ENVIRONMENT AND BEHAVIOR / May 2001Kuo, Sullivan / VEGETATION AND CRIME
CRIME IN THE INNER CITY
Does Vegetation Reduce Crime?
FRANCES E. KUO is an assistant professor and codirector of the Human-Environ-
ment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her re-
search focuses on attention, defensible space, and novice-friendly information.
WILLIAM C. SULLIVAN is an associate professor and codirector of the Human-
Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
His research focuses on the psychological and social benefits of urban nature and citi-
zen participation in environmental decision making.
ABSTRACT: Although vegetation has been positively linked to fear of crime and
crime in a number of settings, recent findings in urban residential areas have hinted at
a possible negative relationship: Residents living in “greener” surroundings report
lower levels of fear, fewer incivilities, and less aggressive and violent behavior. This
study used police crime reports to examine the relationship between vegetation and
crime in an inner-city neighborhood. Crime rates for 98 apartment buildings with
varying levels of nearby vegetation were compared. Results indicate that although
residents were randomly assigned to different levels of nearby vegetation, the greener
a building’s surroundings were, the fewer crimes reported. Furthermore, this pattern
held for both property crimes and violent crimes. The relationship of vegetation to
crime held after the number of apartments per building, building height, vacancy rate,
and number of occupied units per building were accounted for.
The highway from one merchant town to another shall be cleared so that no
cover for malefactors should be allowed for a width of two hundred feet on ei-
ther side; landlords who do not effect this clearance will be answerable for rob-
beries committed in consequence of their default, and in case of murder they
will be in the king’s mercy.
—Statute of Winchester of 1285, Chapter V, King Edward I
AUTHORS’ NOTE: A portion of these findings was presented in invited testimony to
the National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council (NUCFAC). This
ENVIRONMENT AND BEHAVIOR, Vol. 33 No. 3, May 2001 343-367
© 2001 Sage Publications, Inc.
There is a long tradition of addressing crime in problem areas by removing
vegetation. As early as 1285, the English King Edward I sought to reduce
highway robbery by forcing property owners to clear highway edges of trees
and shrubs (Pluncknett, 1960). Today, that tradition continues as park author-
ities, universities, and municipalities across North America engage in active
programs to remove vegetation because it is thought to conceal and facilitate
criminal acts (Michael & Hull, 1994; Nasar & Fisher, 1993; Weisel, Gouvis,
& Harrell, 1994).
One of the settings in which crime is of greatest concern today is the
inner-city neighborhood. To combat crime in this setting, should vegetation
be removed? This article suggests the opposite. We present theory and evi-
dence to suggest that far from abetting crime, high-canopy trees and grass
may actually work to deter crime in poor inner-city neighborhoods.
COULD THERE BE EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE?
As a rule, the belief is that vegetation facilitates crime because it hides per-
petrators and criminal activity from view. Here, we review the evidence in
support of this “rule” and suggest conditions under which it might not apply.
Although no studies to date have examined whether crime rates are actu-
ally higher in the presence of dense vegetation, a variety of evidence links
dense vegetation with fear, fear of crime, and possibly crime itself.
It is certainly the case that many people fear densely vegetated areas. In
research on urban parks, densely wooded areas have consistently been asso-
ciated with fear. In one study, safety ratings for 180 scenes of urban parks
showed that individuals felt most vulnerable in densely forested areas and
safest in open, mowed areas (Schroeder & Anderson, 1984). And in another
study, individuals who were asked for their open-ended responses to photo-
344 ENVIRONMENT AND BEHAVIOR / May 2001
work was also supported by the Cooperative State Research, Education and Exten-
sion Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under Project No. ILLU-65-0387.
Weare grateful for the assistance of many individuals and other institutions as well.
John Potter and Liesette Brunson assisted in data entry and data analysis in the initial
stages of this project. A reviewer’s suggestion substantially strengthened the analyses
presented here. The Chicago Housing Authority and the management of Ida B. Wells
were helpful in many ways, and the Chicago Police Department graciously gave us
access to their year-end crime reports. Jerry Barrett helped produce the figures, and
Helicopter Transport of Chicago donated the helicopter flight over Ida B. Wells. Cor-
respondence concerning this article should be addressed to Frances E. Kuo, Human-
Environment Research Laboratory, University of Illinois, 1103 S. Dorner, Urbana,
IL, 61801; e-mail: email@example.com.
graphs of urban parks indicated that heavily vegetated areas seemed danger-
ous (Talbot & Kaplan, 1984). Although neither of these studies specifically
probed fear of crime (as opposed to more general fear), it was clear that at
least some participants had crime in mind; one respondent specifically sug-
gested that weedy areas gave muggers good hiding places (Talbot & Kaplan,
Dense vegetation has also been linked specifically to fear of crime. In
safety ratings for 180 scenes of parking lots, the more a photo was covered by
vegetation, the lower the perceived security (Shaffer & Anderson, 1985).
And in research examining fear of crime on a university campus, dense
understories that reduced views into areas where criminals might hide were
associated with fear of crime (Nasar & Fisher, 1993). In these and other stud-
ies, view distance seems to be an important factor. Fear of crime is higher
where vegetation blocks views (Fisher & Nasar, 1992; Kuo, Bacaicoa, &
Sullivan, 1998; Michael & Hull, 1994).
