The Wild West versus Gangs of New York
May 28, 2014 8:13 AM   Subscribe

On a per capita basis, have urban areas always been more violent than rural areas?

Nowadays, urban crime rates far exceed those of rural areas. (Rates commonly calculated as per 100,000 population) Has that always been the case? If not, when did it change? For example, anecdotally, I've read about the dangers of traveling the countryside in medieval England. But was London safer? Was there a time in which the safeness switched? Was the wild west safer than living in an urban area in 19th century America? Have studies looked at this? Rather than specific instances (one really safe city, an example of a lawless frontier), I'm interested in general trends.
posted by dances_with_sneetches to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Concentration of poverty, social disruption, and a lack of support services are greater contributors to crime than simply the urban/rural divide. For instance, in Canada, the violent crime rate on many First Nations reservations and in small communities in the Arctic are much higher than in its cities. Inuvik (population ~3000) has ten times the violent crime rate of Toronto.
posted by northernish at 9:04 AM on May 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

My guess is that there would not have been a meaningful divide in levels of violence before the social and economic forces of the modern era brought masses of people crowding into cities. So, circa 1600, let's say? Prior to that, rural areas were probably denser than what we expect today, and cities were certainly much less crowded. And, furthermore, less anonymous, less associated with the urban poor, etc.

The eighteenth century is about the time when the social narrative of "the mob" became prevalent. You might also like to read about the British Gin Craze.
posted by Sara C. at 9:50 AM on May 28, 2014

I think it would be difficult to quantify this very far into the past simply because record keeping about such things wasn't comprehensive.

There are a lot of places even now where records of such things are not kept. (How many violent attacks are there per-capita in Somalia right now? Who the hell knows?)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:54 AM on May 28, 2014

Nowadays, urban crime rates far exceed those of rural areas

Absolutely, positively not the case in Canada. As nothernlight just mentioned, murder (among other violent crime) rates on native reserves is outrageously higher than in cities. In general, CMA rates of murder are around 5% lower than non-CMA rates. But again this is desperately skewed by on-reserve rates. First Nations Canadians are 3% of the population but 23% of its murderers and 17% of its murder victims. Of course we have massive urban Native populations (in the west at least- Regina is almost 20% Native; 11% of Winnipeg is, by far the highest among major cities), but 40% live on reserves.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 11:02 AM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here in Denmark, crime rates are at a tipping point, where per capita crime in the rural areas is about the same as in urban areas, and the trend is heading at more crime in rural areas. Unlike the Canadian examples mentioned above, there is actually an ethnic levelling going on here. While urban crime is dominated by non-european immigrants, rural and suburban crime is dominated by local criminals along with European bands of criminals. (Locals doing the drug- and prostitution thing, other Euros doing the robberies...)
Well, I suppose my point is that there are no easily made assumptions in this field of knowledge.
posted by mumimor at 1:40 PM on May 28, 2014

Thanks for your perspectives but to some extent these are looking at exceptions: the First Nation in Canada. In Denmark, implicit in the post is the notion that it is tipping the other way. In the US it is tipping the other way. As an example, by the measurement of percentage of population living in small cities or rural areas, Vermont is the most rural state in the United States. In the last 20 years it has experienced a 19% increase in violent crime, the sixth largest increase among states over a time period when violent crime has declined drastically (-48%). Over the same time period, New Jersey, the most urbanized state, has experienced a 53% decrease in violent crime, the fifth best performance among states. However, in terms of absolute numbers, Vermont is the safest state, while New Jersey ranks 31st.

These are not isolated incidents, rather they are descriptive of current trends. I was hoping to run into that historical expert who might know something of this. Although accurate records have not been kept until recently, I imagine someone has tried to estimate rates from previous centuries.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:05 AM on May 29, 2014

Looking through Canadian statistics, murder rates are higher in rural areas, but not by much, and most other crimes are higher in small urban or large urban centers (homicide rate 2.0 per 100,000 big city, 2.5 for rural areas). Furthermore, confusing the picture "Most reserves are classified as rural, although some do fall in either small urban or large urban categories."
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:31 AM on May 30, 2014

I haven't read it yet, but I wonder if The Better Angels of Our Nature might have some answers for you. It's about the decline in violence generally (over millenia), but it looks like it might have some urban/rural specifics.
posted by kristi at 10:02 AM on May 30, 2014

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