Monday, June 22, 2020

The Atmospheric Theory of Crime

Hurricane Isabel, 2003, from the International Space Station
- photo courtesy of NASA

…and now for a short distraction from the awful news of late...

by Greg Saville & Gerard Cleveland

Once upon a time, crime plagued the nation. Violence flared, year after year, like a wildfire of human suffering that cities could not extinguish. Cops did their thing, and then some. Prisons were filled. Downtown blight grew and fear split the nation into racial and economic camps like never before. And nothing seemed to work.

Then the crime wave changed direction. No one knew why. Nothing was different to account for the turnabout. Criminologists went to work to explain why and one tiny group came up with an answer, an answer so simple and elegant that the theory quickly became the talk of the theoretical end of town.

The geniuses who created the concept call it the Atmospheric Theory of Crime and they described it as follows:

There are three necessary elements for crime to occur: air, water, and land. When those three elements converge, crime chances increase. Remove one of them, and you prevent crime.

Air - the first principle of Atmospheric Theory

Let us begin with air! People cannot breathe without air. If you remove air from a room, burglars have no chance of stealing anything. If you freeze air to 100 degrees below zero, like at the South Pole, murderers are unlikely to find a victim outside. Sure enough, if you need proof, South Pole crime rates are almost zero. In fact, as lung tissue freezes, offenders themselves will perish. Even a dullard can see that burglary and murder rates in airless places are almost zero. We say almost because the dastardly cur Jacques Yves Cousteau figured out how to travel through underwater airless environments.

And in doing that the scoundrel Cousteau invented his scuba gear as a modus operandi for coral reef graffiti and underwater arson. True, those are rare. But still...

Then there is water.

Water - the second principle of Atmospheric Theory

Setting aside for a moment submerged arsonists, water blankets the planet and we see it every day in clouds, rain, rivers and lakes. But our clever environmental theorists noticed that if we increase the quantity of water to a certain percentage, eventually we pass the threshold when crime becomes impossible. Our statisticians can even measure the amount of water it takes to prevent crime.

Take for example a hurricane. Granted, plenty of looting occurs AFTER a hurricane, but just try stealing a car during the torrential 150-mile an hour winds, lashing rains, and the 10-foot storm surges. Even if you can get in the car to steal it, just try to drive it through flooded roads. Same problem in a Tsunami. How many muggers ever successfully mugged a victim on a beach as they and their victim were pummeled by a 100-mile-an-hour, 30-foot high wave. Our research shows us that you will not find a safer environment from muggers than on an empty beach as the Tsunami shows up.

That leaves land as the final pillar in our trifecta of crime-busting. You must have land to have crime. People live, walk, work, and play on it. If no land exists to walk upon or to build our homes on, we immediately eliminate domestic violence. Of course, DV may occur in the air or underwater but those statistical anomalies remain quite rare in our beta tests. Earth is the equalizer and without it, crime has no chance to worm its way into our communities. Mother Earth – that lovely Gaia preventer of crime!


There you have it – the Atmospheric Theory of crime. Remove any one of those factors – air, water, or land – and crime everywhere falls quickly onto the scrap heap of abandoned human behaviors.

So now we need to spread the Atmospheric Theory of Crime far and wide. We need to create all kinds of sophisticated criminological tests for the theory while spending plenty of conference, journal, and research time arguing for the genius of A-TOC! (We must not forget the appeal of cool abbreviations for marketing purposes.)

In the future, we can wonder, “Gosh, why didn’t we think of A-TOC earlier?” Think of all the crime we could have prevented and misery and loss we could have avoided. Remove the air from robbery locations? “Geeze,” we can retort, “great crime prevention idea!” Flood cities and high crime areas with 30 feet of water! “Ha!” we will exclaim with glee, “now, let those arsonists just try…”

Land - the third principle of Atmospheric Theory

The hue and cry from within the orthodox criminology schools would howl their displeasure and shower disdain upon the upstart A-TOCs. False equivalency charlatans! – imagine claiming that crime and nature are interchangeable?  Or they may take a lawyerly approach and decry the environmental school of crime as reductio ad absurdum wherein the contention of those A-TOC types reduces serious and complex issues of human criminal behavior to mere naïve states of weather. We can already hear the chorus of complaint in the inevitable defense of modern criminological theory and the tried and true explanations for the true reasons for crime.

Pretty silly, huh!