Not only has dense vegetation been linked to general fears and to fear of
crime in particular, but two studies have pointed more directly at a facilitative
role of vegetation in crime. In the first study, park managers and park police
indicated that dense vegetation is regularly used by criminals to conceal their
activities (Michael & Hull, 1994). In the second, burglars themselves lent
support to this notion. In this study, automobile burglars described how they
used dense vegetation in a variety of ways, including to conceal their selec-
tion of a target and their escape from the scene, to shield their examination of
stolen goods, and finally, in the disposal of unwanted goods (Michael, Hull,
& Zahm, 1999). At the same time, Michael and his coauthors made it clear
that vegetation was neither necessary nor sufficient for a crime to take place.
The clear theme in all these studies is that dense vegetation provides
potential cover for criminal activities, possibly increasing the likelihood of
crime and certainly increasing the fear of crime. Large shrubs, underbrush,
and dense woods all substantially diminish visibility and therefore are capa-
ble of supporting criminal activity.
But, not all vegetation blocks views. A well-maintained grassy area cer-
tainly does not block views; widely spaced, high-canopy trees have minimal
effect on visibility; and flowers and low-growing shrubs seem unlikely to
provide cover for criminal activities. We suggest that although the rule that
vegetation aids crime may hold for visibility-decreasing forms of vegetation,
there are systematic exceptions to this rule. To wit, we propose that widely
spaced, high-canopy trees and other visibility-preserving forms of vegetation
do not promote crime.
Kuo, Sullivan / VEGETATION AND CRIME 345
MIGHT VEGETATION DETER CRIME? THEORY
Furthermore, we propose that in some settings, visibility-preserving
forms of vegetation may actually deter crime. Specifically, we propose that in
poor inner-city neighborhoods, vegetation can inhibit crime through the fol-
lowing two mechanisms: by increasing surveillance and by mitigating some
of the psychological precursors to violence. Let’s look at each of these in
Increasing surveillance. Surveillance is a well-established factor in crimi-
nal activity. Jane Jacobs (1961) suggested that the simple presence of more
“eyes on the street” would deter crime, and this concept was prominent in
Oscar Newman’s (1972) classic Defensible Space and appeared in Jeffery’s
(1971) Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. Since then, many
studies have shown that perpetrators avoid areas with greater surveillance
and greater likelihood of intervention (e.g., Bennett, 1989; Bennett &
Wright, 1984; Cromwell, Olson, & Avary, 1991; Poyner & Webb, 1992).
And, substantial research has shown that criminals avoid well-used residen-
tial areas where their activities might easily be observed (Coleman, 1987;
Macdonald & Gifford, 1989; Merry, 1981; Rhodes & Conley, 1981).
There is some evidence to suggest that in inner-city neighborhoods, vege-
tation might introduce more eyes on the street by increasing residents’ use of
neighborhood outdoor spaces. A series of studies conducted in inner-city
neighborhoods has shown that treed outdoor spaces are consistently more
well used by youth, adults, and mixed-age groups than are treeless spaces;
moreover, the more trees in a space, the greater the number of simultaneous
users (Coley, Kuo, & Sullivan, 1997; Kuo, Sullivan, Coley, & Brunson, 1998;
W. C. Sullivan, Kuo, & DePooter, 2001). Not surprisingly then, a recent study
found that children were twice as likely to have adult supervision in green
inner-city neighborhood spaces than in similar but barren spaces (A. F. Tay-
lor, Wiley, Kuo, & Sullivan, 1998). Thus, in these settings, higher levels of
vegetation not only preserve visibility but may also increase surveillance.
Perhaps just as important as actual surveillance in deterring crime is
implied surveillance. Newman (1972) suggested that criminals might be
deterred by environmental cues suggesting that surveillance is likely even
when no observers are present (also see Jeffery, 1971; R. B. Taylor, 1988).
Consistent with this, territorial markers have been empirically linked to lower
rates of incivilities and crime (Brown & Altman, 1983; Perkins, Brown, &
Taylor, 1996; Perkins, Wandersman, Rich, & Taylor, 1993; R. B. Taylor,
1988). (And even those E&B readers who are not criminals may have
346 ENVIRONMENT AND BEHAVIOR / May 2001
experienced the power of implied surveillance—on the highway after pass-
ing an empty police car.)
There is some evidence to suggest that residential vegetation can act as a
territorial marker. Chaudhury (1994) showed front views of houses to students
and examined how a host of environmental features affected their ratings of
territorial personalization. He found that the presence and maintenance of
vegetative features was the strongest predictor of territorial personalization,
with an R-squared of .65. Similarly, Brown and colleagues (Brown &
Altman, 1983; Brown & Bentley, 1993) found evidence suggesting that
plants and other territorial markers make properties less attractive for bur-
glary. We suggest that well-maintained vegetation may constitute a particu-
larly effective territorial marker. Well-maintained vegetation outside a home
serves as one of the cues to care (Nassauer, 1988), suggesting that the inhabit-
ants actively care about their home territory and potentially implying that an
intruder would be noticed and confronted.
Mitigating psychological precursors to violence. Another mechanism by
which vegetation might inhibit crime is through mitigating mental fatigue. S.
Kaplan (1987) suggested that one of the costs of mental fatigue may be a
heightened propensity for “outbursts of anger and potentially . . . violence”
(p. 57), and three proposed symptoms of mental fatigue—irritability, inatten-
tiveness, and decreased control over impulses—are each well-established
psychological precursors to violence. Irritability is linked with aggression in
numerous studies (e.g., Caprara & Renzi, 1981; Coccaro, Bergeman,
Kavoussi, & Seroczynski, 1997; Kant, Smith-Seemiller, & Zeiler, 1998;
Kavoussi & Coccaro, 1998; Stanford, Greve, & Dickens, 1995). Inattentive-
ness has been closely tied to aggression in both children (Stewart, 1985) and
adolescents (Scholte, van Aken, & van Leishout, 1997). And, impulsivity is
associated with aggression and violence in a variety of populations (for
reviews, see Brady, Myrick & McElroy, 1998; Markovitz, 1995; Tuinier,
Verhoeven, & Van Praag, 1996).
