Theories of crime and place understand crime in a physical or spatial environment. They explain crime patterns by the location of targets, offenders’ choice of travel routes, use of space for various activities, and the innate ability of a place or target to defend itself. Theories of crime and place can be described as belonging together under the umbrella of what is called ”environmental criminology” (Brantingham and Branting-ham 1981). Theories of crime and place trace their origins to the work of the Cartographic School in the mid-1800s. Henry Mayhew, who is considered to be the founder of the Cartographic School, pioneered the use of maps in the analysis of crime. Mayhew’s maps of counties of London showed spatial relationships between crime and rates of illiteracy, teenage marriage, and number of illegitimate children. Other statisticians, including Andre Guerry and Adolphe Quetelet, were also working with statistics and maps to represent crime patterns in France in the mid-1800s.

In the United States, the analysis of crime and place is rooted in the work done by the members of what is known as the ”Chicago School” early in the twentieth century. Robert Park and Ernest Burgess, founders of the Chicago School, borrowed from plant ecology to explain the development of cities. According to Park and Burgess, cities developed in a process they called ”succession” whereby competition for scarce resources, primarily land, drove the development of the city outward from the city core. They proposed that cities would develop in a series of successive concentric zones with the zones at the interior being the most deteriorated.

Based on their analysis, Park and Burgess proposed a theory of crime known as concentric zone theory. They showed that the zones closest to the inner city had the highest prevalence of social ills, notably, unemployment, poverty, reliance on social assistance, and rates of disease. Park and Burgess said that the prevalence of these social problems in the inner zones of the city where social conflict was high led to a condition they called social disorganization.

Other work by members of the Chicago School, notably Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay (active from the early to mid-1900s), explored the theory of social disorganization. Shaw and McKay (1969) divided the city into ”natural areas.” These areas shared social and demographic characteristics. They examined the locations of residences of juvenile delinquents and noted that areas with the highest rates of juvenile delinquents were geographic areas with weak community controls. Shaw and McKay did not attribute crime problems to the people who lived in these areas, but instead to characteristics of the areas including physical deterioration, ethnic heterogeneity, and low rental costs.

Shaw and McKay (1969) showed that social disorganization peaked in the central business district (CBD) (the first zone) and the zone of transition (the second concentric zone where recent immigrants first moved to and where industries were located). Social disorganization was shown to decrease in a linear fashion as one proceeds through the remaining concentric zones outward from the CBD. With each progressive zone away from the CBD, housing became more desirable and household income increased.

From these origins, much of criminology has sought to explain or predict crime based on factors (”causes”) external to the individual and the individual’s interaction with them. The ecological or areal tradition of criminology is concerned with the environmental, contextual, community, physical, or situational correlates of crime—or their interactions. Together, these theories aim to explain the relationships between crime and place at three different levels of spatial aggregation: the micro-level, the meso-level, and the macro-level. Often, though not always, the micro-level refers to the actual location of a crime. The meso-level often refers to a neighborhood or community. The macro-level, on the other hand, may refer to a city, or an area even larger such as a country.


Theories of crime and place at this level of spatial aggregation explain crime patterns across larger areas. Examples of macro-level crime and place theories include the crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) perspective, routine activity theory, and behavioral geography and crime pattern theory.

Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED)

According to this perspective, areas within the city emit ”cues” about their characteristics that offenders use to select suitable targets. Urban settings can discourage crime and limit the number of targets that are perceived as ”suitable” by motivated offenders through physical design that incorporates cues that show how the living space is well maintained, well cared for, and hence well controlled. Under such conditions, the potential offenders realize that (1) she or he will be easily recognized and (2) not tolerated (Newman 1972).

Routine Activity Theory

Routine activity theory suggests that each successful crime has at least one motivated offender and at least one personal or property target and requires the absence of an effective ”guardian” capable of preventing its occurrence (Cohen and Felson 1979). Routine activity theory was originally intended to explain the spatial nature of crime on a citywide basis (Cohen and Felson 1979). The theory as originally conceptualized addresses how the movement of motivated offenders throughout a city shapes spatial patterns of crime when this movement overlaps with places where suitable targets or victims congregate and where there is no person or entity to properly guard the target.