Now, take the Atmospheric Theory of Crime and replace it with an actual criminological theory – the Routine Activity Theory of crime (RAT) – and you have the same theory. In the case of Routine Activity Theory, air is an ‘absence of a capable guardian’, water is a ‘motivated offender’, and land is a ‘suitable target’ like a victim. Remove any of the three RAT principles and you – according to RAT – reduce the opportunity for crime.

But compare RAT to A-TOC in actual criminology journals and they would be filled with comments like this: "It might sound a bit like A-TOC but any such comparison to RAT only serves to highlight….blah, blah, blah."

As we have blogged before, RAT assumes a steady supply of motivated offenders, just like Atmospheric theory assumes a steady supply of air and water. RAT predicts that crime opportunities wane when you remove motivated offenders and Atmospheric Theory predicts crime vanishes when you remove land.

RAT does not try to explain the historical or societal contexts of “why” offender motivation occurs or “how” you might reduce those motivations, regardless of the number of potential victims. It simply takes a short cut and says figuring out the fundamental “why” factor becomes an unnecessary consideration once we remove the opportunity, offender, or victim. Others, too, have raised alarms about RAT as a pseudo-scientific truism, for example Professor Mike Sutton's article on the Mindless Chemistry Meme.

The same argument holds true with Atmospheric Theory – it does not try to explain why Tsunamis or hurricanes deter criminals, but rather posits through common, observable evidence that they do. And – in spite of William of Ockham’s philosophy that simple, not complex, usually explains the truth of things – the world of crime gives rise to social issues pregnant with complexity and uncertainty. Crime and simple rarely share the same space!

So, your takeaway for which criminal theory to apply in your city becomes a choice of which fantasy to support. The only difference between Atmospheric Theory and RAT is that the former is a fantasy made-up just now.


Clearly, Atmospheric Theory takes logical leaps of absurdity to the point of comedy and requires nothing more than blind faith to believe its truth. Similarly, RAT – a contemporary theory and the subject of many studies – lacks any root-cause-of-anything explanation, unless you consider crime opportunity itself a “root cause” (the bizarre cart-before-the-horse logic that RAT proponents now suggest). Yet, the best criminology journals continue to proselytize on behalf of the holy trinity of guardians, offenders, and targets in spite of it explaining everything, and nothing, at the same time.

And so, we end our Atmospheric Theory of Crime story by remembering that wonderful science fiction fantasy Battlestar Galactica. During a key funeral scene, the actors all join in unison and declare solemnly that they will follow the orthodoxy of the times with faith, purpose and commitment. In closing, we mouth their choral sentiments of blind faith with the hopeful chant, “So say we all”.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Social balance in a time of uprising

Troops in Atlanta, USA attempting to quell riots this year
- photo by M/Sgt Roger Parsons, Creative Commons

GUEST BLOG by Carlos Gutiérrez Vera

At a time when the United States is convulsing with protests and riots regarding excessive police force and Black Lives Matter, our SafeGrowth Advocate from Honduras offers this perspective regarding unrest in other parts of the world. Sometimes a view from the outside sheds a brighter light on the darkness from the inside.

Not long ago I read about serious social uprisings taking place in Ecuador, which is my adopted homeland. There was social chaos, public discontent, and thousands of indigenous people marching to protest against what they considered an injustice unjust economic system. The police and military responded with strong repression.

A few days later a similar outbreak began in Chile, my original native country, an outbreak with serious consequences in for human lives, damage to public assets, and also to for social coexistence.

The violent uprisings in Ecuador and Chile led authorities to re-think the way cities and communities are currently built and promote public policies to encourage and support building smaller community systems.

And now we see similar social unrest and rioting across the United States with similar results.

Troops in Santiago, Chile attempting to quell riots this year
- photo by Martin Bennewitz Martinez

In response to these events, the International CPTED Association posted a webinar regarding Social Unrest and CPTED.

ICA webinar on Social Unrest and CPTED

My view is that SafeGrowth has the strategies and tools that can lead to building non-violent communities for the 21st Century. It represents a powerful long-term strategy to the problem of street violence.


These social divisions have been attributed to social inequalities and injustice. In the United States unrest is currently fueled by racial conflict and police excessive force.

"Black Lives Matter" projected onto the facade of the
Washington National Cathedral, June 10, after the murder
of George Floyd in Minneapolis - photo by Corsal, Creative Commons

There has been much talk that social outbursts have deep roots in social inequities and injustices. However, this is only part of a larger problem. It's also possible that, as a society, we have lost that ability to build our communities together, to work in mutual cooperation, to love what we build. Destruction and vandalism have a lot to do with emotional disconnection, the sense of non-belonging, and lack of identity.

