Urban Insecurity

Dernière mise à jour le 15 juin 2019


In the 1920s, the Chicago School, consisting of scholars who used the city of Chicago as a social laboratory, developed some of the first insights into urban criminality, which at the time primarily involved young people organized into gangs. They concluded that crime is tied to a city’s physical structure and is rooted in areas where social life is in disarray. Moreover, the number of inhabitants of immigrant origin is of no consequence. The real factors causing crime are: economic status, mobility, and the heterogeneity of neighborhoods.

Further information in French: Document from the Free Software Foundation.
Further information in English: Note by Lutters & Ackerman.

Many things have since been written on this subject. We will focus on an American experiment from the 1970s and French views from the 1990s. These considerations will shed light on the sociological and psychological variables contributing to insecurity.


In the mid-seventies, the state of New Jersey announced a plan for “clean and safe” neighborhoods, designed to improve quality of life in 28 cities. The police organized regular patrols to make neighborhoods safer and bring crime levels down. After five years, the project’s results were evaluated in Washington. Due to greater police presence, residents had regained a sense of security and were convinced that crime had declined. Figures, however, suggested no such decrease had occurred. What had changed, however, was the relationship between citizens and local police forces, which patrolled the streets on foot.

As a result, human relations had changed. Even though the policemen were white and the neighborhoods were predominantly African-Americans, they spoke to one another. The police took care of people who were alone or drunk in the streets. They reminded teenagers at bus stops of basic rules of civility. In particular, they adopted many informal and extralegal measures.

The authors reached a series of conclusions about the nature of relationships between urban dwellers, particularly underprivileged ones, as well as the responsibilities of neighborhood police forces.

Further reading: Archives of The Atlantic.


The question of insecurity is thus not a purely objective one (i.e., connected, for instance, to having suffered from an accident or personally knowing a victim). Rather, it is a feeling that depends on variables tied to our relationship with our surroundings.

According to Sebastien Roche, the feeling of insecurity can be explained directly by the number and degree of intensity of the personal relationship we have in our immediate surroundings.

In light of these factors, it is not surprising that senior citizens, who tend to be more isolated, feel more insecure. It also explains why being surrounded by racial and cultural minorities, with whom one may have little contact, generates a sense of insecurity. The author adds that the urban world does not offer (or at least no longer offers) us a meaningful framework, requiring us to inhabit “non places” like vast shopping malls. He also considers what factors, in a given public space, are likely to create more or less incivility. For more on this topic, see Persée’s website.

Finally, we must not forget that historically, cities were created to provide inhabitants with more security (as with fortified cities) than could be found in the countryside—where nights were often be dangerous. In the city, however, the enemy comes from within…

Sources: Georges L. Kellin and James Q. Wilson, “Broken windows” (1982); Sébastien Roché (a sociologist), Le sentiment d’insécurité, Presses Universitaires de France (1993); Insécurité et libertés, Seuil (1994).

File translated by Michael C. Behrent – Assistant Professor – Department of History – Appalachian State University – Boone, NC  28608