Behavioral Geography and Crime Pattern Theory

Closely related branches of crime and place theory to routine activity theory are behavioral geography and crime pattern theory. In general, behavioral geography and crime pattern theory propose that offenders, in choices of victims and targets, use mental maps and cues. Places are said to exhibit special cues that elicit specific responses from motivated offenders and others (Brantingham and Brantingham 1981; Rengert and Wasilchick 1985).

Like routine activity theory, behavioral geography and crime pattern theory focus in part on movement throughout and travel paths within the city. A motivated offender’s choice of targets and locations is based on his or her travel paths and awareness or activity spaces in a city. Awareness and activity spaces are part of mental maps. Cues are located within awareness spaces. Brantingham and Brantingham (1991) suggest that it is through travels from home to work and places of recreation (”nodes of activity”) that an offender develops an ”awareness space” within the environment. It is within the awareness space that an offender will search for ”suitable” targets.


Explanations of crime at the meso-level explain crime at an intermediate level of spatial aggregation. Examples of crime and place theories at the meso-level include territorial functioning, social disorganization, and collective efficacy.

Territorial Functioning

Territorial functioning is a perspective within environmental criminology that links the presence of fear of crime to the amount of crime. From this perspective, the occurrence of crime and fear of crime are associated with three particular elements: (1) attitudes of residents (responsibility and perceptions of control); (2) behaviors (responding to intrusions or potential intrusions and exercising control over activities in the territory); and (3) markers (signs and embellishments) (Taylor and Brower 1985). The territorial functioning perspective is clearly helpful to the examination of crime in residential neighborhoods. The applicability of this theoretical perspective to the examination of crime in other types of land use (for example, retail and commercial) is more difficult to establish.

According to the territorial functioning perspective, the perceptions and behaviors of residents of a residential setting act in combination with physical characteristics of a place to influence crime in that area. Local social ties not only increase territorial functioning, for example, but more cohesive social culture on the street block mitigates both crime and fear of crime among residents (Taylor, Gottfredson, and Brower 1984).

Social Disorganization

Social disorganization is a meso-level theory and was described earlier in this article. This theory serves as the underpinning for a more recent development in crime and place theory, Sampson and Rauden-bush’s theory of collective efficacy.

Collective Efficacy

Where social cohesion between residents is high, they are more likely than those who do not have good social cohesion to have control over what happens on their block and in their neighborhood, and they are more likely to intervene in problematic events (Taylor, Gottfredson, and Brower 1984). Sampson and Raudenbush (1999) measured social cohesion and levels of social control among residents in Chicago neighborhoods and combined these indicators to develop a measure of what they refer to as collective efficacy. Specifically, collective efficacy includes three elements: informal social control, organizational participation of residents, and the willingness of neighbors to intervene in problematic situations. In neighborhoods where collective efficacy was strong, signs of disorder and crime were lower, regardless of sociodemographic characteristics of the residents.


Theories at the micro-level focus on explanations of crime at the individual level or at the actual location of the crime. Examples of these theories include rational choice theory, revised routine activity theory, the situational crime prevention perspective, and the criminal events perspective.

Rational Choice

The existence of motivated, rational offenders is an underlying assumption of many theories included under the rubric of environmental criminology. In a majority of these theories, the motivated offender is portrayed as a rational actor choosing, based on a weighing of costs and benefits, suitable targets (Cornish and Clarke 1986).

Routine Activity Theory (Revised)

John Eck (1995) expanded routine activity theory to include more elements about the nature of the crime event and shifted the focus of routine activity theory to the micro-level. He expanded the routine activity into six ”subtheories” of targets, guardians, offenders, handlers, places, and managers. Eck argues that each of these micro-level ”subtheories” functions systematically to form a theory that has macro-level implications.

Situational Crime Prevention

As a type of crime prevention activity, situational crime prevention (Clarke and Homel 1997) targets specific places and seeks to change physical characteristics of places in order to reduce or prevent crime. This perspective is designed to reduce opportunities for crime as well as to reduce criminal motivation. More specifically, situational crime prevention aims to change the routine activities associated with clearly targeted places.

