Mapping Vancouver Crime – Part 1

[Editor’s Note: The relationship between crime and urban form is an important, but under-discussed, phenomenon. As such, it is our pleasure to give the Spacing Vancouver readers a three-part series by contributor Ian Lowrie who is attempting to looking at Vancouver crime patterns.]

Living in Vancouver I always believed the city to be a mostly safe place. Even the “rougher” parts of town never gave me much trouble with a little common sense, and as long as I wasn’t a targeted gang member eating at a downtown steakhouse, I have usually felt safe.

This is why I was surprised to see Vancouver ranked so high on Maclean’s magazine round up of the most dangerous Canadian cities. Not only are the highest national crime rates coming from cities in the west of the country, but Vancouver proper is ranked at an intimidating 18, which is well above other major metropolitans like Toronto at 52 and Ottawa at 74. The rankings are based on six criminal offences: aggravated assault, robbery, homicide, breaking and entering, auto theft and sexual assault.

I recommend taking a look at Maclean’s interactive crime map of Canada for the full comparison.

In 2010 I became interested in mapping Vancouver crime as a means of learning about the spatial qualities that contribute to criminal activity. Admittedly, I began the exercise with the naïve perception that the most dangerous things in this city are loose granola on bike paths and closing Skytrain doors. However, I was quick to learn that behind the Cascadian zeal of group hugs and Ecotopia is a backstory of dark urban crime.

The crime maps I’ve created are based on the Vancouver Police Department’s weekly released data on occurrences of theft from vehicle, grand theft auto, and commercial and residential break and entering between January and July 2009.

Commercial break-and-enter spatial distrribution between January and July 2009.

 

Residential break-and-enter spatial distrribution between January and July 2009.

 

Stolen automobile locations between January and July 2009.

 

Theft from auto locations between January and July 2009.

 

It is interesting to examine the most heavily affected areas and conversely the least affected. When comparing the crime maps with additional information we can begin to see more complex spatial patterns emerge.  Density is the most evident parallel data set worth comparing, and there is little doubt that denser pockets of Vancouver are hardest hit by crime.

Residential break-and-enter vs population density (Census 2006, courtesy of the City of Vancouver).).

Furthermore, layering the maps with topographic contours shows higher elevations of the city seemingly more immune to criminal activity. Notably, the Westside neighbourhoods of Dunbar, Shaughnessy, and Point Grey appear less affected by crime. One could argue that affluence increases with altitude and with that comes a greater priority for security. Without diverting to generalizations, the question of height vs. crime remains a fascinating one.

Residential break-and-enter locations elevation contours.

In part two of Mapping Vancouver Crime look for a change in scale as we zoom in on some of the biggest bruises on the citywide maps and look for more spatial patterns.

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Web sources:

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Ian Lowrie is a member of studioCAMP. He holds a Bachelor of Environmental Design degree from the University of British Columbia.

4 comments

  1. “…there is little doubt that denser pockets of Vancouver are hardest hit by crime.”

    Spatially, yes, but in terms of population, well, your analysis doesn’t yet tell us.  Can you produce a rate by dividing incidents by the relevant population (number of businesses, dwelling units, and registered vehicles)?  There’s more crime in denser areas for the simple fact that there are more businesses/residences/vehicles to steal from.  But is there actually more crime proportionally?  Can you tell us in which neighbourhoods a business/residence/vehicle is more likely to be stolen?  What’s the rate?  Good start, but please tighten up!

    As for the topography, you’re not moving to a generalization – you’re suspecting causality where the evidence only indicates correlation.  There’s a great XKCD on this topic.

  2.  It would be great to see the same maps, adjusted for population density, or for density of the potential targets of crime. The spatial distribution of crime is obviously important to the police, as it may suggest where to allocate patrol cars and so on. An individual citizen or business owner would be more concerned with their risk. I’m looking at the West End, there, and its shading suggests a moderately high level of residential break-ins. But the West End has several times the population density of nearly anywhere else in Vancouver. The risk of a break-in may well be lower, not higher, than in other areas. Similarly, if an area with a hundred parked cars sees ten car thefts per year, a driver is taking a considerable risk parking there. An area of the same size with ten thousand parked cars and a hundred thefts per year would show up on these maps as much riskier, when in fact the risk is one-tenth as high.

    Also, I’m a bit puzzled by the apparent spatial resolution. It looks as though the maps are shaded by individual blocks. Is there really enough crime to make that statistically meaningful? The map seems to suggest that every block gets at least a few residential break-ins a year, even in neighbourhoods with maybe forty houses per block. That sounds way too high to me. But perhaps the shading has been smoothed in some way? I’m just suspicious about the level of detail—if it’s really per-block, I’d expect to see a lot more anomalous high- and low-points, just by chance.

  3. Question: These are crime incidence maps, am I correct? Or are they crime rate maps, as in, are they adjusted for population. It’s a big difference, because while a dense area might have a higher number of crimes take place within it, you may at the same time be less likely to be a victim of crime in a dense area due to the higher population. 

    When people don’t carefully present the data, it comes across that dense areas are more dangerous, which isn’t the case, it’s just there are more people living there. 

  4. Thanks for the comments so far.

    To offer some clarification, the maps in Part 1 show intensities based off of crime incidents. In other words, the colouring radiates outwards from each incident location and therefore paints an overall picture of where crime is happening in the city.

    The intensities are not measured against population density and are not intended to highlight the most dangerous neighbourhoods of Vancouver but are instead a starting point for zooming in on specific spaces where multiple incidents have occurred. This will be explored further in Part 2.

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