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What Germany can teach NZ about safe and smart cities

Safe in the city: crowds of people pour through Berlin’s  Brandenburg Gate. Photo/Getty Images

Why do some New Zealanders feel safer in a big European city than back home? Everything from crime rates, religiosity, rubbish, the number of bikes and even penis size can have an effect on how secure we feel, reports Cathrin Schaer. So, how do we reduce actual violence?

One recent summery day in Berlin, a group of New Zealand tourists settled around a cafe table in the central city. “I don’t know why, but I just feel safer here,” one of them, an older woman in a floral blouse, says. The other New Zealanders nod enthusiastically. Which made the Germans in attendance curious: “Why would you feel this way?” they asked of the table. Isn’t New Zealand a natural paradise at the end of the world?

“Well, it could be the wider streets in Berlin,” says one of the older New Zealanders, originally from Wellington.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

“I feel as if maybe there’s more respect for women here,” another, a 20-something guest from Christchurch, muses.

“Maybe it’s because we only cross the street on the red?” one of the Germans suggests.

The lunchtime conversation went on – but no conclusions were reached, only more questions. Perhaps this feeling of peace had to do with a lack of visible homelessness and poverty, or all the fancy cars? Is it because we are talking to happy holidaymakers who haven’t seen the dark side of the city? Or could it be because we’re all subconsciously racist and most of the people around here are white? Most of all, though, why on earth is it that a city such as Berlin – with close to four million inhabitants – feels safer than somewhere such as Christchurch, which has only a tenth of the population?

On the town in Auckland. Photo/Adrian Malloch/Listener

Walking alone at night

Comparing Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) averages, based on surveys between 2014 and 2016, backs up the New Zealand tourists’ observations. Although 75.9% of Germans feel safe walking alone at night, only 64.8% of New Zealanders do. That’s several points below the OECD average.

OECD and other statistics also support the theory that, in reality, New Zealand is a more dangerous place. Germany has 0.4 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, whereas New Zealand has 1.3. Between 29% and 33% of locals in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch became victims of crime in 2018. In Berlin, about 14% of residents did. Compare the statistics on all kinds of crime and New Zealand starts looking more dangerous. So it’s not just a feeling.

But – and it’s a big but – none of that really helps answer the original question. The New Zealanders who say they feel safer in Germany didn’t run the numbers on aggravated assaults before they got on a plane. For them, it all goes back to a subjective “feeling”, one that may well be disconnected from reality.

It turns out this is often the case. The “feeling” of safety (or not) is not about any actual crime rate. “From our research, we know that the feelings of insecurity have a relatively weak connection to actual criminal activities,” Dietrich Oberwittler, a professor at the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law in Freiburg, told media recently.

On the town in Auckland. Photo/Adrian Malloch/Listener

He was announcing the results of a survey of about 30,000 Germans on how worried they are about crime. For example, says Oberwittler, about 20% of Germans are frightened of being robbed sometime in the next 12 months. But, in fact, only about 1% of them will be.

Similarly detailed numbers are not available for New Zealand, but a 2016 Government-commissioned survey, “Public Perceptions of Crime”, has some interesting inconsistencies that show how subjective opinions on crime and victimisation can be.

In 2016, 71% of New Zealanders thought that the overall level of crime in the country was increasing. They were correct, but when those same interviewees were asked about crime in their own neighbourhoods, only 26% said it had increased locally. Most people clearly had the somewhat illogical “feeling” that crime must be happening elsewhere.

A cautionary tale played out in Hamilton this month, too, when residents complained that certain districts were being hit by a crime wave. Some threatened to form vigilante groups to patrol their streets. Local police told media there was actually nothing untoward going on – one particularly enthusiastic criminal had been caught. The implication was that rumours of a crime wave had been spread, then amplified by overzealous neighbours on social media. The media was also blamed for always focusing on stories about crime.

Such situations hint at why those “feelings” about crime and safety are important. Because, as US sociologist William Isaac Thomas put it in his 1928 “Thomas theorem”, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” In other words, if you’re out walking and you think you’re about to be mugged, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will be mugged, but it will change the way you perceive your surroundings and your fellow citizens. If you were in Hamilton, you might be tempted to roam the streets armed with a cricket bat. And that kind of thing, researchers are increasingly certain, is something that may have more of an effect on levels of crime and violence in a community than almost anything else.