The construction of our cities has been entrusted to developers to feed a real-estate market dedicated to commercial profits, but seldom to build a sense of “community”. We have lost the sense of living communally. All over the world, cities have been growing chaotically, breaking the order of social and community relations that, in the past, gave them sustenance and habitability on a human scale.

The disintegration of these urban networks has resulted in the breakdown of the social fabric with the consequent deterioration of cohesion. It is no longer just a matter of poverty or inequity, it is also a matter of quality human relationships.

Where does social fabric reside? Who builds our cities?
- photo by Vincenzo Di Giorgi, Unsplash

We have known this for a while. Consider Putnam's Bowling Alone, or McKnight’s Community and it's Counterfeits. SafeGrowth, in particular, calls for building non-violent communities with social stability through the restoration of healthy community relations and organizing collaborative neighborhood work.


To get started in this task, there needs to be a balance between the geometry of social relations. That geometry is based on three areas: public, private and social.

The public sector is the government, which can provide public goods and offer an impartial voice to help monitor social justice. The private is businesses, who have an important role, and stake, in public safety. The social involves community associations, non-profits, and others in the neighborhood.

Birner and Ege propose coordination and cooperation between these three areas to promote social stability. But the most important aspect of all this work is social factors that encourage citizen participation. Cities and communities cannot be built, and safety cannot result, without citizen participation. Public and private sectors are not enough.

This has been the focus of the SafeGrowth movement from the beginning and it's featured throughout the book on SafeGrowth.


The SafeGrowth philosophy and practice aims to construct a system of interconnected neighborhoods so that, in collaboration with public and private sectors, they can jointly plan and coordinate actions that strengthen their development.

For example, we presented a blog on our work to build social capital and enhance mutual care by building a network of Neighborhood Hubs in Honduras. This is one of the SafeGrowth building blocks for livability.

Another example is the SafeGrowth Livability Academy, a tool for community organization and problem-solving.  Livability Academies lay the foundation for building resilient, self-managed, and non-violent communities.

Our vision is a 21st Century City in which networked neighborhoods work for livability, peace, and equity are organized in ecosystems throughout the city. Livability Academies teach ethical leadership and the Hubs help with local projects on crime reduction, reducing inequity, and collaborating with public, private, and social sectors.

That is the long-term means by which we will prevent social outbursts that harm society so much.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

14 days later - The impact of a movement

Black Lives Matter protests have spread to cities all over the world
- Photo by Ramachandran Kumaraswamy 

by Tarah Hodgkinson

Over the past two weeks, the United States erupted after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Centuries of violence and mistreatment of people of colour in America galvanized an entire nation. Cities across the country are burning. Footage of police violence during these protests is available on every media outlet.

In response to this death and others, demands to defund the police are emerging across the United States. These arguments suggest that policing in America more than just a few “bad apples,” but rather a “bad barrel.” While the support for this suggestion is mixed, there are several successful policing reforms that deserve more attention. One of those appears in You In Blue and it encapsulates the decade-long movement to reform police training with Problem-Based Learning and Emotional Intelligence.

However, defunding the police does not mean shutting down policing altogether. Rather, it is a process of redistributing a portion of police budgets towards community-based models of safety and prevention. Policing accounts for over $142 billion in the United States each year and police budgets are continuing to grow. This is occurring despite the fact that many other social services, like health care and education struggle for funding across the United States.


Some cities are starting to take notice and reorganizing their policing budgets. In Los Angeles, the city cut $150 million of the LAPD budget this week. In Minneapolis, the city of George Floyd’s murder, the city council has announced its intention to disband the police department.

Canadian protests in Vancouver
- Photo by Ramachandran Kumaraswamy 

Canada is also being affected by the movement as Toronto city council is putting forth a motion to defund the police and the Toronto Police Chief, Mark Saunders, has announced his resignation.

What is particularly interesting about these cases is not only are the city’s defunding or completely restructuring the police, but they are using that money to reinvest in their local communities. Los Angeles mayor Garcetti is promising to redistribute this funding to local communities of colour. Minneapolis city council is planning to invest in community-led prevention.

SafeGrowth work in Ottawa in 2019 - Police as full partners
in neighborhood planning - not as observers or "service-providers"

This brings us back to community-led prevention as the main philosophy of SafeGrowth. In our book SafeGrowth: Building Neighborhood Safety and Livability, we describe how, over the past decade, we have successfully refined our approach for neighborhood-based planning and crime prevention. Perhaps someday we will look back at this moment in history as the beginning of truly significant police reforms to build safety and improve livability in all neighbourhoods?