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Improving Street Lighting to Reduce Crime in Residential Areas

Response Guide No. 8 (2008)

by Ronald V. Clarke


Improved street lighting is widely thought to be an effective means of preventing crime, second in importance only to increased police presence. Indeed, residents in crime-ridden neighborhoods often demand that the lighting be improved, and recent research generally bears out their expectation that improved lighting does reduce crime.

This guide is written to help community policing officers decide whether improved lighting is an appropriate response to a crime or disorder problem that might be confronting a particular neighborhood or community. It assumes that a detailed problem analysis has been conducted and that police, community and business leaders, and other stakeholders are exploring ameliorative responses, particularly improved street lighting. It explains why better street lighting can help reduce fear, crime, and disorder, and summarizes the literature on the effectiveness of better lighting. It discusses the considerations that should be weighed in pursuing this approach, suggests questions that should be asked, and lists the steps that should be followed in improving lighting. Finally, it suggests measures that can be used to assess the effectiveness of the lighting solutions that have been implemented.

Improved street lighting is much less controversial than some other responses to street crime discussed in this series of problem-oriented policing guides, including street closures and video surveillance.†† Even so, it does have some potential costs (apart from monetary costs) and, as will be discussed elsewhere in the guide, its relationship to crime is not as straightforward as is usually assumed.

† Problem-Oriented Guides for Police, Response Guides Series No. 2, Closing Streets and Alleys to Reduce Crime

†† Problem-Oriented Guides for Police, Response Guides Series No. 4, Video Surveillance of Public Places

Scope of the guide

This guide deals with lighting improvements intended to reduce crime in public streets and alleys in residential neighborhoods. It does not discuss:

  1. the lighting of new residential neighborhoods, subdivisions, or gated communities;
  2. improved lighting of parking lots, shopping malls, campuses, hospitals, or other public and private facilities;
  3. security lighting for private residences; or
  4. lighting and road safety.  

As explained below, problem-oriented policing projects to reduce crime in residential neighborhoods have usually made other environmental changes in conjunction with

improvements in street lighting. In some of these projects extensive use has been made of the principles of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED). These principles have been explained in another guide in this series and will not be repeated here. This guide focuses solely on street lighting improvements, whether or not made in the context of broader environmental changes.

† Problem-Oriented Guides for Police, Tools Guides Series No. 8 Using Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design in Problem Solving

Although led by police, all successful problem-oriented policing projects in crime-ridden neighborhoods depend upon a partnership among police, local residents, community leaders, elected officials, and municipal officers. Police leading the project must invest a considerable amount of time in making these partnerships work. This guide does not attempt to discuss the nuances of managing these partnerships, but it does discuss ways of dealing with concerns that might be expressed about proposed street lighting improvements.  

Because of the lack of relevant research, this guide says little about the effects of improved lighting on fear. Although there is little doubt that improved lighting reduces fear, in most cases this is merely an added benefit from the reduction in crime. Reducing unwarranted fear is a legitimate objective of lighting improvements in settings such as college campuses or municipal parking lots. However, it would be difficult to persuade public officials to spend taxpayer money to improve lighting without the expectation that both the fear and incidence of crime would be reduced. In fact, according to research quoted in the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority How-to Guide to Effective Energy-Efficient Street Lighting for Municipal Elected/Appointed Officials,1 simply increasing light levels beyond a certain point will neither make an area seem safer nor increase perceptions of safety. That is, glare and high light levels that make it harder for people to see can increase fear, whereas uniform lighting that eliminates both glare and dark shadows can lead to increased feelings of security.

Again because of the lack of relevant research, this guide says little about the cost-benefits of improved lighting. It is relatively easy to estimate the costs of relighting schemes, but calculating the benefits is much more difficult. This involves estimating the numbers of different types of crime prevented by the improved lighting and putting a cost to these crimes—not just cost to the victim but also to the police, the municipality, and the criminal justice system. It also involves calculating the benefits of reduced fear, increased freedom of movement, and related factors. Unsurprisingly, no existing research has undertaken these calculations.

Finally, this guide provides only a brief introduction to the practicalities of selecting and installing improved lighting. Street lighting improvements entail many considerations, both in terms of the level and quality of lighting desired and how these are to be achieved. You can expect the local utility company or municipal officials to make many of these decisions, but if you have a basic logistical understanding of the issues you will be able to provide useful input regarding the needs of your particular neighborhood. And although experts will commission and supervise the work, you can help by acting as a liaison between the municipality, the local community, and contractors. You might also find it necessary to "progress-chase" the work to ensure that installation does not lag.