Photo/Adrian Malloch/Listener

Macho men

“The culture on the street here is different. Back home, it’s that ‘what are you looking at?’ buzz. I’ve been hassled for being too brown, too white, for having long hair and pretty much everything else in between. For no reason at all, as far as I could tell. There’s nothing like that here at all.” – Musician from Napier, long-time resident in Berlin.

There are some fairly predictable things that make you feel more secure in a city. In 2013, Charlotta Mellander, a professor of economics at Jönköping University in Sweden, tried to match up a wide range of different statistics with surveys on perceptions of safety in the 50 biggest US cities. She came up with a number of conclusions that mostly align with the results of New Zealand’s own General Social Survey. We tend to feel safer in neighbourhoods in which the residents have higher levels of income and education, where there is less unemployment and homelessness and where there are fewer victims of crime already.

But Mellander also found a few surprising correlations. For example, she found one between an international study on penis size and the incidence of gun violence. It’s assumed that large penises resulted in more testosterone-fuelled impulsiveness and macho tendencies. In these neighbourhoods, there was also more general angst about violence. She also found that people tended to feel safer in neighbourhoods that are thought to be populated by a high number of creatives – although, as other analysts have suggested, that could just be because it’s a marker of affluence.

Photo/Adrian Malloch/Listener

Eyes on the street

“Going out in Auckland is like going on safari, whereas Berlin at 5am is like visiting a museum.” – New Zealand gallerist, resident in Berlin.

Mellander’s other surprising conclusions include the fact that people tend to feel less safe in communities where neighbours say they are very religious. Higher temperatures also seem to affect perceptions of safety – the warmer it is, the more worried people get. Perhaps less surprising and more worrying, people also felt insecure in areas where there were more non-white residents and more minorities. Homogenous populations may not be any safer, but they apparently feel that way.

Rubbish also has a role to play. Another study that asked participants to rate more than 4000 images of cityscapes from Google Street View found that rubbish was an element in whether a certain scene “looked” safe or not. Digitally removing the garbage led to a 30% increase in perceptions of safety, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Austrian Institute of Technology concluded.

Another factor that makes you feel safer, and may in fact make a place safer, involves what some public-safety experts like to call the three Rs: restaurants, retail and residential. A US study on using zoning to reduce crime, published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, compared land use in different high-crime neighbourhoods in Los Angeles and concluded that commercial-use-only areas had as much as 45% more crime than mixed-use areas (although that had a lot to do with burglaries and vehicle theft).

Photo/Adrian Malloch/Listener

We apparently feel more ownership of a neighbourhood if we also happen to live there, and it’s more than a place to go for a drink, or to work. New Zealand cities tend to lack the three Rs, says Tom Baker, a lecturer in urban politics and policy at the University of Auckland. “New Zealand cities have different ‘bones’ to cities in Europe,” he says. “They have been developed around the car, not the pedestrian. And the central city, in particular, has been developed for 9am to 5pm commerce, not a diverse mix of residential, retail and leisure activities. We call our central city areas ‘central business districts’, after all.”

There are other things that Europe has that enhance feelings of safety. Bikes, for one thing. Cyclists, researchers say, are more likely to have a connection with their communities than drivers. The same goes for pedestrians. The more people walk and bike around a town or city, the safer it feels.

The argument behind more bikes, more pedestrians and the three Rs connects to the idea of “eyes on the street”, a theory first expounded by civic activist Jane Jacobs in her influential 1961 book critiquing urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs’ premise is that the more humans you have watching for misbehaviour, the more you will enforce social order.

Capital night out: scenes of central Wellington this month. Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Listener

Third-place theory

“When I bike to school with my daughter, it’s a totally different experience than if we go in the car. People wave at me and I just notice what’s going on around us more. You don’t get that when you drive.” – Wellington economist, mother of two.

Another of the things European cities do well is adhere to the “third-place theory”. This says that if you have somewhere to go and hang out besides your home and workplace – a public park, a library, a neighbourhood cafe or bar, or some other form of “social infrastructure” – you establish more contacts and a more fulfilling sense of community. On a warm summer evening in Berlin, where locals live in smaller apartments, often without living rooms or gardens, you won’t be sitting behind your fence in your quarter-acre paradise. You’ll most likely be in the local park with friends and family, along with what feels like half the neighbourhood.

