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The City Dark

Premiere Date: July 5, 2012

'The City Dark' in Context

Light and Crime

While there is strong indication that an increase in lighting decreases the fear of crime, there are mixed opinions regarding a direct correlation between light and crime, and the evidence is inconclusive.




In The City Dark, historian Roger Ekirch states that humans have long feared the dark, and that crime was the original impetus for widespread street lighting on the planet.

While there is strong indication that an increase in lighting decreases the fear of crime, there are mixed opinions regarding a direct correlation between light and crime, and the evidence is inconclusive.

A recent New York Times article on the rise of crime in Oakland, California states that research has long shown a correlation between street lighting and crime. Brandon Welsh, a criminology professor at Northeastern University, says that streetlights act as "natural surveillance" and may reduce crime by 20 percent. In a review of the effects of improved street lighting on crime, Welsh and co-author David P. Farrington explain the recorded impact (that crime fell both at night and during the day) and conclude that lighting increases community pride and confidence and strengthens informal social control. The City Dark shows residents in Newark, New Jersey, agreeing that the introduction of bright new lampposts have made the community more livable and sociable.

However, some research indicates that an increase in number and brightness of streetlights actually increases the occurrence of crime, noting that street lighting allows perpetrators to monitor their own actions without the use of flashlights or other lighting devices that would make them visible to others. A case has also been made that offenders need lighting to detect potential targets and low-risk situations. In 1996, the National Institute of Justice published an assessment of crime and violence and considered the case of lighting outside ATM machines. The report posited that while an ATM user might feel safer when the ATM and its immediate surrounding area are well lit, this same lighting may make the patron more visible to passing offenders. A report from 2000, written by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, presented the effect of increased lighting levels in Chicago alleyways. In a one-year analysis after the upgrading and installation of brighter lights, the group cited an increase of 21 percent in reported offenses. Index offenses increased 14 percent (from 119 to 136), property offenses increased 20 percent (from 30 to 36) and non-index offenses increased 24 percent (from 279 to 347).

Most criminologists agree that crime is more complicated than light versus dark. Local factors can often determine whether a particular lighting strategy will be effective in deterring crime or not, and research is ongoing as more and more communities debate the merits of dark-sky friendly lighting.

Photo caption: Filmmaker Ian Cheney under a typical high pressure sodium streetlight in New York City.   Credit: Wicked Delicate Films LLC.

Sources:
» Dark Sky Diary. "Do Brighter Street Lights Make You Safer From Crime?"
» National Criminal Justice Reference Service. "Street Lighting Projects – National Evaluation Program Phase I Report."
» National Institute of Justice. "Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn't, What's Promising."
» Walter, Shoshana. "Crime Rises in Oakland, and Dim Lights Get Blame." The New York Times, September 23, 2011.



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