A considerable body of studies indicates that vegetation aids in the recov-
ery from mental fatigue. Contact with nature in a variety of forms—wilder-
ness areas, prairie, community parks, window views, and interior plants—is
systematically linked with enhanced cognitive functioning as measured by
both self-report and performance on objective tests (e.g., Canin, 1991;
Cimprich, 1993; Hartig, Mang, & Evans, 1991; R. Kaplan, 1984; Lohr,
Pearson-Mimms, & Goodwin, 1996; Miles, Sullivan, & Kuo, 1998; Ovitt,
1996; Tennessen & Cimprich, 1995). To the extent that irritability, inatten-
tiveness, and impulsivity are symptoms of mental fatigue, as first proposed in
Kuo, Sullivan / VEGETATION AND CRIME 347
S. Kaplan (1987) and recently elucidated in Kuo and Sullivan (in press),
reductions in mental fatigue should decrease violent behavior.
In sum, we propose that vegetation can deter crime in poor urban neigh-
borhoods in any or all of the following ways: by increasing residents’ infor-
mal surveillance of neighborhood spaces, by increasing the implied sur-
veillance of these spaces, and by mitigating residents’ mental fatigue,
thereby reducing the potential for violence. Next, we review empirical work
pointing at a negative relationship between vegetation and crime.
MIGHT VEGETATION DETER CRIME? CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE
There are a number of scattered hints in the empirical literature that vege-
tation might have a negative relationship to crime in residential settings.
A few studies have used images to examine the relationship between vege-
tation and sense of safety in residential settings. The findings from residential
settings are in direct contrast to those obtained in studies of nonresidential
settings: In residential settings, the more vegetation there is, the less fear of
crime. One study used photographs of residential sites to examine effects of
architectural and landscape features on fear of crime and found that higher
levels of vegetation were associated with less fear of crime (Nasar, 1982).
Another study used drawings of residences and found that properties
appeared safer when trees and shrubs were included than when they were not
(Brower, Dockett, & Taylor, 1983). And, similar results were obtained from
an experiment using computer-based photo simulations. In that study, an
inner-city courtyard was depicted with varying densities of trees: The more
dense the tree planting was, the greater the sense of safety (Kuo, Bacaicoa,
et al., 1998).
One study used controlled comparisons of real residential settings to
examine the relationship between vegetation and sense of safety. In a public
housing development where residents were randomly assigned to architec-
turally identical apartment buildings with varying levels of vegetation imme-
diately outside, those residents who lived in buildings with more trees and
grass gave systematically higher endorsements to the statement “I feel safe
living here” than did their counterparts living in relatively barren buildings
(Kuo, Sullivan, et al., 1998). That is, not only do images of green residential
settings evoke a greater sense of safety, but individuals living in such settings
report a greater sense of safety as well.
There is some indication that this greater sense of safety is warranted. A
few studies have examined the relationship between vegetation and “incivili-
ties.” R. B. Taylor, Gottfredson, and Brower (as cited in R. B. Taylor, 1988)
compared street blocks with higher and lower levels of high-maintenance
348 ENVIRONMENT AND BEHAVIOR / May 2001
gardening and found fewer problems reported on street blocks with higher
levels of high-maintenance gardening. And in another study, Stamen (1993)
surveyed landscaped and nonlandscaped areas in a community and found
that the incidence of vandalism or graffiti in sites without plantings was 90%
as compared to 10% in sites with plantings. Similarly, Brunson (1999) exam-
ined both physical and social incivilities in public housing outdoor spaces
with trees and grass versus in similar spaces without vegetation. Resident
reports indicated that graffiti, vandalism, and littering were systematically
lower in outdoor spaces with trees and grass than in comparable, more barren
spaces (Brunson, 1999). Furthermore, resident reports indicated that social
incivilities, such as the presence of noisy, disruptive individuals, strangers,
and illegal activity, were also systematically lower in the greener outdoor
spaces (Brunson, 1999).
Additional evidence that vegetation may reduce crime comes from two
studies that examined the relationship between residential vegetation and
residents’ levels of aggression and violence. Mooney and Nicell (1992) com-
pared violent assaults by Alzheimer patients during two consecutive sum-
mers in five long-term care facilities—three without gardens and two in
which exterior gardens were installed. In Alzheimer patients, increases in the
number of aggressive assaults each year are typical because of the progres-
sive deterioration of cognitive faculties; and indeed, in the facilities without
gardens, the incidence of violent assaults increased dramatically over time.
By contrast, the incidence of violent assaults in the other facilities stayed the
same or decreased slightly after gardens were installed.
Another study compared levels of aggression and violence in an urban
public housing neighborhood where residents played no role in planting or
maintaining the vegetation outside their apartments and were randomly
assigned to levels of greenness. Levels of aggression and violence were sys-
tematically lower for individuals living in green surroundings than for indi-
viduals living in barren surroundings; moreover, lack of nature significantly
predicted levels of mental fatigue, which in turn significantly predicted
aggression. Mediation testing indicated that the relationship between vegeta-
tion and aggression was fully mediated through attention (Kuo & Sullivan,
In sum, there is a variety of evidence suggesting that vegetation may be
linked to lower levels of crime in residential neighborhoods, particularly
poor inner-city neighborhoods. Residential vegetation has been linked with a
greater sense of safety, fewer incivilities, and less aggressive and violent
behavior. Of these findings, the most direct evidence of a negative link
between vegetation and crime comes from residents’ reports of illegal
Kuo, Sullivan / VEGETATION AND CRIME 349
activities in the space outside their apartment building and from residents’
self-reports of (criminally) aggressive behavior.
