Does litter increase the crime rate ?

There has been much assertion of the link between the presence of litter and the presence of crime. Of particular interest has been research carried out by on the link between litter and fear. In a 2007 research paper, ‘The Elements and Prevalence of Fear’ written by Jonathan Shepherd and Simon Moore of Cardiff University, litter was positively associated with fear of crime and fear of personal harm. This was followed up by Jonathan Shepherd’s letter to The Times in 2008 which held that “A disfigured environment sends messages that personal disfigurement may be next. Since fear of crime can be as corrosive as crime itself, litter disposal is likely to make us all feel safer”.

But there has, as far as I am aware, been no formal exploration in the UK of the causal link between the presence of litter and the presence of crime.

So I am indebted to Chris Sherrington of the Bristol-based research organisation, Eunomia, for bringing to my attention a piece of research from the US that comes the closest that I can find to a scientific attempt to show a link between litter and crime.

The study was carried out in 2004 in Lowell, Massachusetts. 34 crime hot spots were chosen and grouped into pairs. These hotspots accounted for 23.5% of the total crime and disorder emergency phone calls made to the police department but accounted for only 2.7% of the total area the police department covered. So these hotspots represented high concentrations of crime.

Over the year of the trial, one hotspot area of each pair was kept cleaned up and the other (the control area) was left untouched. The areas that were cleaned up saw a 19.8% reduction in phone calls to the police with no associated increase in surrounding areas i.e. crime and disorder was not simply being displaced to another area. What is more, the cleaned up areas saw a 26.8% reduction in litter after the trial ended compared to an 11.4% increase in litter in the control areas.

One has to struggle a bit to read behind the academic language of the study (“a mediation analysis of the isolated and exhaustive causal mechanisms that comprised the strategy revealed that the strongest crime-prevention gains were generated by situational prevention strategies rather than by misdemeanor arrests or social service strategies”) but that does not negate the fascinating result.

This is, to my mind, a very important trial. If its findings are replicable, it will show that keeping an area free of litter will indeed mean a reduction in crime and antisocial behaviour. And, what is more, there was evidence that crime reduced rather than simply being shifted into a different neighbourhood.

So I am hoping that we can arrange for a similar trial to be carried out in the UK so that we can try to validate the previously anecdotal evidence that if you keep your community free of litter, then it will help to keep it free of crime too.

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