Safety in numbers

“After living in London for several years, I found myself incredibly nervous while waiting for a bus in Milford one evening. There was nobody around, just me sitting on the street corner and all these cars going by. I got quite freaked out. London can be scary, but there are always loads of people about.” – Auckland artist, living in Berlin.

“When everyone is fearful of crime, people will turn their homes into fortresses,” says Devon Polaschek, a professor of psychology at the University of Waikato and co-director of the New Zealand Institute for Security and Crime Science. “But then nobody owns the street. People tend to commit opportunistic crime when they think they can get away with it – so the street becomes dangerous. What makes places safe is when people take responsibility for their own communities and street. Polaschek says that 71% of New Zealanders won’t experience crime at all in the next 12 months. “So, maybe we need to challenge our instinct to retreat, to avoid creating the very environment we are afraid of finding ourselves in,” she says.

In criminology, “collective efficacy” is a phenomenon associated with the “third place” and all those “eyes on the street”. This concept describes how community members control one another’s behaviour and also how far they’re willing to go in the name of the common good and their community’s rules. For example, if you see some burly teenagers vandalising a park bench, do you tell them off? If you’re feeling particularly fearful, then probably not.

Communities with collective efficacy report lower levels of crime and violence and are associated with such things as more women willing to report incidents of domestic violence. Collective attitudes towards, for example, alcohol and drunkenness can also have an effect on how people behave after a few beers.

Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Listener

Community policing

“People don’t get drunk the same way here. On a Saturday night in Courtenay Place, there will be people vomiting and fighting. We’ve already noticed that that’s just not cool here; nobody is getting drunk like that.” –  recent Victoria University of Wellington graduates visiting Berlin for the first time.

Foreigners living in Germany will often moan about something that is politely described as “community policing” and impolitely as “being nosey”. Germans feel entitled to tell each other off if they see what they perceive as a violation of the social order. For example, a stranger on the street tut-tutting when somebody crosses when the lights are on the red: “You’re setting a bad example for the children.”

Rule of law

“I often feel like telling them to mind their own business. But, on the whole, I feel as if it does more good than harm. It’s a sign that people are watching out for one another.” – New Zealand mother of two and long-term resident of Berlin.

And here’s another observation that’s only anecdotal, but possibly connected to all of the above. If you get into any kind of altercation with somebody in Berlin – maybe because they told you off and you told them to mind their own business – Germans usually won’t try to fight, they’ll pull out their phones and threaten to report you to the authorities.

Germans are apparently no better than New Zealanders at reporting crimes they deem less serious. Research in New Zealand suggests that as much as 77% of crime goes unreported for one reason or another – for example, it’s not worth the bother, or the insurance wouldn’t cover it. The Berlin police recently suggested a similar rate of non-reporting, likewise dependent on what the crime was. And New Zealanders (78%) and Germans (81%) have about the same level of confidence in their police.

Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Listener

But there’s a different attitude towards social altercations. In Germany, even touching somebody without permission or insulting them – a “Beleidigung” is defined as infringing upon personal dignity – is against the law. When push comes to shove, the Germans won’t shove – they’re on their phones reporting that they’ve been insulted.

It might be because New Zealand, as a result of the natural environment and a sporting focus, has a more physical culture, or maybe it’s because New Zealanders are more self-reliant than Germans (we’ll fix things ourselves, Germans will wait for the authorities to come and fix them), but completely unscientific observation suggests that New Zealanders may be more ready to take matters into their own hands.

There are other deep-seated cultural phenomena that have an effect on feelings of safety, too. Dina Hummelsheim-Doss, another criminologist at the Max Planck Institute, has been comparing levels of “crime-related anxiety” in European countries for several years now – in 2016, Lithuania, Estonia and Hungary had the highest levels of concern, ranging from 27-40%, whereas Germany sat on about 20% and the UK on 24%. “And, from our research, we know that countries with advanced social-welfare systems, the ones that even out inequality in their societies, tend to have less anxiety about crime,” Hummelsheim-Doss tells the Listener. “That is totally independent of the actual statistics on crime. We can explain this by realising that fear of crime is often a misplaced projection for other worries and fears.

“In other words, it’s about existential societal worries and fear of exclusion,” she says, noting that the marked increase in concerns about crime among former East Germans after the fall of the Berlin Wall is one good example of this.