The study presented here is the first to examine the relationship between
vegetation and crime in an inner-city neighborhood using police crime
reports. Although police crime reports are far from infallible (O’Brien,
1990), one advantage of such reports is that they are based on actual counts of
crimes reported over the course of a year and thus are less subject to the dis-
tortions introduced by having residents estimate the frequencies of such
events from memory. Thus, the convergence of findings from resident reports
and police reports would lend confidence to a negative link between vegeta-
tion and crime. In this study, we examined the relationship between the vege-
tation outside of apartment buildings and the number of police crime reports
for those buildings over a 2-year period. We collected police data on property
crimes, violent crimes, and total crimes for 98 apartment buildings in one
inner-city neighborhood and used the amount of tree and grass cover outside
each building to predict crime.
Data presented here were collected as part of the Vital Neighborhood
Common Spaces archive, a multistudy research effort examining the effects
of the physical environment on the functioning of individuals, families, and
communities residing in urban public housing.
POPULATION, SETTING, AND DESIGN
Ida B. Wells is a large public housing development in Chicago. Wells pro-
vides housing for approximately 5,700 individuals, of which 65% are female,
97% are African American, and 44% are children younger than 14 years old
(Chicago Housing Authority, 1995). Ida B. Wells is one of the 12 poorest
neighborhoods in the United States (Ihejirika, 1995). At the time of this
study, approximately 93% of the people living at Wells were officially unem-
ployed, and roughly 50% of the families received Aid to Families with
Dependent Children (Chicago Housing Authority, 1995).
The amount of nature outside apartment buildings at Ida B. Wells varies
considerably. When the development was originally built in the 1940s, trees
and grass were planted around each of the low-rise buildings. Over time,
many of these green spaces have been paved in an effort to keep dust down
and maintenance costs low; this paving has killed many of the original trees,
350 ENVIRONMENT AND BEHAVIOR / May 2001
leaving some areas completely barren, others with small trees or some grass,
and still others with mature high-canopy trees (see Figure 1). Because shrubs
were relatively rare, vegetation at Ida B. Wells was essentially the amount of
tree and grass cover around each building.
A number of apartment buildings at Wells were excluded from this study.
First, the high-rise and midrise (seven-story) buildings were excluded to keep
the buildings sampled similar in size, number of residents, and amount of
outdoor common space. Second, of the 124 low-rise (one to four stories)
apartment buildings, those buildings adjacent or nearly adjacent to the police
station within the development were excluded because the presence of police
officers would be expected to be a significant deterrent to crime. And finally,
a small cluster of low-rise buildings was excluded because the buildings’
irregular placement with respect to each other and the street made it unclear
where the common space associated with one building ended and the next
began. The final sample included 98 buildings.
Ida B. Wells offers a number of rare methodological advantages for inves-
tigating the relationship between residential vegetation and crime. Although
levels of vegetation outside the apartment buildings vary considerably, the
residents are strikingly homogeneous with respect to many of the individual
characteristics that have been shown to increase vulnerability to crime—
income, education, and life circumstances. This similarity among residents
coupled with the consistent low-rise architecture decreases the sources of
extraneous variability in crime. This increases the power to detect differences
in the amount of crime associated with differences in the level of vegetation
outside each apartment building.
Perhaps more important, the apartment assignment procedures and land-
scaping policies of public housing work to ensure that there are no systematic
Kuo, Sullivan / VEGETATION AND CRIME 351
Figure 1: Ground Level View at Ida B. Wells Showing Apartment Buildings With
Varying Amounts of Tree and Grass Cover
relationships between the vegetation outside an apartment building and the
characteristics of its residents. Applicants for public housing at Ida B. Wells
(and elsewhere in Chicago public housing) are assigned to individual apart-
ments without regard for the level of nearby vegetation. And although resi-
dents have some choice in accepting or rejecting a particular apartment in
theory, in practice the level of nearby vegetation is not a significant factor in
residents’ choices, and most residents simply accept the first available apart-
ment (Kuo, Sullivan, et al., 1998). Moreover, residents play little or no role in
decisions to introduce or remove trees. Thus, in this study, there were no a pri-
ori reasons to expect a relationship between the level of vegetation outside an
apartment building and the characteristics of its inhabitants—more “respon-
sible” residents might just as likely live in barren buildings as in green
Crime reports. Chicago Police Department year-end Uniform Crime
Reports were analyzed for this study. These crime reports summarize for
each address at Ida B. Wells the specific crimes (e.g., aggravated assault and
strong-armed robbery) that were reported during the year. These reports
include both citizen-initiated complaints and those filed by an officer without
a citizen complaint.
When a crime is reported to the police, an officer is dispatched to interview
the victim or victims and any witnesses. The officer then files a report about
the incident describing the specific crime or crimes, the date, the address
where the crime(s) occurred, and other pertinent information. Details from
this report are then summarized in the year-end crime reports.
