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Space, place and crime

Andresen, M.A. (2017). Space, place and crime. In A. Brisman, E. Carrabine, & N. South (Eds.), Routledge companion to criminological theory and concepts (pp. 544 – 548). New York, NY: Routledge.

Published onJan 01, 2017
Space, place and crime

The importance of space and place in criminology has been known for almost 200 years. The overarching pattern of this research is that despite the various motivations for crime, crime is patterned across space and those crime patterns are stable over time. Consequently, understanding the nature of those spatial patterns is critical for understanding crime.

This approach to the study of crime had its beginnings with the work of Adolphe Quetelet, from Belgium, and Andre-Michel Guerry, from France, who studied property crime and violent crime patterns in French departments (regions) during the early 1800s. What they found was that southern France had high rates of violent crime and northern France had high rates of property crime. Moreover, with the time frame they had for data, these crime patterns were relatively stable and, therefore, predictable (Andresen, 2014).

Though most people who study criminology will come across the work of Guerry and Quetelet, the early criminological work most often associated with spatial criminology is social disorganization theory that came out of the Chicago School of Sociology in the 1920s and 1930s (Andresen, 2014). This research focuses on neighborhoods and their relationship to delinquency/crime (with the early work focussing on juvenile delinquency). The expected relationships within social disorganization theory are that places that have high levels of population turnover and ethnic heterogeneity are less able to produce social cohesion in a neighborhood that will repel crime and delinquency. Population turnover contributes to this because places with high population turnover will have difficulties establishing social cohesion simply because people are not invested in the neighborhood when they plan to leave after a short period of time. Ethnic heterogeneity contributes to social disorganization literally because people do not speak the same languages, but also because of cultural differences: ethnic heterogeneity at the time social disorganization theory was developed involved primarily varieties of Europeans. This theoretical approach dominated spatial criminology until the 1970s, with more recent advances that consider collective efficacy. Overall, social disorganization theory has strong empirical support.

Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a new set of theories emerged to explain the spatial patterns of crime: routine activity theory, geometry of crime, and rational choice theory—collectively known as environmental criminology. Routine activity theory, developed by Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson, states that in order to have a criminal event, a motivated offender and a suitable target must converge in space and time in the absence of a capable guardian (Andresen, 2014). Though this theory was not initially developed to understand spatial crime patterns—it was developed to explain long-run temporal crime patterns, namely the increase in crime during the 1950s and 1960s while social indicators were improving—it became popular in the spatial criminology literature. The reason for this is quite simple: we undertake our routine activities (travelling to and from home to work, school, and recreation activities) in a very restricted number of places. As such, the number of places we will tend to be victimized is also small.

The geometry of crime emphasizes the importance of the underlying geography of a place to explain crime patterns: the street network, the type of land use, building types, and so on, all matter for understanding crime patterns—this is called the environmental backcloth. Subsequently, the geometry of crime identifies the places in which we spend our time (home, work, shopping, etc.) as our activity nodes and the paths in between those activity nodes as our activity space—where we spend our time (Andresen, 2014). Only when our activity spaces overlap with the activity spaces of offenders will we be a victim of crime.

Rational choice theory manifests itself in two ways. First, routine activity theory and the geometry of crime assume rational offenders; as such, rational choice theory is “working” in the background. Second, rational choice theory seeks to understand criminal events from a rational perspective such that offenders consider the risks and rewards of a potential criminal event when deciding whether to commit that criminal event or not (Andresen, 2014). It is important to note here that rationality is in the eye of the beholder: just because one person believes a criminal event is worth the risk does not mean another person will.

There are a number of empirical regularities that have emerged from these theoretical perspectives: geographic profiling, repeat victimization, crime measurement, near-repeat victimization, and the journey to crime. In short, because of this research, we know the following: based on where a serial offender commits his/her crimes, we can predict his/her home location; a relatively small percentage of victims account for a disproportionate percentage of all criminal victimizations; there are many ways to measure criminal activity, with some methods being superior to others; if a home is burgled, not only is it at a greater risk of re-victimization (repeat victimization) but so are the homes in its immediate vicinity, albeit for a short period of time; and offenders’ journeys to crime tend to be relatively short, especially for violent crime types—see Andresen (2014) for a discussion of these research areas. There are two aspects of research within space, place and crime, however, that deserve particular attention: (situational) crime prevention and crime concentrations, each discussed in turn.

