Could green spaces be a crime-fighting tool for South African cities?

South Africa is a global crime hotspot. But, as residents put up higher walls to stay safe, a new South African study suggests that greenspaces can be an important tool in creating safe and sustainable cities.

International research shows that green spaces such as public parks lower crime because they boost mental health and community cohesion, but is this true in the crime hotspot that is South Africa?

Professor Gregory Breetzke, from UP's Department of Geography, Geoinformatics and Meteorology, is part of a team of researchers who investigated the effects of urban green spaces on crime rates in South Africa, the first of its kind in the Global South.

The study found that for every 1% increase in total green spaces, violent crime decreased by 1.2%, and property crime decreased by 1.3%. The researchers accounted for factors such as income inequality, unemployment, land use, and property value in order to find the real effect greenspaces have on crime and rule out that lower crime rates near greenspaces are simply a coincidence.

"Using advanced statistical methods, we showed that there is a reduction in the risk of property and violent crime for an increase in green space at the police precinct level," says Prof Breetzke. "We had fantastic data, which was a big selling point of our study."

The researchers collected ten years' worth of crime statistics data from over 1 000 police precincts and noted all the greenspaces for each area. 

Interestingly, the study found that having more trees in your area apparently increased property crime rates.

But this statistic tells only half the story. "If you just look at an aerial photograph of a poor neighbourhood in South Africa, it generally has much less greenery than affluent neighbourhoods, which are more often targeted for property crime," Prof Breetzke says. In other words, affluent areas are hotspots for crimes like house burglaries, and these areas also generally have more trees.

Interestingly, the team found that greenspaces had no effect on reported sexual crimes, but this could be linked to poor reporting of sexual crimes in South Africa and the crime statistics reported by the South African Police Service (SAPS).

"A major issue in South Africa is the underreporting of crime, particularly for sexual crimes," says Prof Breetzke. "We could only use the data that we had, the official data from the South African Police Service statistics."

The researchers recommend that urban planners make use of greenspaces as an important part of many other crime reduction initiatives in addition to the known benefits of urban greenspaces.



Prof Gregory Breetzke, ScienceLink

November 9, 2022

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  • Professor Gregory Breetzke

    Professor Gregory Breetzke has been a researcher at the University of Pretoria (UP) for about 15 years. He holds a BSc degree and BSocSci degree from UP, and an MSc (cum laude) in Geographical Information Science from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands. In 2003, he was awarded a bursary to study at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He did his PhD at UP in 2008, specialising in geodemographic offender profiling.

    Prof Breetzke’s primary research interests include analysing the geography of crime. He has a secondary research interest in examining the South African higher education landscape.

    He is a member of the Society of South African Geographers, was a founding student member of the Geographical Information Society of South Africa and has been a member of the Environmental Criminology and Crime Analysis Symposium since 2011. The symposium is an informal association of leading international scholars who specialise in the fields of environmental criminology, crime science, situational crime prevention, intelligence-led policing and problem-oriented policing. About 100 people are involved in the group and they all inspire him, he says.

    Crime is arguably the biggest challenge facing South Africa and Prof Breetzke is one of a few people who is conducting spatially based crime research in the country. He says his research aims to identify and investigate the spatial patterning of crime. He is becoming increasingly renowned in his field both locally and internationally.

    “The results of my work can provide valuable insight into crime and its distribution in the country, with important implications for crime prevention and reduction,” he says.

    Locally, he disseminates his research in South African ISI-rated journals such as the South African Journal of Science and the South African Geographical Journal. In developing his research profile internationally, he has published in several leading geography, criminology, psychology and health ISI-rated journals such as Science of the Total Environment, Environment and Behavior, and Criminal Justice and Behavior.

    Prof Breetzke has won various awards for his research, including the Canterbury fellowship, which allowed him to visit the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand from April to June 2018.

    He has been quoted frequently in magazines and newspapers, both in South Africa and New Zealand, and has given numerous radio interviews and presentations at academic conferences and symposia around the world.

    Prof Breetzke is currently undertaking research with the New Zealand police to investigate the spatial determinants of gangs in the country. He is also part of an evidence-based working group that includes representatives from the South African Police Services, the Institute for Security Studies and other civil organisations. The primary aim of the group is to conduct empirical research to enable better decision-making when it comes to crime prevention and crime reduction in South Africa. Additionally, he is working on several projects that aim to better understand the factors that drive resilience to crime in impoverished communities. He is also working on projects that are focused on identifying micro-spatial patterns of crime.

    In terms of cross-faculty work at UP, he collaborates with Prof Inger Fabris-Rotelli of the Department of Statistics. They have published research that has identified spatial crime generators in crime-prone neighbourhoods.

    Prof Breetzke has the following message for learners and undergraduates who are interested in his field: “Be patient, read and investigate the broader field that you are interested in and ideas will generate themselves.”

    In his spare time, he plays ball sports and is an avid road runner.

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