From 2 years of crime reports, we created three summary variables index-
ing crime for each low-rise apartment building at Ida B. Wells, following the
classification scheme used by the Department of Justice (Bureau of Justice
Statistics, 1999). In this scheme, property crime is the sum of simple thefts,
vehicle thefts, burglaries, and arson; violent crime includes assaults, batter-
ies, robberies, and homicides; and total crimes is the sum of all crimes
Vegetation. To assess the density of trees and grass around each of the
low-rise buildings, we took dozens of 35mm slide photographs of the devel-
opment by helicopter, passing over each cluster of buildings from a number
of vantages (see Figure 2). We also took ground-level photographs of many of
the outdoor spaces. All the slides were taken in June when the tree canopy
352 ENVIRONMENT AND BEHAVIOR / May 2001
was full and the grass was green. For each building, the aerial slides were put
together with slides taken at ground level; there were at minimum three dif-
ferent views from aerial and ground-level photos of each space (front, back,
left side, and right side) around each building. Five students in landscape
architecture and horticulture then independently rated the level of vegetation
in each space. Each of the individuals rating the spaces received a map of the
development that defined the boundaries of the specific spaces under study.
The raters viewed the slides and recorded their ratings on the maps. A total of
220 spaces was rated, each on a 5-point scale (0 = no trees or grass, 4 = a space
completely covered with tree canopy). Interrater reliability for these ratings
was .94.1The five ratings were averaged to give a mean nature rating for each
space. The nature ratings for the front, back, and side spaces around each
building were then averaged to produce a summary vegetation rating. Ratings
of vegetation for the 98 buildings ranged from 0.6 to 3.0.
Other factors likely to affect crime. Four additional variables possibly
related to vegetation and the number of crimes reported per building were
assessed through (a) on-site analysis, (b) Chicago Housing Authority floor
Kuo, Sullivan / VEGETATION AND CRIME 353
Figure 2: Aerial View ofa Portion of Ida B.Wells Showing Buildings With Varying
Amounts of Tree and Grass Cover
plans of each building type in the development, and (c) Chicago Housing
Authority apartment vacancy records.
Number of units is the number of apartment units in a building; the range
was from 4 to 20.
Number of occupied units is the average number of units rented in a partic-
ular building during the 2 years of the study; the mean was 7.8, and the range
was from 0.5 to 15. We were able to obtain data on 84 of the 98 buildings in
Vacancy is the 2-year average of the number of vacant apartments divided
by the number of units in the building; the mean was 13%, and the range was
from 0% to 92%. We were able to obtain data on 84 of the 98 buildings in this
Building height is the number of floors in a building; the range was from 1
If vegetation reduces crime, then we would expect to find that the greener
a building’s surroundings are, the fewer crimes reported. Perhaps the most
straightforward test of this possibility is to conduct simple regressions with
vegetation as the independent variable and the three summary crime indices
as dependent variables (see Table 1). Results from these ordinary least
squares regressions indicate that vegetation is significantly and negatively
related to each of the measures of crime. The greener a building’s surround-
ings are, the fewer total crimes; this pattern holds for both property crimes
and violent crimes. For each of the three indices, vegetation accounts for 7%
to 8% of the variance in the number of crimes reported per building.
Figure 3 provides a more concrete sense of the amount of crime associated
with different levels of vegetation. For this figure, the continuous vegetation
variable was recoded into the following three categories: low (ratings from
354 ENVIRONMENT AND BEHAVIOR / May 2001
Simple Ordinary Least Squares Regressions
Using Vegetation to Predict Crimes Per Building
Total Crimes Property Crimes Violent Crimes
Vegetation .08 –2.2 < .01 .07 –1.0 < .01 .07 –1.3 <.01
0.0 up to 1.0), medium (from 1.0 up to 2.0), and high (from 2.0 up to 3.0,
inclusive). Figure 3 shows the average number of total, property, and violent
crimes reported for buildings with low, medium, and high levels of vegeta-
tion. Compared to buildings with low levels of vegetation, those with
medium levels had 42% fewer total crimes, 40% fewer property crimes, and
44% fewer violent crimes. The comparison between low and high levels of
vegetation was even more striking: Buildings with high levels of vegetation
had 52% fewer total crimes, 48% fewer property crimes, and 56% fewer vio-
lent crimes than buildings with low levels of vegetation. Fisher’s protected
least significant difference analyses indicate that for each measure of crime,
low and medium buildings were significantly different at p< .05. The same
pattern held for comparisons between low and high buildings. Although
buildings with high levels of vegetation had 17% fewer total crimes, 13%
fewer property crimes, and 21% fewer violent crimes than buildings with
medium levels of vegetation, these differences were not statistically
These data reveal a clear negative relationship between vegetation and
crime and hint that this relationship is strongest when comparing buildings
with low levels of vegetation to buildings with either medium or high levels.
Although these findings are exciting and intriguing, they do not control for
other important variables. The analyses that follow provide a closer look at
Kuo, Sullivan / VEGETATION AND CRIME 355
Figure 3: Mean Number of Crimes Reported Per Building for Apartment Build-
ings With Different Amounts of Vegetation (each icon represents one
the relationship between vegetation and crime, taking into account other fac-
tors likely to affect the number of crimes per building.
TESTING POTENTIAL CONFOUNDS
Controlling for number of apartments. Perhaps one of the most important
variables to control for in predicting the amount of crime in a setting (e.g., a
building, neighborhood, or city) is the number of people in that setting.
Because more apartments per building mean more potential perpetrators and
more potential victims, one would expect more crimes in buildings with more
apartments. Indeed, previous research has shown the number of units in a
building to be related to the number of reported crimes (Newman & Franck,
1980). Thus, it is not surprising that in this sample, strong positive linear rela-
tionships exist between the number of units and the number of property
crimes (r= .62, p< .0001), violent crimes (r= .63, p< .0001), and total crimes
(r= .67, p< .0001). That is, the more apartments in a building, the more
crimes reported for that building.
