Does Sprawl Breed Violence? A Debate

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Does Sprawl Breed Violence? A Debate

April 9, 2003 9 min read
Ronald Utt
Ronald Utt
Visiting Fellow in Welfare Policy

Ronald Utt is the Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow.

(This exchange originally appeared in the Fredericksburg (VA) Freelance Star in November 2002. Jump to Ron Utt's response; Effort to Blame Sniper on Suburbs is Clumsy Act of Fiction.)

Sprawl: The swamp that creates killers?
by Douglas E. Morris

The events of the past few weeks in the D.C.-Richmond corridor were tragic. Yet, however despicable, what the sniper did was not unusual. Besides having the most murders, rapes, and assaults per capita of any developed nation, the United States is also home to 76 percent of all serial killers.

Such predators have become commonplace in this country. For over 40 years, America has been increasingly terrorized by these types of killers. You may remember some of them: Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, the Boston Strangler, the Green River Killer, the Trailside Killer, and the Stocking Strangler. According to FBI serial killer expert John Douglas, who has spent over 20 years combating such offenders, at any given time there are as many as 100 serial killers at large in America.

These sociopaths slaughter between 500 and 1,000 innocent people every year, leaving the rest of us cowering in fear. Their impact is disproportionate to the number of people killed, simply because we all know that we could be the next victim.

Between 1906 and 1959, there was an average of 1.7 new cases of serial killers every year-basically the same as what the rest of the world experiences today. Then, quite abruptly, the figure for new serial killers grew to 5 per year in the 1960s. By 1980, the number of new serial killers per year had risen to 15; and by 1990, there were 36 new serial killers identified per year, an average of three a month.

Because of this dramatic increase, the FBI has estimated that serial murders could claim an average of 11 lives a day in the United States in the 21st century. And serial killers are just the tip of the iceberg. In 1990, there were 23,440 homicides in this country. In contrast, Germany had 3,000, Canada 1,561, and England only 669. In the same year there were 102,560 rapes in the United States. In Germany, there were only 5,112; in England, 3,391; and just 687 in Italy. Even if the European totals are increased proportionally based on population, the levels of violence in the United States are still dramatically higher.

Yes, violence in America has declined by 5 percent since 1990. However, that is not much of a drop when our rates of violence are as alarmingly high as they are.

What is making this happen? Why are we plagued with serial killers such as the sniper, while other developed nations-countries that have similar economic, political, and legal systems-have but a fraction of our levels of violence?

These countries have everything we do in the way of consumer opportunities, industrial development, entertainment options, and technological advancements. However, their societies have not fallen apart as ours has.

These countries are safe because they do not have one thing that is a uniquely American phenomenon: suburban sprawl.

How sprawl produces killers
Other developed nations have maintained the integrity of their urban landscape. They have managed their growth. We have not, and we are paying the price for our negligence. The correlation between sprawl and the dramatic increase in violence and serial killers is so close, it is difficult to imagine why it has not been studied before. Suburban sprawl started in 1945. By the late 1950s, when the first generation of children raised in sprawl reached adulthood, our rates of violence started to increase exponentially. Before sprawl, our society was safe. After sprawl, our society fell apart.

Communities are what once held our nation together. The daily human contact and interpersonal connection in communities remain the most necessary components for keeping a society healthy and safe. But for over 50 years now, America's fragmented physical landscape has denied us the places where communities could develop. In sprawl there are no small towns, no main streets, no village greens. Without such places connecting people to one another and holding our country together, America has metamorphosed into a breeding ground for sociopaths.

Contrary to popular opinion, violence in America is not limited to inner cities. This reality was made tragically apparent by recent school shootings in suburban Colorado, Arkansas, Georgia, Oregon, Mississippi, Kentucky, and California. Without genuine communities to subdue dark fantasies, many more Americans are becoming serial killers. And they hunt where they were raised and where they still live: amid sprawl.

A serial killer is not born homicidal, nor does he become a monster overnight. These people are lucid, functioning members of society who look just like you or me. They are not clinically insane. Their criminal actions may be considered crazy, but in many cases they show no other signs of their psychopathology.

However, FBI agent Douglas asserts that serial killers do have one identifiable characteristic: They all come from "dysfunctional backgrounds." Two key factors contribute to the potential for family dysfunction: unwed mothers and divorce. In sprawl, where people are isolated from one another, an undue pressure is placed on the family unit. As a result of this, since sprawl's emergence in 1945, divorce rates have skyrocketed, so that now half of all marriages end in divorce. Births to unwed mothers have also increased, from under 5 percent to 31 percent between 1940 and 1993.

Sprawl, by unraveling the physical landscape and with it all of society, has created a fertile ground for families to break down, for dysfunction to surface, and for serial killers to emerge.

Communities make difference
Without strong communities in place to connect children from dysfunctional families to supportive adult role models-which, as Douglas asserts, would help dissuade them from predatory behavior-some of those who are predisposed toward violence will act on their frustration and rage. Alienated in sprawl, with only their fantasies for company, desperate to make some kind of connection to another person, these types of individuals act out by molesting, killing, or raping. They become predators just to connect with another human being, or to lash out at the society that made them.

Douglas' years of study of serial criminal behavior have led him to believe that if there is any hope of keeping people from becoming serial offenders, significant adult role models are needed during the formative years. But with over half of all marriages ending in divorce and with few genuine communities in place because of sprawl, where are children going to find the role models they need to become healthy adults?

"It takes a tremendous amount of work to socialize a small human being," says Shawn Johnston, a forensic psychologist in Sacramento and expert on adult and juvenile criminals. "To cultivate a sense of empathy for other human beings, to cultivate a sense of personal responsibility, is terribly hard." That effort is made infinitely more difficult amid sprawl.

