Light Your Way to Safety and Crime Prevention


It has long been "common sense" that crime hides in darkness and that light can keep a place safer at night. Does research back up that idea? In general, yes.

At its most basic, lighting is used to make visible that which, undetected, could result in crime. Intuitively, the general public tends to endorse increased lighting as an anticrime measure. But what kind of lighting? Where? How? The complexities arise when we try to figure out what might go undetected, whether new or improved lighting would reduce the particular crime or crimes, and what other considerations must come into play to make the project a sound idea--including how we will evaluate it. 

Sound in Theory

Why has lighting been considered a valuable resource in crime prevention? Several of the general theories about crime developed by criminologists suggest helpful roles lighting can play.

Routine activities theory views people as increasing their risks of crime victimization because their day-to-day actions put them in riskier situations and circumstances. Educating people to avoid dark and deserted places and stay in better lighted areas would be a strategy seeking to persuade those individuals to modify their routine activities. Situational crime prevention theory holds that particular places and situations are, for a variety of reasons, major attractors of crime and that remedying problems at these places or in particular situations will reduce crime. This theory suggests, for instance, that changes in lighting can reduce the attractiveness a specific place holds for criminal acts, whether the public in general is educated about it or not.

Social control theory suggests that we prevent crime because we exert influence (and even control) over each other formally and informally against committing criminal acts. Under this concept, lighting helps us view each other's acts and exert whatever influence we might to promote acceptable behavior and discourage criminal acts. Positive social control builds community cohesion and pride, which has been documented to reduce crime.

From a Practical Perspective

Lighting from a practical perspective ought to play one or more of five crime prevention roles: surveillance, deterrence, detection, liability reduction, and fear reduction. Which roles and to what degrees will vary with each situation.

For example, the kinds of external lighting usually recommended for homes will focus on deterring criminals and providing surveillance opportunities by residents and neighbors. Lighting recommended for use inside the home (most frequently timers) can play a role in reducing fear.

In a retail setting, lighting provides deterrence against shoplifting and robbery, makes surveillance by those looking to the store easier, facilitates detection and identification of criminals (especially when combined with video surveillance), and reduces the store's exposure to liability claims in the event a patron becomes a crime victim. Lighting in retail parking areas often seeks to reduce customers' concerns (fears) as well as liability exposure for the business or businesses.

At manufacturing and office sites, lighting may play a variety of roles depending on the circumstance. Parking area lighting generally seeks to address surveillance and deterrence as well as to alleviate liability. Buildings may be lighted to provide surveillance of access points and deter efforts to break in. Inside lighting may be designed to detect and identify criminals as well as to deter crime.

In public places--parks, streets, playgrounds, and the like--lighting may be used to reduce fear of these spaces, to improve surveillance by passers-by, and to increase the utility of the spaces (e.g., lighted sports courts). Public spaces (or quasi-public spaces like shopping malls) present more complex patterns of use and of possible lighting applications. Transportation areas (e.g., bus stops, subway stations) may require different lighting from typical residential streets.

There are always different mixes of intentions in using lighting and always exceptions to patterns. The template above, however, reflects common purposes for working with lighting in typical community settings.

Making Wise Choices

The first, though not always the simplest, question is "What are we trying to prevent?" It ought to be accompanied by the question "What are we trying to create?" If we seek to prevent theft of and from autos, improved sidewalk illumination is unlikely to help--unless pedestrians are breaking in from the sidewalk sides of the cars. If a convenience store experiences shoplifting, better parking lot lights will not be likely to help the problem.

Crime analysis and crime mapping are among the new and powerful tools to identify crime patterns over both time and space. Make sure to consider seasonal changes in natural lighting and in vegetation (bare branches versus trees in full leaf, for example) and such changes as daylight saving time when examining the problem. Keep in mind that the perceptions and concerns of community members are among the things that might need to be assessed.

The second question should be "How would lighting help to reduce the crime or the risk of crime?"  For example, if lighting attracted more users to a park, that would increase the surveillance of the park, which would make it riskier for criminals to prey on the park's users. Part of answering this question is to answer a related question: "What other strategies might be used to prevent or reduce the problem?" Crime prevention through environmental design and situational crime prevention offer a host of strategies to explore.

If the tasks of the lighting are surveillance and deterrence (which are generally related), it is important to ask "Who will be there to see it?" If the area is a business office park, it is much less likely that passers-by will be present at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. than if the area is a shopping mall. If the area is a city park, it might be argued that improved lighting will itself attract people to the area and thereby increase surveillance. Whatever the location, though, the follow-on question must be asked: "Can/will the observer report it? If reporting is unlikely, the value of lighting for surveillance needs to be reassessed. Remember, however, that surveillance needs may be intermittent. Ongoing lighting may be necessary, for example, to accommodate users of bus stops, subway stations, and parking garages, even if the users are not always present.

Some attention needs to be paid to surrounding areas and those who walk, bike, or drive past the site. The appropriate question is "Will the lighting cause glare, distraction, or disruption to those who live and work nearby and those who pass by?" On the other hand, trees that will leaf out or bushes that will block light may influence the placement of lighting and its related impacts, to name just one environmental consideration.

Given that resources are scarce, another consideration must enter the picture: "Is the installation of lighting in this situation cost effective? Are there less costly solutions?" Answering this question may require help from lighting engineers and crime analysts as well as crime prevention specialists. Answering these questions thoughtfully will not produce a specific lighting design, but it will produce the base from which a relevant, cost-effective, problem-solving design can be created.

Key Questions

  • What are we trying to prevent? What are we trying to create?
  • How would lighting work to reduce the crime or the risk of crime? What other strategies might be used to prevent or reduce the problem?
  • Who will be there to see it? Can/will the observer report it?
  • Will the lighting cause glare, distraction, or disruption to those who live and work nearby and those who pass by?
  • Is the installation of lighting in this situation cost effective? Are there less costly solutions?

Saving Money, Stopping Crime

A study of lighting improvements in two communities--Dudley and Stoke-on-Trent, in England--showed that compared with similar but unimproved control areas, the lighting changes in these communities reduced crime by more than 40 percent (41 percent in Dudley; 43 percent in Stoke-on-Trent) compared with decreases in the control areas of 15 percent and 2 percent. Even better, the savings from reduced crime far exceeded the cost of the lighting improvements. Crime reductions saved 2.4 times the cost of the street lighting in Dudley and 10 times the cost of the lighting in Stoke-on-Trent.

Bottom Line

(Improved lighting) is an inclusive intervention benefiting the whole of neighbourhood and leads to an increase in perceived public safety. Improved street lighting is associated with greater use of public space and neighborhood streets by law-abiding citizens. Especially if well targeted to a high-crime area, improved street lighting can be a feasible, inexpensive and effective method of reducing crime.

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