To examine whether the relationship between vegetation and crime still
held when the number of apartments in a building was controlled, a series of
multiple regressions were conducted in which both vegetation and number of
units were used to predict the number of crimes reported per building. As
Table 2 shows, when the number of units per building is controlled, vegeta-
tion continues to be a significant negative predictor of total crime, property
crime, and violent crime. In other words, the level of greenness around a
building at Ida B. Wells predicts the number of crimes that have occurred in
that building even after the number of apartments in the building has been
356 ENVIRONMENT AND BEHAVIOR / May 2001
Multiple Regressions Using Number of Units
and Vegetation to Predict Crimes Per Building
Total Crime Property Crimes Violent Crimes
Number of units 0.70 < .0001 0.31 < .0001 0.39 < .0001
Vegetation –1.44 < .05 –0.63 < .05 –0.81 < .05
NOTE: The multiple regressions for total crimes: adjusted
2= .52 (
< .0001); for property
2= .45 (
< .0001); forviolent crime: adjusted
2= .44 (
Other potential confounds. To identify other potential confounds between
vegetation and crime, correlations were conducted between vegetation and
the following three factors that have been shown in other studies to be associ-
ated with crime: vacancy rate (R. B. Taylor, Shumaker, & Gottfredson, 1985),
the number of occupied apartments per building (Newman & Franck, 1980),
and building height (Newman, 1972; Newman & Franck, 1980). As the first
column in Table 3 shows, vegetation is not related to either vacancy rate or
number of occupied units but is strongly and negatively related to building
height; the taller the building is, the lower the level of vegetation. The fourth
column in Table 3 indicates that building height has a strong positive relation-
ship to total crime, property crime, and violent crime. Thus, the relationship
between vegetation and crime is confounded by building height: Taller build-
ings are both less green and have more reported crimes than shorter buildings.
These findings raise the possibility that vegetation predicts crime only by vir-
tue of its shared variance with building height.
To test for this possibility, we examined whether vegetation still predicts
crime when building height and number of units are controlled. Table 4 pro-
vides the results of a series of multiple regressions in which vegetation, build-
ing height, and number of units were used to predict crime. If vegetation
predicts crime by virtue of its relationship with building height, then vegeta-
tion should no longer predict crime when building height is controlled, and
building height should predict crime with vegetation controlled. As Table 4
Kuo, Sullivan / VEGETATION AND CRIME 357
Intercorrelations Among Possible Predictors
of Crime and Three Crime Scales
Number Number of
of Vacant Occupied Building Property Violent
Vegetation Units Rate Units Height Crime Crime
Number of units –.15
Vacancy rate –.02 .26
occupied units .12 .82** –.31**
Building height –.48** .67** .40** .35**
Property crime –.27** .62** .01 .38** .53**
Violent crime –.27** .63** .25** .30** .58** .72**
Total crime –.29** .67** .16 .38** .60** .91** .95**
shows, however, this is not the case; vegetation remains a significant or mar-
ginally significant predictor of crime with building height and number of
units controlled. Moreover, building height has no predictive power when
vegetation and number of units are controlled. These findings indicate that
although building height is confounded with vegetation, it cannot account for
the link between vegetation and crime.
Thus far, the analyses have established that (a) there is a reliable associa-
tion between the amount of vegetation outside a building and the number of
crimes recorded for that building by the police, (b) these relationships are
independent of the number of units in a building, and (c) these relationships
are independent of building height. These analyses show that vegetation pre-
dicts crime and that this relationship cannot be accounted for by these other
DOES ADDING VEGETATION IMPROVE THE
CURRENT ARSENAL OF CRIME PREDICTORS?
To determine whether vegetation makes any unique, additional contribu-
tion to the current arsenal of predictors, we conducted a multiple regression
in which all available significant predictors of crime were entered (i.e., vege-
tation, other predictors that were confounded with vegetation, and other pre-
dictors that were not confounded with vegetation). This kitchen-sink
multiple regression, in which vegetation and number of units, building
height, vacancy rate, and number of occupied units were entered as predic-
tors, indicated that vegetation does make a unique contribution to the current
arsenal of predictors. Vegetation was a significant predictor of total crime (β
= –1.1, p= .05) even when all other crime predictors have been accounted for.
Moreover, the relatively low variance inflation factor for vegetation in this
regression (1.31) indicates that vegetation is relatively independent of the
358 ENVIRONMENT AND BEHAVIOR / May 2001
Multiple Regression Using Three Independent Variables (number of
units, vegetation, and building height) to Predict Crimes Per Building
Total Crime Property Crimes Violent Crimes
Number of units 0.69 .0001 0.33 .0001 0.34 .0001
Vegetation –1.41 < .05 –0.69 < .05 –0.55 .07
Building height 0.05
NOTE: The multiple regressions for total crimes: adjusted
2= .51 (
< .0001); for property
2= .44 (
< .0001); forviolent crime: adjusted
2= .43 (
other predictors. In addition, comparison of the adjusted R2s of the kitchen-
sink multiple regressions with and without vegetation indicated that the addi-
tional predictive power gained by adding vegetation outweighs the loss of
degrees of freedom incurred in increasing the total number of predictors. The
adjusted R2for the model with only the current arsenal of predictors was .23;
the adjusted R2for the model with the current arsenal of predictors plus vege-
tation was .26. Although this increase represents only 3% of the total variance
in crime, it represents a sizable proportion of the current predictive power
(13%). Together, these findings indicate that adding vegetation improves the
current arsenal of predictors, adding unique explanatory power.
