Reducing Crime by Shaping the Built Environment with Zoning: An Empirical Study of Los Angeles

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The idea of using law to change the built environment in ways that reduce
opportunities to commit crimes has a long history. Unfortunately, this idea has
received relatively little attention in the legal academy and only limited rigorous
empirical scrutiny. In this Article, we review the considerable literature on the
relationship between zoning, the built environment, and crime. We then report the
results of two empirical studies on these relationships. First, we conducted a study of
the effect of zoning on crime using 205 blocks selected in eight different relatively
high crime neighborhoods in Los Angeles that have similar demographic characteristics
but different forms of zoned land use. We find that mixed commercial- and
residential-zoned areas are associated with lower crime than are commercial-only
zoned areas. Second, we matched neighborhoods undergoing zoning changes between
2006 and 2010 with neighborhoods that underwent no zoning changes during this
period but had similar preexisting crime trajectories between 1994 and 2005. The
primary zoning change in these neighborhoods was to convert parcels to residential
uses. We find that neighborhoods in which there was a zoning change experienced a
significant decline in crime. Our results suggest that mixing residential-only zoning
into commercial blocks may be a promising means of reducing crime.

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