Life in metropolitan areas
A profile of perceptions of incivility in the metropolitan landscape
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by Leslie-Anne Keown
What you should know about this study
Large majority of residents do not report incivility in their neighbourhoods
Physical incivility is not a large problem for most metropolitan residents
Social incivility is seen as a problem by 1 in 5 metropolitan residents
Areas of high housing density perceive a higher level of incivility
What is a threshold effect and why does it matter?
People living in close proximity to the city centre are more likely to perceive incivility
Rates of perceived incivility are two to four times higher in predominantly urban than predominantly suburban neighbourhoods
Few things grab headlines and invoke public concern like the issue of crime in our neighbourhoods. Although few of us may have experienced a serious crime or even have seen one being committed, we are very aware of the "signs of crime" around us. These "signs of crime," which criminologists often call incivility, range from evidence of drug dealing and drug use to garbage littering the area.1,2,3,4,5
These incivilities remind us that crime might be all around us and could potentially intrude into our lives. For instance, garbage and litter strewn on the streets may serve as an indication that an area is not well cared for and that it may encourage illegal activities like drug dealing; as such, the place may seem threatening and increase our concern for our safety. When they become sufficiently uneasy about incivilities like littering, rowdiness, drug use and public drinking, people may feel that their neighbourhoods are unsafe. If this opinion lingers over time, residents may move away or change their behaviour—stay home at night, avoid certain areas and refuse to use public transit – in ways that can change the rhythm of life in the whole community.6
A person's perceptions of incivility in their local area arise from a constellation of influences, including personal experience, the tone of media reports about the "crime" problem in the city and/or neighbourhood, and the anecdotes recounted by significant people in the person's life.
Regardless of their origin, these perceptions play a central role in fear of crime and, subsequently, in citizens' demands that government and criminal justice institutions solve the "crime problem", particularly at a local level.7,8,9,10 Community policing and similar policing strategies are often directly focused on reducing incivility in order to alter residents' perceptions of their neighbourhoods, thereby increasing their feelings of safety and security.11,12
However, little is known about the prevalence of these perceptions in Canadian neighbourhoods. This article uses data from the 2004 General Social Survey (GSS) on victimization to discuss the types of incivilities Canadians in the 12 largest Census Metropolitan Areas identify as the biggest problems in the neighbourhood where they live. It also examines whether these perceptions vary by type of neighbourhood.
This article is based on data collected by the 2004 General Social Survey (GSS). The GSS is an annual survey that monitors changes and emerging trends in Canadian society. In 2004, Cycle 18 of the GSS on victimization collected information on Canadians' experience of victimization, and public attitudes towards crime, police, courts, prison and parole.
The target population of the 2004 GSS included all people aged 15 and over. Data were collected each month from January to December 2004. Over this period, approximately 24,000 individuals were successfully interviewed. This article uses only respondents who resided in the 12 largest Census Metropolitan Areas (CMAs). The analytic sample was composed of over 11,000 respondents representing approximately 13.9 million Canadians.
Although there is some variation in reported levels of physical and social incivility between CMAs, this article focuses on the overall patterns observed rather than differences between cities. Inter-city variation can be explained by factors such as cultural tolerance for deviance, diversity of building and construction histories, and other intangible elements not captured by household surveys.
Physical incivility: This article considers two 2004 GSS questions that address physical incivility:
"How much of a problem are…"
… garbage or litter lying around?
…vandalism, graffiti and other deliberate damage to property or vehicles?
Respondents who answered "A very big problem" or "A fairly big problem" to either question were defined as perceiving physical incivility to be a problem in their neighbourhood. (Those who replied "Not a very big problem" or "Not a problem at all" were defined as perceiving no physical incivility in their neighbourhood.)
Social incivility: Similarly, six questions address social incivility:
"How much of a problem are…"
... noisy neighbours or loud parties?
... people hanging around on the streets?