Dina Hummelsheim-Doss. Photo/Supplied

Hummelsheim-Doss says worries about crime are also the result of changes in politicking. Germans are regularly surveyed about what worries them most – anything from the threat of nuclear war to immigration and unemployment. Before the 1960s, fear of crime was always way down that list. But around then, Hummelsheim-Doss  says, subjective feelings about crime began to be amplified by several cultural changes. For example, first in the US, and then later in other countries, the victim become central to justice policy. Politicians also started to use fear of crime in their campaigning, promising to bring law and order to voters. Hummelsheim-Doss says that since then, fear of crime has had an effect on everything from elections, to quality of life, trust in the authorities, confidence in the good behaviour of your fellow citizens and how punitive your justice system is.

Ronald Kramer, a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Auckland, agrees. “My sense of why people are more fearful here [in New Zealand] is that it’s about social anxieties and how we are encouraged to think about the source of those anxieties,” he says.

“We are encouraged to think that crime and deviance are committed by pathological individuals and we should fear them. But, possibly, crime is not the thing we should be most worried about. In all the countries, New Zealand included, that have gone down a more neo-liberal path, we see growing inequality, populist reactions and worsening anxiety, even if it is irrational. That insecurity is a fundamental problem of our era. New Zealand has managed those anxieties with an increasingly harsh penal policy.”

Many northern European nations haven’t gone as far down the US-inspired road towards post-World War II “late capitalism” and social inequality, Kramer says. “They operate within a different cultural and political tradition.”

In terms of inequalities, it’s also important to note another deviation between reality and how we feel about crime. Often a far smaller proportion of the population than you’d actually assume falls victim to crime. In Germany, two-thirds of all reported physically violent assaults happen to the same people – that is, they are victims of this kind of crime more than once. In New Zealand, 4% of the population experience 47% of reported crime.

All of which may be good reasons for most of us not to worry so much.

Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Listener

A virtuous cycle

Perhaps the best argument of all for more emphasis on these “feelings of safety” comes from a 2018 book, Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence, by US sociology professor Patrick Sharkey.

One of the best-known theories about crime prevention in cities is the so-called “broken windows” theory, which was first articulated in 1982 by two criminologists writing in US news magazine the Atlantic. “Disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence,” James Wilson and George Kelling wrote, suggesting that, often, the sequence begins with signs of neglect, such as broken windows. This signals a lack of control and community ownership and makes a neighbourhood “vulnerable to criminal invasion”.

Even though, as its many critics have since pointed out, the theory was never scientifically proven, it found favour with US law enforcement. Officers began to crack down on smaller “quality-of-life” infractions such as graffiti in what came to be known as “stop and frisk” or “order maintenance” policing. This punitive regime is often what is credited with making New York a less dangerous place.

But, in his research, Sharkey concluded that there was a lot more to the decline in New York’s crime levels than heavy-handed policing. It had more to do with community and, yes, those “feelings of safety”.

Patrick Sharkey. Photo/Supplied

Sharkey and fellow researchers analysed statistics for 264 US cities over two decades to conclude that “every 10 additional organisations focusing on crime and community life in a [larger] city … leads to a 9% reduction in the murder rate, a 6% reduction in the violent crime rate and a 4% reduction in the property crime rate”.

A kind of “virtuous cycle” develops when people feel safe, Sharkey tells the Listener. “We have known for a long time that residents create informal forms of social control over public spaces and that this has the greatest effect on whether violence – or other crimes – becomes common or not.” That means, he concludes, “perceptions of safety and the actual level of crime are intertwined”. You don’t have to be assaulted to be affected by violence, he says.

So, can we really “feel” ourselves safe from crime? The bad news: sort of, but not really. As experiences from cities such as New York and Medellín in Colombia (where until very recently violence had been decreasing) illustrate, a holistic approach is needed. New counter-crime strategies, different styles of policing, penal reform based on evidence rather than emotion, partnerships between municipal and national authorities, community groups, urban renewal, more parks and public libraries and – that old chestnut – social inequality are all aspects of that, and there are many more strategies to make people feel safer and start a positive feedback loop in any given neighbourhood. 

And the good news? As any sensible psychologist will tell you, thinking about what frightens you and trying to be more rational about it is always a good start.

This article was first published in the July 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.