Safety and Security: A Neighborhood Necessity

Jane Jacobs — author, activist and icon of the importance of a vital neighborhood — wrote years ago that a safe street is produced by eyes on the street.* It is produced by people walking around, sitting outside, knowing neighbors and being part of a social fabric. No number of gates or professional security people on patrol can make us safe. They can increase arrests, but basically safety is in the hands of citizens. Citizens outside the house, interacting with others, being familiar with the comings and goings of neighbors.

Every chief of police in our major cities now has a standard speech explaining the limits of local law enforcement as a tool to keep a neighborhood safe. They all advocate some form of local community organization that connects neighbors in a mutual alliance for security. Some police departments even send officers into the neighborhoods to organize block clubs as the principal means of protecting their security.

This is an interesting paradox. We pay police to make us safe, and then they spend some of our money to send us police officers who tell us that the strength of our own community ties is essential for our safety!

This police message is confirmed by all kinds of social science research. One of the best is a Chicago study by Robert Sampson and colleagues that found that two factors often predicted whether a neighborhood was crime prone**:

  • Is there mutual trust and altruism among neighbors?
  • Are neighbors willing to intervene when children misbehave?
Of course, this trust and community responsibility can develop only when neighbors know and are committed to each other. So, the suburbanites whose local relationships are limited to a cheery hello to the neighbor, and the urbanites whose fear keep them from even saying hello, are all increasing their chance to be a victim.
And, if in fear, they turn to the police, a community relations officer will arrive and urge them to create organized relationships with their neighbors.

* Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961; reprint with new foreword by author, New York: Modern Library, 1993). See also Dark Age Ahead (New York: Random House, 2004) and “Books and Articles By and About Jane Jacobs” at Jane’s Walk

** See Robert J. Sampson, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

Adapted from The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods, pp 19–20.


Image: Vinot Chandar 




About the Lead Author

John McKnight
John McKnight
John McKnight is emeritus professor of education and social policy and codirector of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University. He is the coauthor of Building Communities from the Inside Out and the author of The Careless Society. He has been a community organizer and serves on the boards of several national organizations that support neighborhood development.

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