Before sprawl existed, children could depend on the whole community to be here for support and guidance in the absence of a parental figure. According to Richard Curwin and Allen Mendler, authors of the book "As Tough As Necessary," "In past years, a child from a dysfunctional family had a good chance of being mentored by a caring adult from his or her community." Such opportunities are rare in sprawl.

Sound communities would diffuse the negative energies of their disturbed members and dissuade them from acting on their distorted fantasies. By being involved in others' lives on a regular basis, these individuals would also realize that each life has value, that other human beings are not just objects to satisfy their warped needs and desires.

Suburban sprawl has created an alienating environment, which in turn has spawned this crisis of serial killers in America. Certainly there are other factors at play in the breakdown of our society, but sprawl is quite literally the foundation upon which our country has been built since 1945. If our society is crumbling, we need to question the stability of its foundation.

Sprawl's connection to violence and serial predators may seem tenuous to some, but the statistics clearly suggest a link. Cause and effect would be difficult to prove in a court of law or to replicate in a double-blind scientific study. However, common sense indicates that the connection is there, and that sprawl plays a role in what ails our society. Until we face that reality, we will continue to be hunted by sociopaths such as the sniper. We ignore sprawl's impact at our peril.

Douglas E. Morris, president of 4D Publications Inc., is the author of the soon-to-be-published book "Sprawl is Killing America."

Effort to Blame Sniper on Suburbs is Clumsy Act of Fiction
By Ronald Utt

Doug Morris's attempt to link the sniper to suburbanization and sprawl was breath-taking in its audacity. Cynics of today's increasingly common effort to spin tragedy to political gain can be excused for wondering how quickly John Muhammad's crimes would be put in service of an unrelated cause. Morris answered that question last week: Less than 24 hours after the last victim is buried.

However self-serving Morris's efforts were, his thesis that suburbanization is the cause of many evils has become a common one of late, and follows similar efforts to link suburbs to obesity, asthma, Columbine, global warming, discount retailing, and evangelical Christianity. Morris joins this claque by arguing that the social shallowness of the suburbs fosters alienation, and this in turn leads to a rise in violence, of which snipers and serial killers are a part. As evidence he offers a number of relationships that have no basis in fact. Indeed, if the facts support anything, it is precisely the opposite thesis: suburbs promote a level of civility and safety unavailable in communities of higher population density - like cities.

Morris provides a target rich environment, so let's start with the sniper himself. Although Muhammad largely chose the suburbs as his killing ground, he was not of them. He was born in New Orleans, raised in Baton Rouge, and most recently lived in Tacoma. My geography book says these places are called cities, as is the Milwaukee of Jeffery Dahmer and the Chicago of John Wayne Gacey.

If the suburbs were the hot bed of social pathologies Morris contends, then we would expect much higher crime rates there. But we don't. What we see instead are much lower crimes rates -including murder rates -- than in cities. On one of the days that the city-bred sniper killed in the suburbs, three people in DC were murdered by firearms in separate instances. I doubt the perpetrators were alienated suburban teenagers at sixes and sevens because they buy their CDs at discount prices in a mall. Indeed, Mr. Morris can check FBI numbers and find there's not a suburb in America with a murder rate higher than its central city. In 2001, DC had 41 murders to 100,000 population, while Baltimore clocked in at 39. Montgomery County had only 2 per 100,000.

Morris makes much of the comparison between the U.S. and Europe, but his evidentiary connection is just as bogus. Granted, the murder rate in America is higher than Europe's, but counting all crimes, the European crime rate is higher than America's because of surging robberies, burglaries and assaults. In recent comparative crime rate calculations by London's Economist, the U.S. didn't even make it into the top twenty for theft or serious assaults.

Nonetheless, murder rates are lower there, and Morris attributes this difference to European housing patterns that in reality bear little relation to his description. If your knowledge of Europe is limited to Masterpiece Theater, Pink Panther movies and an occasional visit to the tourist-dependent central museum districts of leading cities, then you would be tempted to believe that most Europeans walk to opera and eat at family-owned bistros serving Coq au Vin. In fact, most Europeans live in suburbs far from the city center that are little different from America's except for the lower standard of living that yields smaller detached homes on smaller lots.

Comparative census findings show that the pace of European suburbanization and city-depletion is more advanced than here. During the 1990s, 85 percent of American cities with more than a 100,000 people actually gained population during the decade, and, amazingly, New York City, San Francisco, Miami and Oakland recorded the highest populations ever! No European country can match that performance, and the pace of urban abandonment there more than matches what we in America have experienced.

A quick tour of European demographic trends reveals that (Greater) London's population peaked in 1939, and nearly 9 million people live in its suburbs. Paris peaked in 1921, and 7.5 million live in its 'burbs. Glasgow, Scotland lost half its population since 1931. The Italian census just revealed that Italy's top nine cities all lost population in the 1990s in and trend that began in the 1970s. Much the same for Stockholm and Copenhagen, Tokyo and Osaka. All are now surrounded by suburbs like ours, right down to the Burger Kings, McDonalds and Pizza Huts.

In reading Morris's piece and in considering the facts contrary to his notions, connoisseurs of social pathologies may be tempted to ask another set of questions: What is it about city-living that induces such anger at the way others chose to live their life? What is it about my choice to live on a wooded lot amidst nature's blessings that so irritates Morris?

America's high, but declining, murder rate is a serious problem, and certainly in need of a sustained effort to understand and remedy it. But glib analysis and willful misuse of the tragedy to advance unrelated causes only distract from reaching that goal. It's a free country and Morris is entitled to hate the way I live, but blaming me and millions of others for Muhammad's crime undermines whatever credibility he had.

Dr. Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D. is the Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.


Ronald Utt
Ronald Utt

Visiting Fellow in Welfare Policy