Criminal Events Perspective

The criminal events perspective posits that criminal acts and criminal events are two separate and distinct phenomena (Meier, Kennedy, and Sacco 2001). This approach considers not only the offenders and victims, but also ”the contexts within which they interact,” or in other words, the specific conditions that may influence the likelihood of a crime occurring (Meier, Kennedy, and Sacco 2001, p. 1). Ekblom (1994, 197) notes that criminal events should be viewed ”more like a dynamic process,” rather than a ”single episode.”

The criminal events perspective requires one to consider a number of conditions or components. According to Meier, Kennedy, and Sacco (2001, 3), they are ”the immediate parties to the event, the possible history between them, the social situation in which they find themselves, and the rules that define their actions as legal and illegal.” Other conditions may also be taken into consideration, such as ”interpersonal context: how individuals define situations, their expected role, and acceptable responses to others’ actions,” as well as, ”time (weekends, at night), geography (inner-city areas), economic and political pressures, and community characteristics that increase the likelihood of crimes” (Meier, Kennedy, and Sacco 2001, 4). Brantingham and Brantingham (2001, 278) refer to these components, or ”vectors of the criminal event,” as ”the law, the offender, the target (or victim), the site of the crime, the social situation obtaining at the site at the time of the crime, and the mechanics of the criminal act.” The authors also stress that ”every vector provides potential crime prevention intervention points” (Brantingham and Brantingham 2001, 290).

Police Response

Beginning with Block’s (1979) work, much of the research that is focused from a policing perspective on the spatial nature of crime in environmental criminology on the specific locations characterized by high rates of crime or calls for service have used the term hot spot to describe these places. Although explanations for spatial patterns of crime are often associated with the term hot spot, this term is problematic for the following three reasons. First, there is no single, accepted definition in criminology for the term hot spot. Second, because of this lack of definitional consensus, as a term for characterizing places that have high rates of crime or police calls for service the term hot spot is unclear. Third, the inherently resulting elasticity of the hot-spot concept poses methodological problems in research focused on the spatial nature of crime.

Nevertheless, hot-spot and other place-based research has led a number of police departments to implement strategies that target these hot-spot areas. Use of the hot-spot approach allows police to concentrate on manageable challenges (Sherman 1995). Hot-spot policing is based on empirical findings that may allow police to maximize effectiveness and productivity by concentrating on manageable challenges (Farrell and Sousa 2001; Sherman 1995; Taylor 1997).

Sherman and Weisburd (1995), for example, evaluated the effectiveness of a hot-spot patrol experiment in Minneapolis. Half of the city’s hot spots received twice as much police patrol than the other half over a one-year period. Analyses revealed significant reductions in total calls and disorder in the areas that received the extra police patrol. Similarly, Sherman et al. (1995) evaluated the effect of police raids on crack houses in Kansas City, Missouri. Police executed raids at 98 of 207 identified crack house locations within the city. Results showed that although some crime and disorder appeared to be prevented, the deterrent effects of the raids disappeared quickly.

Place-based theories have also led to the development of new technologies for the police including crime mapping and geographic profiling. The use of computerized crime mapping can assist police departments in a number of ways. In its simplest form, mapping allows police to clearly visualize, identify, and target criminal problem areas within their jurisdictions. Police also benefit from the use of geographic profiling. According to Rossmo (1995, 218), the geographic profiling strategy takes, compiles, and analyzes information from ”crime site locations, their geographic connections, and the characteristics and demography of the surrounding neighborhoods” in an attempt to locate and apprehend suspects.

Many community and problem-oriented policing strategies benefit from place-based criminological theory. To illustrate an example of a place-based problem-oriented policing tactic, Green (1995) examined the effects of the Specialized Multi-Agency Response Team (SMART) program in Oakland, California. The SMART program involved using ”municipal codes and drug nuisance abatement laws to control drug and disorder problems” (Green 1995, 737). The police department partnered with other agencies and members of the community in order to combat neighborhood drug problems. Evaluation of the SMART program revealed that the combined efforts of police, landlords, and municipal code enforcement can reduce crime and improve the appearance of targeted places.


In short, theories of crime and place, in different ways, suggest factors apart from attributes of individuals or in interaction with individual attributes that explain crime occurrence or offending.

Next post:

Previous post: