For many suburban residents the thought of visiting an urban, central-city locale is a daunting one. While living in Chicago I was amazed at the number of people whose insecurities around safety kept them from venturing into the central city to enjoy world-class theater, sports, restaurants, music venues and other amenities. In the Sacramento region where I currently reside, those living in their idyllic enclaves roll their eyes at the thought of taking light-rail into downtown, intimidated by the thought of seeing a homeless person in ragged clothes or shabby street surroundings. Sadly this theme seems to be prevalent throughout many parts of our nation, leading to socioeconomic and racial divides and unfortunate misperceptions about urban locales.

So the operative question here is whether these safety concerns have a basis in fact or exist as a figment of our fears. I believe the true answer resides somewhere in the middle. Certainly the statistics show there are urban environments where one’s safety is indeed at risk. CQ Press conducted a recent crime study on incidences of murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, and vehicle theft in U.S. cities of 75,000 or more residents. They concluded that Camden, New Jersey, is the most dangerous city in the nation, with 2,333 violent crimes per 100,000 residents. Rounding out the top ten cities were St. Louis (MO), Oakland (CA), Detroit (MI), Flint (MI), New Orleans (LA), Birmingham (AL), Cleveland (OH), Jackson (MS), and Memphis (TN).

From this list, New Orleans is the one city that has elicited a sense of unease for me during my visits. Even in the high-traffic French Quarter, walking alone in New Orleans amid drug peddlers, panhandlers and inebriated revelers has always been an uncomfortable experience for me. Yet, I somehow felt safe walking back to my hotel late one night after getting the low-down from a colleague who worked for the local convention and visitor’s bureau. New Orleans like most cities has crime problems, but in her opinion, the statistics often overlook the millions of locals and visitors who take precautions and enjoy local amenities without becoming a crime victim.

This is where the delicate balance between fact and perception comes in. Truth be told, I am often quick to make premature judgments about certain cities based on prevailing crime statistics. I also am heavily influenced by the look and feel of an area, the vibe that dictates whether I will venture out or not. All of us at some level employ this same instinctual radar equipment to alert us to imminent danger.

Unfortunately crime-laden fears stifle many of us from venturing out and enjoying where we live, work and play. Reducing crime echoes Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which says that a person’s lower-level needs such as safety and security must be satisfied as a precondition for meeting higher-level needs and aspirations, such as love and belonging.

In recognizing this basic psychological tenant, many of our nation’s city leaders are bringing greater awareness to the importance of promoting safe cities and communities. A byproduct of this outreach is that growing numbers of crime prevention initiatives are being actively pursued to promote healthy, vibrant urban environments.

Interest around urban crime reduction has largely been fueled by the well-documented work of political scientist James Wilson and criminologist George Kelling. They proposed what is known as the Broken Windows Theory, a philosophy that says the best way to fight crime is by addressing the disorder that precedes it. These disorders include social elements such as graffiti, panhandling, dilapidated buildings, and uncollected trash. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani adopted this theory as part of a comprehensive policing strategy, proving that when broken windows and other symbols of community disrepair were fixed, crime dropped.

My views on city safety mesh most closely with those of preeminent urbanist Jane Jacobs. In her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she espoused the importance of “eyes on the street” — active environments of city dwellers whose presence can offer perceived comfort from criminal activity. This mirrors my experience in downtown Chicago where my vulnerability felt lessened by the bustling foot traffic day and night. Oddly, walking in Chicago in the wee hours seems safer to me than strolling at night through a city like Sacramento or Columbus (OH), where the streets turn barren during the evening hours.

Foot traffic and activity along Milwaukee's Brady Street

Looking ahead, efforts to create safer communities loom large relative to the success of urban centers. Streets can be effectively designed and lighted to reinforce secure surroundings, and neighborhoods can be redeveloped and beautified so they look less menacing. These ideas provide the core foundation for encouraging people to live, work and play in urban settings.