D., Meeks, J. W., & Taylor, R. B. (1992). The physical environment of street blocks and resident perceptions of crime and disorder: Implications for theory and measurement. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 12, 21–34.

Crime , Defensible Space , Neighborhoods , Physical Incivilities , Social Incivilities

There are two purposes to the present study. Our methodological purpose is to develop and test a procedure and instrument for assessing crime- and fear-related features of the urban residential environment. We examine three classes of cues: symbols of social and physical disorder, territorial functioning, and architectural 'defensible space' features. Past research examining the physical environment correlates of fear of crime has relied almost exclusively on subjective perceptions of the environment rather than on independent and objective measures thereof. Our theoretical purpose is to test the 'disorder' thesis of Skogan, and Wilson and Kelling, that actual physical incivilities erode resident's confidence in their neighborhood and lead them to infer that serious local problems, unrelated to the physical environment, are serious. We conducted environmental assessments and resident interviews (n = 412) on 50 blocks in 50 Baltimore neighborhoods. The assessments demonstrated high levels of inter-rater reliability and concurrent validity, controlling for social class. Regression analyses showed that physical incivilities were independently linked to perceptions of social and crime-related problems. The results show that reliable and valid assessment of crime- and fear-related environmental features can be conducted. They also support the central kernel of the Wilson and Kelling, and Skogan thesis, that the actual presence of disorder-related cues engender perceptions of social and crime problems.

Main finding
To what degree do neighborhood characteristics classified as symbols of social and physical disorder relate to perception of fear among residents? This study combines environmental assessments that classify the presence of physical disorder, territorial functioning, and defensible space with surveys to determine residents' self-reported fear of crime. Results indicate that some measures of perceived and observed social incivilities were positively correlated (e.g., more litter present positively correlated with higher perceptions of harassment, loitering, fighting), but also defensible space elements were negatively correlated (e.g., more streetlights negatively correlated with perception of robberies). Litter and vandalism were the strongest physical predictors of perceived physical incivilities and social problems. More genearally, there are relationships between perceived and observed neighborhood characteristics, but observed characteristics (as measured) do not explain an overwhelming portion of the variance, indicating other causal mechanisms may be operating.

Description of method used in the article
Residents (N = 412; 65.5% female; 52% black and 46% white) from 50 Baltimore neighborhoods (unit of analysis: block-level) were surveyed in person or by telephone in the spring of 1987. Key components of the survey related to (a) perceived physical incivilities (vandalism, vacant housing, unkempt property, litter, vacant lots), (b) perceived social incivilities (harassment, teenage gangs, fights, drug dealing), and (c) perceived crime problems (burglary, robbery, assault). These results were compared to observations of residents' neighborhoods using the Block Environmental Survey (BEI), which was conducted in January 1987. Key components of the BEI include measures of (a) incivilities (litter, vandalism, abandoned/dilapidated houses), (b) signs of territorial functioning (e.g., yard decorations, names on doors), and (c) defensible space features (e.g., adequate lighting, surveillance opportunities, barriers to entry). Correlations between survey responses and BEI results are conducted, followed by multiple regression equations using selected BEI items to predict block-level perceptions of property incivilities, social incivilities, and crime problems.

Of some practical use if combined with other research

Organising categories

Crime and Aggression
Field Observations Survey
Environmental Psychology
Physical types
Geographic locations