... people sleeping on the streets or in other public places?
... people using or dealing drugs?
... people being drunk or rowdy in public places?
As with physical incivility, those respondents who answered "A very big problem" or "A fairly big problem" to any question were defined as perceiving social incivility to be a problem in their neighbourhood.
Census Metropolitan Area ( CMA ): A CM6A is an area consisting of one or more adjacent municipalities situated around a major urban core. A CMA must have a population of at least 100,000, and the urban core must have a population of at least 50,000. The term CMA is used interchangeably with "city" in this article.
City: All references specific to a city or cities in this article refer to the CMA of the same name.
Predominantly urban: Predominantly urban neighbourhoods are census tracts located close to the city centre (less than 5 kilometres from the city centre) and having high-density housing.
Predominantly suburban: Predominantly suburban neighbourhoods are census tracts located in peripheral areas (15 kilometres or more from the city centre) and having low-density housing.
In this study, the city centre is the census tract that contains the city hall of the central municipality; hence, the distance from the city centre is the distance between the neighbourhood of residence and the census tract containing the central municipality's city centre. Central neighbourhoods are neighbourhoods that are less than 5 kilometres from the city centre. Other neighbourhoods are referred to as either mid-city or peripheral neighbourhoods, and are differentiated by their distance from the city centre; for example, neighbourhoods that are between 5 and 15 kilometres from the city centre are regarded as part of the mid-city.
Neighbourhood density is based on the type of dwellings the neighbourhood contains. Low-density neighbourhoods contain single and semi-detached dwellings and mobile homes. Such dwellings are considered to be traditional suburban dwellings. Specifically, low-density neighbourhoods are neighbourhoods in which at least 66.6% of the dwellings are traditional suburban dwellings. High-density neighbourhoods are essentially composed of apartment and condominium buildings (whether high-rise or low-rise) and row houses. Such dwellings are characteristic of traditional urban neighbourhoods. High-density neighbourhoods are neighbourhoods in which less than 33.3% of the dwellings are traditional suburban dwellings. Medium-density neighbourhoods are characterized by mid-level concentrations of 33.3% to 66.6% traditional suburban dwellings.
• For more details on how these criteria were defined, see "The city/suburb contrast: How can we measure it?" in Canadian Social Trends, no. 85.
Overall, people believe that the metropolitan landscape in their city is civil. Three-quarters of Canadians aged 15 and over (75%) living in the 12 largest Census Metropolitan Areas (CMAs) said they felt there were no problems with incivility in their particular neighbourhoods. Only one in four residents reported that they believed some type of incivility was causing problems in the area where they lived. However, this overview masks substantial variation in perceptions of incivility in each CMA: there is a wide continuum of perception among the 12 CMAs and, as we shall see, even within CMAs themselves.
Researchers generally divide incivility into two types—physical and social. Physical incivility is defined to exist when people believe that conditions such as excessive litter, abandoned buildings, graffiti, vandalism, and vacant lots constitute a problem in the area where they live. (Social incivility is discussed in the next section.)
To address issues of physical incivility, the 2004 GSS asked respondents to describe the extent of problems in their neighbourhood with (1) garbage or litter lying around, and (2) vandalism, graffiti and other deliberate damage to property or vehicles. Respondents who replied it was "A very big/A fairly big problem" were defined as perceiving physical incivility to exist. (See "What you should know about this study" for a complete description.)
Overall, 9% of residents living in Canada's 12 largest CMAs perceived garbage or litter lying around to be a problem in their neighbourhood (Table 1). However, not all CMAs reported similar rates. While 4% of residents in the CMA of Québec City observed a problem with garbage and litter, 11% to 12% of residents in the CMAs of Hamilton, Regina, and Montréal indicated they had the same problem.
