The Nature of Crime and Community

New research links contact with nature to community cohesion and a reduced crime rate.
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New research links contact with nature to community cohesion and a reduced crime rate.
(Photo: Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr)

(Photo: Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr)

Nature is good for the soul. Walking in the woods can help with depression, and reminders of the natural world such as plants and scenes of wild places can make us more cooperativeless impulsive, and just plain nicer. There's even evidence that time spent in green spaces helps children's cognitive development. On top of that, the authors of a new study report, it might also have something to do with strong communities and lower crime rates.

"Although a considerable literature exists on ... individual well-being outcomes of contact with nature, little is known about its social consequences," writes a team led by Netta Weinstein, a senior lecturer in social and environmental psychology at the University of Cardiff. Yet there's reason to suspect there are social consequences. If, for example, nature promotes a sense of connection with the outside world, that might extend to include other humans as well, and that could, in turn, foster community and maybe even fight crime. It's an important question, too, in an era when a growing fraction of humanity lives in cities—54 percent today, and an estimated 66 percent by 2050, according to United Nations projections.

The more a person felt connected to nature, the more they felt connected to others in their neighborhoods.

To explore those ideas, the psychologists looked to data from 2,079 men and women who participated in a 2011 online survey conducted by the Harris Poll in the United Kingdom. That survey asked a variety of questions about demographics, community, and "subjective contact with green space," meaning, essentially, how often participants thought they came into contact with nature. Weinstein and her colleagues also collected government data to show the actual amount of green space and the number of crimes in each of the U.K.'s roughly 9,500 electoral wards.

After controlling for individual and community measures of socioeconomic status, the team found strong direct and indirect connections between nature, community, and crime. The percent of natural land in a ward, for example, had a strong direct effect on crime—the more green space, the less crime. There was also an indirect effect: Increased amounts of nature boosted the subjective perception of contact with nature. That, in turn, increased community cohesion, which has a strong damping effect on crime.

Surprisingly, the researchers found no direct link between nature and individual well-being, though there was an indirect effect: The more a person felt connected to nature, the more they felt connected to others in their neighborhoods. That sense of connection to others, in turn, boosted both happiness and workplace productivity, as well as actions to help the environment.

Those results, the authors point out, are only correlations; they can't be used to infer whether contact with nature actually causes the increase in community cohesion and the decrease in crime. But if the findings are confirmed, there could be "interesting implications for those who plan developments and govern communities," the researchers write. "Greater consideration of green space provision in developments may help with these societal—as well as individual—outcomes."

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Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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