A Cuthbert plot (Cp) analysis yielded additional evidence of the predic-
tive power of vegetation. Cp analysis is a technique for determining the most
powerful, most parsimonious model out of a set of multiple predictors (SAS
Institute, 1998). Essentially, given a set of predictors, Cp analysis tests all
possible combinations of predictors and selects the best model. An alterna-
tive to comparing adjusted R2s, Cp analysis is particularly helpful when there
is multicollinearity between predictors, as was the case here. Cp analysis
indicated that the best model for predicting total crime, selecting from the
entire set of available predictors (number of units, building height, vacancy
rate, number of occupied units, and vegetation), comprises only two predic-
tors—number of units and vegetation (Cp = 1.32). Thus, in these data, the
best possible model of crime comprises only vegetation and one other
This study examined the relationship between vegetation and crime for 98
apartment buildings in an inner-city neighborhood. Analyses revealed con-
sistent, systematically negative relationships between the density of trees and
grass around the buildings and the number of crimes per building reported to
the police. The greener a building’s surroundings are, the fewer total crimes;
moreover, this relationship extended to both property crimes and violent
crimes. Levels of nearby vegetation explained 7% to 8% of the variance in the
number of crimes reported per building. The link between vegetation and
crime could not be accounted for by either of the two confounding variables
identified. Vegetation contributed significant additional predictive power
above and beyond four other classic environmental predictors of crime. And
out of all possible combinations of available predictors, vegetation was iden-
tified as one of the two predictors in the best possible model of crime.
Kuo, Sullivan / VEGETATION AND CRIME 359
The findings contribute to our understanding of the relationship between
vegetation and crime and suggest opportunities for intervention and future
CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE UNDERSTANDING OF VEGETATION AND CRIME
One contribution of this work is to propose a systematic exception to the
rule that vegetation promotes crime. The rule in both folk theory and environ-
mental criminology has been that vegetation promotes crime by providing
concealment for criminals and criminal activities. If the mechanism by which
vegetation affects crime is indeed concealment, then one implication of this
rule is that vegetation should not promote crime when it preserves visibility.
The contribution here is simply to point out that many forms of vegetation
preserve visibility and therefore ought not promote crime. Indeed, we found
that in this sample of inner-city apartment buildings, buildings with widely
spaced, high-canopy trees and grassy areas did not experience higher rates of
crime. These findings suggest that at the very least, crime prevention con-
cerns do not justify removing high-canopy vegetation in inner-city neighbor-
hoods. They demonstrate that one of the classic suspects in environmental
criminology does not always promote crime.
Moreover, the findings indicate a large and systematically negative link
between levels of vegetation and police reports of crime in this setting.
Although this is the first study to demonstrate such a link, the findings are
consistent with previous work linking vegetation with lower levels of incivil-
ities (Brunson, 1999; Stamen, Yates, & Cline, as cited in S. Sullivan, 1993) as
well as previous work linking vegetation with lower levels of aggression and
violence (Kuo & Sullivan, in press). The results obtained here were based on
police crime reports, whereas the Brunson (1999) and the Kuo and Sullivan
(in press) findings were based on residents’ memories and self- reports. The
convergence of findings from such different measures lends confidence that
in inner-city residential settings, the relationship between vegetation and
crime is negative—the more vegetation, the less crime.
A third contribution of the work here is to help resolve a puzzle in previous
work on residential vegetation and sense of safety. A number of studies have
found that residential vegetation is associated with greater sense of safety
(Brower et al., 1983; Kuo, Bacaicoa, et al., 1998; Kuo, Sullivan, et al., 1998;
Nasar, 1982). In combination with the old rule that vegetation promotes
crime, such findings raised the disturbing possibility that residents systemati-
cally misperceive green areas as safe. And yet other research has found good
concurrent validity between measures of fear, perceptions of disorder, and
media reports of crime (e.g., Perkins & Taylor, 1996). The finding here that
360 ENVIRONMENT AND BEHAVIOR / May 2001
vegetation is systematically linked with lower levels of crime suggests that
individuals are accurate in their perception of green areas as safer.
A final contribution of this work is to propose two mechanisms by which
vegetation may deter crime in inner-city neighborhoods. Specifically, we
propose that vegetation may deter crime both by increasing informal surveil-
lance and by mitigating some of the psychological precursors to violence.
Although neither of these mechanisms—nor the more general question of
causality—can be addressed in these data, there is clear empirical support for
these mechanisms in other work. Substantial previous research has shown
that surveillance deters crime and that in inner-city neighborhoods, greener
outdoor spaces receive greater use, thereby increasing informal surveillance.
Moreover, Kuo and Sullivan’s (in press) work showed that for residents ran-
domly assigned to apartment buildings with different levels of vegetation,
higher levels of vegetation systematically predicted lower levels of aggres-
sion, and mediation analyses indicated that this link was mediated via
attentional functioning. In addition, we can address a number of alternative
interpretations for the findings here. Public housing policies in this setting are
such that levels of income, education, and employment among residents are
largely held constant; residents are randomly assigned to varying levels of
vegetation; and the amount of trees and grass outside an apartment is not
under residents’ control. And the confound analyses conducted here indicate
that the link between vegetation and lower crime could not be explained by a
number of classic environmental predictors of crime—vacancy rates, build-
ing height, the number of apartments, and the number of occupied apartments
in a building.
POSSIBILITIES FOR INTERVENTION AND FUTURE RESEARCH
The findings in this study set the stage for more ambitious explorations of
the relationship between urban residential vegetation and crime. Now that
there is good reason to think that visibility-preserving vegetation does not
necessarily promote crime and may even inhibit crime in inner-city neighbor-
hoods, it seems appropriate to attempt an intervention study or two. Interven-
tion studies employing true experimental designs might be used to answer a
number of important questions with regard to the effects of vegetation on
crime. Urban public housing communities might be especially amenable
sites for such research as housing authorities tend to have centralized control
over landscaping for dozens and even hundreds of identical buildings.