Over one in six residents of Canada's 12 largest CMAs perceive physical incivility to be a problem in their neighbourhood
Just over one in ten (11%) Canadians in the 12 CMAs described vandalism and graffiti as a problem in the community where they lived. Québec City once again had the lowest rate (6%), while Winnipeg and Regina reported much higher levels of concern, with 17% of residents perceiving a problem.
A clearer picture emerges when physical incivility in general is examined. Overall, 16% of residents in the 12 CMAs described at least one type of physical disorder as a problem. In most CMAs, the proportion of residents who felt that way about their neighbourhoods fell within a range of 12% to 20%. However, two exceptions are notable. The lowest level of perceived problems with physical incivility was reported in Québec City (8%); the highest level was in Regina, where 23% of residents said they felt there was a problem with at least one type of physical incivility.
Therefore, while about one in six individuals living in Canada's 12 largest CMAs observed a problem with physical incivility in their neighbourhood, there is variability in the levels reported. These differences are not easily explained. Of course, each individual CMA has its own unique character and thus a multitude of factors are likely to be at play here, including levels of tolerance for specific behaviours (see "What is a threshold effect and why does it matter?" for a discussion of tolerance). Differences between CMAs in terms of their architecture, climate, demographic make-up and infra-structure create a vast array of urban landscapes that will influence perceptions of incivility, and the effects of these unique identities are not easily captured.13,14,15
The second type of incivility that residents may report as a problem is social incivility. Social incivility includes the perception that disruptive behaviour such as inconsiderate and noisy neighbours, drunks, drug use and drug dealing, and homelessness are a problem in one's neighbourhood.16,17,18
This study considers six types of social incivility that residents perceive to be a problem in their neighbourhood. Based on the 2004 GSS interview, they are: (1) noisy neighbours and /or loud parties; (2) people hanging around; (3) people sleeping on the streets; (4) people using or dealing drugs; (5) people being rowdy and/or drunk in public places; and (6) prostitution. (See "What you should know about this study" for a complete description.)
These behaviours have been widely used by criminologists to measure social incivilities that reflect the "signs of crime" visible in public places such as parks, boulevards, bus stops, malls, and so on. It is perceptions of social incivility in these shared spaces that are thought to be principal contributors to citizens' feelings of insecurity and fear of crime.19,20
One in five metropolitan residents perceived at least one type of social incivility to be a problem in their neighbourhood (Table 2). However, this varied considerably by CMA. In Québec City, Hamilton, Winnipeg, Regina, and Calgary, about one in six inhabitants observed social incivility. Ottawa/Gatineau, Toronto, Saskatoon, and Edmonton had a slightly higher rate, with approximately one in five residents reporting at least one problem. The CMAs having the highest rates of perceived social incivility—with one in four residents observing a problem where they lived—were Halifax, Montréal, and Vancouver.
In all 12 CMAs (except Regina), using and dealing drugs was most commonly perceived to be a problem, with between 9% and 19% of residents reporting that they thought there was a drug problem in their local area. The types of social incivility least often observed were prostitution and people sleeping on the streets, at less than 5%. The exception is Vancouver, where between 6% and 8% of residents described at least one of these behaviours as causing a problem in the community where they lived.
One in five residents report that at least one type of behaviour creates a problem with social incivility in their neighbourhood
Although the differences between different large CMAs are interesting, the picture is incomplete. Incivility is asked about at the neighbourhood level and therefore, to truly understand how levels of incivility vary throughout cities, it is necessary to explore different localities within CMAs.
In an article published in the January 2008 issue of Canadian Social Trends, Martin Turcotte showed that both density of housing and distance from city hall capture vital aspects of neighbourhoods within cities.21,22 Using Turcotte's geographic system allows us to examine two archetypes of city neighbourhoods—predominantly urban environments and predominantly suburban environments—and the relationship between these archetypes and perceptions of incivility.
We now turn our attention to Montréal, Toronto, and Vancouver to examine the relationship between neighbourhood type and perceptions of incivility. (Only these three CMAs have sufficiently large sample sizes to make an examination of incivility by urban/suburban characteristics possible.)
