July 23, 2021

Are suburban playgrounds safer for your kids? Not so fast

Playground monkey bars with skyline in background

For many parents, open play spaces in the suburbs may seem like a safer alternative to the bustle and perceived crime in urban neighborhoods.

But according to recent studies, urban playgrounds may have bridged the safety gap for children and surpassed their suburban counterparts in terms of availability and community engagement.

In fact, well-built playgrounds in high-density urban areas could have a positive effect on the surrounding neighborhood as whole.

Fighting urban bias

For years, the going opinion has been that suburban neighborhoods are safer for families in relation to high-density, high-crime “urban jungles” without access to safe play areas.

But new research shows that high-density neighborhoods actually have a higher rate of open play spaces despite less green space overall.

A study by the College of Design at North Carolina State University surveying two counties surrounding Washington, D.C., found that high-density areas had a higher probability of playgrounds within walking distance and double the average number of playgrounds than lower-density areas.

Despite the higher density of public parks in cities, most researchers acknowledge that crime – or at least the perception of crime – is a primary concern for parents.

“Crime is the biggest fear for many would-be urban dwellers,” said Robby Layton, Ph.D., the owner of Lafayette, Colorado-based Design Concepts. “There is a belief that dense areas are less safe, but recent research indicates that the rates of violent death—those that result from serious injury of all types—are actually lower in high-density areas.”

In addition, having public spaces within walking distance of a child’s home could actually be safer than having to drive to a suburban neighborhood park.

According to a 2017 study from the National Transportation Safety Board, vehicle deaths on suburban roads were three times higher than on highways.

Are city playgrounds a hotbed for crime?

In recent years, a general trend toward higher crime rates in cities has started to reverse, making urban playgrounds a generally safer place to play.

According to a May 2011 report from the Brookings Institute, violent crime trends in urban areas have seen an across-the-board decrease in recent years. That downward slope has helped ease some environmental dangers from urban open spaces where children play.

“In general, the nation’s largest metropolitan areas are much safer today than they were in years past,” the report read. “Within metropolitan areas, older, more urbanized, poorer, and more minority communities have benefited the most from these trends, narrowing the disparities between cities and suburbs and underscoring that crime is not a uniquely urban issue, but a metropolitan one.”

However, public spaces in urban areas can be a catalyst for crime if not properly maintained, according to a Response Guide by the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing at Arizona State University.

“Natural vegetation, especially in parks with more naturalistic settings, often inhibits surveillance, and closed-circuit television (CCTV) is unlikely to be able to cover the whole park,” the guide said. “There is usually a police response only when the ‘problems’ in a park have gotten so bad that the public has demanded a visible police reaction. Until there is such a ‘crisis,’ the urban park isn’t usually a policing priority.”

However, neighborhood buy-in and increased public investment in urban parks and green spaces can not only benefit playgrounds, but also the neighborhoods surrounding those parks.

According to CityLab, the city of Youngstown, Ohio, launched a beautification project from 2010-14 that turned some of the city’s vacant lots into fenced green spaces that were later converted to community projects.

The results showed lots that had been co-opted for community use saw a significant reduction in crime while lots that were simply fenced off saw lower property crime rates.

“The gardens designed by the community, meanwhile, might attract more care and attention from the local residents, thus creating an atmosphere that deters heat-of-the-moment violence,” CityLab fellow Julian Spector wrote.

In general, research shows that well-maintained playgrounds and public spaces in high-density areas can have a positive impact on crime in certain neighborhoods and create an overall safer atmosphere for kids to play.

Original for PNW by Kyle Blankenship

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