A study in which identical or matched apartment buildings in a poor urban
area were randomly assigned to receive different levels of vegetation could
help address the question of causality and the question of the shape of the
Kuo, Sullivan / VEGETATION AND CRIME 361
relationship between vegetation and crime. Would crime rates decrease lin-
early or curvilinearly with increasing vegetation? In this sample, the differ-
ence between low and moderate green cover buildings was 3.1 crimes, but the
difference between moderate and high green cover buildings was only 0.7
crimes. One possible interpretation of this pattern is that the relationship
between vegetation and crime is nonlinear with diminishing returns. Another
is that the 0.7 crime difference between the moderate and high vegetation
conditions is a poor estimate because of the relatively low number of
high-vegetation buildings in the sample, and the relationship between vege-
tation and crime is actually linear across the entire range of vegetation.
Future studies might systematically vary the arrangement and mainte-
nance of vegetation and examine the rates of crime associated with these fac-
tors. The vegetation in this study was not configured to provide symbolic
barriers or to mark the territory of particular apartment buildings. Would
arrangements that create symbolic barriers and delineate the territory of par-
ticular residences (e.g., with small hedges) be more effective in decreasing
crime than other arrangements? Brown and colleagues (Brown & Altman,
1983; Brown & Bentley, 1993) found evidence suggesting that plants and
other territorial markers may make a property less attractive for burglary, but
no study has yet randomly assigned different planting arrangements to differ-
ent buildings and compared the resulting rates of property crime. Analo-
gously, well-maintained vegetation seems to be a particularly effective
territorial marker (Chaudhury, 1994), but research has yet to systematically
examine the effect of different levels of maintenance on crime.
Future research might also look more closely—and more broadly—at the
outcomes of planting interventions. In this sample, vegetation predicted lev-
els of both property crime and violent crime. This is noteworthy given that
studies in environmental criminology often find that the relationship between
the physical environment and crime depends on the specific category of
crime (e.g., Brantingham & Brantingham, 1993). It would be interesting and
useful to examine the relationships between vegetation and more specific cat-
egories of crime or other categories altogether. For instance, does vegetation
have more of an effect on impulsive crimes than on “rational” crimes? We
might expect impulsive crimes committed out of frustration or rage to be
reduced through the beneficial effects of vegetation on mental fatigue. And to
the extent that perpetrators consciously calculate risks in selecting their tar-
gets, more “rational,” premeditated crimes might be reduced through the
beneficial effects of vegetation on informal surveillance.
In examining the outcomes of planting interventions, it will be important
to address the possible displacement of crime. One of the standard concerns
in efforts to combat crime is that although interventions may reduce crime in
362 ENVIRONMENT AND BEHAVIOR / May 2001
targeted locations, the effect may be to simply displace crime to other areas,
yielding no overall decrease in crime (Gabor, 1981). Would adding vegeta-
tion and decreasing crime in one part of an inner-city neighborhood simply
increase crime in another part of the neighborhood? The answer may depend
on the type of crime in question. By reducing the irritability, impulsivity, and
cognitive deficits associated with mental fatigue and hence preventing minor
conflicts from spiraling out of control, vegetation might inhibit violent
crimes in some residences without increasing violent crimes in others. On the
other hand, by increasing informal surveillance of some outdoor spaces with-
out reducing the actual impetus for burglary and other premeditated crimes,
vegetation might serve to simply shift such crimes to more vulnerable targets.
Future research should examine rates of crime both in and around the inter-
Such comparisons might shed light on the mechanisms by which vegeta-
tion affects crime. To further address the question of mechanism, levels of
informal surveillance and mental fatigue might be measured in buildings
receiving the planting intervention and in matched buildings selected as con-
trols. Mediation analyses could then be conducted to examine the joint links
between vegetation, crime, and the proposed mediators. Does vegetation
affect crime only when it increases residents’ use of outdoor spaces and lev-
els of informal surveillance?
Finally, one exciting possibility for future work would be to compare the
outcomes from intervention studies in which residents were either involved
or uninvolved in the greening process. The question here would be whether
the process of tree planting could enhance residents’ territoriality, thereby
deterring crime over and above the direct effect of the presence of vegetation.
Active involvement in tree-planting programs has been claimed to enhance a
community’s sense of territoriality (Dwyer, McPherson, Schroeder, &
Rowntree, 1992), and the community greening lore is replete with stories in
which greening efforts have been accompanied by dramatic decreases in
crime and incivilities (e.g., Hynes, 1996; Lewis, 1980; Littman, 1996; Trust
for Public Lands, 1996). Previous research in inner-city neighborhoods sug-
gests that residents would be willing to help plant and care for trees (Kuo,
Bacaicoa, et al., 1998). As planting is the single largest cost associated with
the care and maintenance of the urban forest (McPherson, Nowak, &
Rowntree, 1994), involving residents would substantially defray the already
low costs associated with a planting intervention.
Ultimately, the largest reductions in crime will come from strategies that
address the factors underlying crime (e.g., intense poverty and the availabil-
ity of guns). In the meantime, this study offers a ray of hope by identifying an
easily manipulable environmental feature that has a systematic, negative
Kuo, Sullivan / VEGETATION AND CRIME 363
relationship with property crimes, violent crime, and total crimes. The work
presented here suggests the exciting possibility that in barren inner-city
neighborhoods, planting a few trees may work to inhibit crime, creating safer
neighborhoods for poor families and their children.
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