The first types of neighbourhoods examined in the metropolitan landscape are characterized by housing density. "Area of high-density housing" is really short-hand for "large numbers of people living in a small geographic space." This type of neighbourhood is thought to have two main influences on perceptions of incivility. First, the presence of large numbers of strangers and the wide array and number of interactions that occur in high-density areas could increase the likelihood of residents observing disruptive behaviour. Second, and paradoxically counteracting this potential increase in perceived incivility, residents may have a tolerance for diverse behaviours. Thus, in order for drunkenness, as an example, to be seen as a problem, a greater number of events of greater severity would be needed to push past residents' acceptance of "usual" drunken behaviour and increase their sensitivity to public drunkenness as a neighbourhood problem. In contrast, people living in an area of low housing density could see even a single rowdy stranger as a neighbourhood problem because strangers and disruptive behaviour are more noticeable and alarming when they are out-of-the-ordinary events in a specific locale.23,24,25 These differing perceptions of what constitutes unacceptable or disruptive behaviour, depending on the location in which it is encountered, could be called a threshold effect. (See "What is a threshold effect and why does it matter?" for a discussion of tolerance.)
Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver all show a similar pattern of perceived incivility in relation to housing density: that is, perceptions of both physical and social incivility rise as housing density increases (Table 3). In areas of low housing density such as suburbs in Toronto, for example, 15% of residents perceived that social incivility was a local problem. However, in areas of high housing density, more than double that proportion of residents (34%) observed a problem. This pattern suggests that the presence of strangers and range of behaviours perceived to be posing a problem is much greater in areas of high housing density, in spite of the threshold effect.
Individuals have different tolerances for a variety of behaviours, and the level of tolerance one has for a behaviour before it becomes a problem can vary by circumstance. For instance, the threshold where loud music becomes irritating to a parent is probably much lower than the threshold for a teenager. Thus, parents will generally perceive loud music to be a problem long before their teenager will. Furthermore, the point at which it becomes unacceptable to a parent may be lower in the late evening than in the early afternoon.
Perceptions of incivility are thought to operate in a similar manner and this influence is called the "threshold effect." In central neighbourhoods, people "hanging out" may be an ordinary sight and so not be seen as a difficulty; but in a suburb, seeing the same behaviour may signal a very significant problem to the observer. However, even in the downtown area, observing people hanging out on the street continually, or in unusual circumstances, may mean that the behaviour is then considered problematic.
Thus, threshold effects are important because they help us to understand that the perception of something as a problem is not merely contingent on the number or frequency of incivil behaviours being observed, but is also connected to individual personality, locality, and time of day. Furthermore, it is important that the respondent reports behaviours that occurred in a specific location. The GSS does specify incivil behaviour observed in the respondent's neighbourhood, thereby providing the respondent with a clear frame of reference when answering the question.
Innes, M. (2004). Signal crimes and signal disorders: Notes on deviance as communicative action. The British Journal of Sociology, 55(3): 335-355.
Regoeczi, W. (2002). The impact of density: The importance of non-linearity and selection on flight and fight responses. Social Forces, 81(2):505-530.
Sampson, R. J., and Raudenbush, S. W. (2004). Seeing disorder: Neighbourhood stigma and the social construction of "broken windows". Social Psychology Quarterly, 67(4), 319-342.
Often, the high housing density associated with strangers, diverse unwelcome behaviours and social or physical incivility is linked to physical distance from the city centre. Residents of neighbourhoods near the city centre may observe more "signs of crime" than those who reside in more peripheral areas.
While we might expect outlying areas to have less tolerance for specific behaviours than central areas, the pattern in perceptions of incivility in all three CMAs is the same as that seen for housing density: the highest rates are reported in central neighbourhoods and the lowest in peripheral areas at least 15 kilometres from the city centre. For instance, in Vancouver 39% of residents living close to the city centre described a neighbourhood problem with physical incivility, compared to only 16% of those living in peripheral neighbourhoods, despite any influence that the threshold effect may be having.