The origins of the contemporary theories within environmental criminology are largely related to, or became associated with, crime prevention. Crime prevention, in this context, refers to preventing crimes from occurring before they ever occur, rather than through rehabilitation, for example. Generally speaking, it involves the removal of opportunities and is “situational” because it varies from place to place and crime to crime (Clarke, 2012). The number of strategies that are involved in crime prevention are too vast to discuss here, but generally involve increasing risks and decreasing rewards: making suitable targets not suitable and adding capable guardians, for example. Research that investigates (situational) crime prevention initiatives have generally found that they are successful and reduce crime. Moreover, there is little evidence for crime displacement resulting from crime prevention activities (Guerette & Bowers, 2009); rather, if anything occurs, there is a diffusion of crime prevention benefits such that areas near the crime prevention area also experience a reduction in crime because offenders are not able to identify clearly the spatial boundaries of the crime prevention initiative.

What is probably the most active and interesting aspect of space, place and crime at this time is the study of crime concentrations. Indeed, the history of spatial criminology has been about understanding crime concentrations, most often framed in the context of crime hot spots, but also the importance of spatial heterogeneity in crime patterns: spatial crime patterns are not uniform across entire neighborhoods, but there are safe places in bad neighborhoods, for example.

The most recent research that considers crime concentrations has done so at the micro-spatial unit of analysis, the micro-place, most often street segments and intersections. The general result is that 5 percent, or less, of street segments and intersections can account for 50 percent of crime. This result has been found across many cities in the United States, but also Brazil, Canada, and Israel (Andresen et al., 2016; Weisburd, 2015). In fact, when specific crime types are investigated, most often fewer than 5 percent of micro-places can account for 50 percent of crime. Moreover, while it is common for half of an entire city to be free from crimes reported to the police, elsewhere there can be concentrations of crime within already existing concentrations—hot spots within hot spots (Andresen et al., 2016). Finally, this research has shown that these patterns of concentration are relatively stable over long periods of time—over a decade and almost 30 years in some cases.

Because of the high degree of concentration that is present in all places that have been investigated, understanding the nature of these micro-places has significant implications for the prevention of crime. Some research has begun to investigate the nature of these micro-places that have high levels of crime and found that the presence of high-risk juveniles, commercial land use, public facilities such as community centers, arterial roadways, vacant land, and the presence of public transit all increase the probability of high-crime areas. Although this research is instructive, and consistent with the expectations of the theories within environmental criminology, it has only been undertaken in one city, Seattle, Washington. As such, because of the importance of replication in the (social) sciences, much more research is necessary. But not only replication, extensions to what have been undertaken thus far are also critical. Understanding the nature of these micro-places and their stability despite changes in the underlying nature of these cities will prove to be instructive research that may lead to a safer society.


Andresen, M.A. (2014). Environmental criminology: Evolution, theory, and practice. New

York, NY: Routledge.

Andresen, M.A., Linning, S.J., & Malleson, N. (2016). Crime at places and spatial

concentrations: exploring the spatial stability of property crime in Vancouver BC,

2003-2013. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, DOI: 10.1007/s10940-016-9295-8.

Clarke, R. V. (2012). Opportunity makes the thief. Really? And so what? Crime Science, 1,

Article 3.

Guerette, R.T., and Bowers, K.J. (2009). Assessing the extent of crime displacement and

diffusion of benefits: a review of situational crime prevention evaluations.

Criminology, 47(4), 1331 – 1368.

Weisburd, D. (2015). The law of crime concentration and the criminology of place.

Criminology, 53(2), 133 – 157.

Further reading

Cornish, D. B. and Clarke, R. V. G. (1987). Understanding crime displacement: An

application of rational choice theory. Criminology, 25(4), 933 – 947.

Farrell, G. (2013). Five tests or a theory of the crime drop. Crime Science, 2(1),

Article 5.

Felson, M. and Eckert, M. (2016). Crime and everyday life (5th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage


Rossmo, D. K. (2013). Geographic profiling. In G. Bruinsma & D. L. Weisburd (Eds.),

Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice (pp. 1934-1942). New York:


Weisburd, D., Wyckoff, L. A., Ready, J., Eck, J. E., Hinkle, J. C. and Gajewski, F. (2006). Does

crime just move around the corner? A controlled study of spatial displacement and

diffusion of crime control benefits. Criminology, 44(3), 549 – 591.

Weisburd, D., Groff, E. R. and Yang, S-M. (2012). The criminology of place: Street segments

and our understanding of the crime problem. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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