Rates of perceived incivility are two to four times higher in predominantly urban than predominantly suburban neighbourhoods
As interesting as these patterns of perceived incivility are, the real contrast can be seen when housing density and distance from the city centre are used together. Combining these two measures allows us to consider two ideal types or archetypes of the contemporary urban landscape: 1) predominantly urban landscapes, which are characterized by high-density housing in the centre of the city; and 2) predominantly suburban landscapes, which are characterized by low-density housing in the most peripheral areas of the city.
In the predominantly urban neighbourhoods of the CMAs of Montréal, Toronto, and Vancouver, residents are two to four times more likely to report a problem with incivility in their local area than those in predominantly suburban areas. This is true regardless of the type of incivility. For instance, in Montréal, 13% of suburban residents cited a problem with at least one type of social incivility in their local area, compared to 43% of Montrealers living in a predominantly urban environment.
Table 3a & 3b
Perceptions of physical incivility are significantly higher in city central neighbourhoods…
… Similarly, social incivility is more commonly reported in central neighbourhoods
This variation between predominantly urban and suburban neighbourhoods is more thoroughly understood when we consider whether both physical and social incivility are perceived as problems, if only one is reported to be a problem, or if neither is deemed troublesome.
First, in all three CMAs, 80% or more of residents of the predominantly suburban landscape perceive no local problems with incivility (Table 4). In contrast, 47% of people in predominantly urban landscapes do not perceive problems with incivility.
Compared to people living in central neighbourhoods, residents of peripheral neighbourhoods are 20% to 30% less likely to report that incivility is a problem
A similar pattern is revealed when we shift our attention to those residents who perceive problems with both physical and social incivility. In predominantly suburban environments, between 4% and 8% of residents observed both types of incivility. In contrast, in predominantly urban neighbourhoods, 25% to 37% of residents complained of problems with both types of incivility. Clearly, predominantly urban and predominantly suburban landscapes are very different places with respect to their residents' perceptions and experiences of incivility in their day-to-day lives.
Thus, in spite of the threshold effect, residents of urban neighbourhoods in Canada experience a social environment quite unlike that of their fellow citizens living in suburbs. This contrast in experience suggests that researchers need to continue exploring these disparate metropolitan landscapes, while clearly recognizing that they are also distinct social environments.
For most residents of Canada's large cities, problems with either social or physical incivility in local neighbourhoods are absent. However, the proportion of residents reporting a problem does vary considerably among CMAs and by type of incivility. In general, residents of Canada's 12 largest CMAs more often reported that social incivility rather than physical incivility was a problem. However, results do vary greatly by CMA.
Clearer patterns were discovered when the urban landscape of Canada's three largest cities (Montréal, Toronto, and Vancouver) was taken into account. In these CMAs, residents of areas with high housing density or near the city centre reported more problems with incivility in their neighbourhoods than those living in other parts of the metropolitan landscape. The sharpest contrasts were seen between predominantly urban and predominantly suburban neighbourhoods.
The vast majority of residents living in a predominantly suburban landscape perceived their neighbourhoods had no problems with either physical or social incivility. This was true of less than half of those living in predominantly urban landscapes.
Though residents of individual cities describe different experiences with incivility, the true contrast is between those who live in a predominantly urban environment versus a predominantly suburban environment. Perceptions of incivility in Canada are heavily influenced by place of residence in the metropolitan area, and these differences appear to reflect the character of archetypal urban environments rather than individual metropolitan areas.
Leslie-Anne Keown is a social science researcher with Canadian Social Trends.
Comparison matrix between CMAs showing percentage point difference between individual CMAs, Physical Incivility
Comparison matrix between CMAs showing percentage point difference between individual CMAs, Social Incivility
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