Ecocentric

In Town vs. Country, It Turns Out That Cities Are the Safest Places to Live

A generation of movies have made us think that the American city is an inherently dangerous place. But a new study shows that you're more likely to die violently in the quiet countryside

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Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Public transit and the habit of walking help keeps New Yorkers healthier than their rural counterparts

I grew up in a Philadelphia suburb called Doylestown. Actually when my parents — Philadelphia natives — first moved there in the late 1970s, it barely qualified as a suburb; cornfields and dairy farms still filled the open land around the quaint Victorian town center. It was, I recognize now, a lovely place to be a kid, if incredibly boring during the actual process of growing up. But even then I knew it was one thing: safe. There was little violent crime to speak of, especially compared with the crumbling city my parents had left. Blood-soaked local newscasts during the 1980s made it seem as if murder were Philadelphia’s No. 1 product — and the City of Brotherly Love, where homicides peaked at 503 in 1990, was hardly alone in being seen by Americans as fundamentally unsafe. It was the underlying message of nearly every TV cop show and film thriller made through the 1980s and ’90s: The city is dangerous, and you’re lucky to get out alive.

Many of America’s cities have become much safer in the years since, for reasons that range from better policing to the slowdown of the crack epidemic of the 1980s to the removal of lead from the environment. Even in Philadelphia, where the economy is still struggling and population has never recovered from the urban flight of the 1970s and ’80s, there were 329 murders in 2012, down significantly from the worst years a couple of decades ago. Other cities have experienced even more astounding turnarounds: in New York City, where I live now, there were just 414 homicides in a city of 8.2 million, the lowest number in more than half a century. But those statistics aren’t convincing the country that cities are getting safer: a 2011 Gallup poll found that most Americans continue to believe that the nation’s crime rate is getting worse, even though there’s been a sharp and sustained drop in murders and other violent assaults since the mid-1990s. Perception — no doubt fueled in part by the media — beats reality.

But even with crime down, surely it’s still safer to live in the quiet countryside than it is in the city? It turns out that’s not true. According to a new study (PDF) published today in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, large cities in the U.S. are significantly safer than rural areas. The risk of injury death — which counts both violent crime and accidents — is more than 20% higher in the countryside than it is in large urban areas. “Perceptions have long existed that cities were innately more dangerous than areas outside of cities, but our study shows this is not the case,” said the lead author, Dr. Sage R. Myers of the University of Pennsylvania and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in a statement. Far from being violent death traps, a large city might just about be the safest place to live in the U.S.

(MORE: Get the Lead Out: Why the Best Way to Improve Health in Poor Countries Is to Clean Up Industrial Pollution)

Now it’s true that the risk of homicide is greater in big cities than it is in the countryside. But the study, which analyzed 1,295,919 deaths from injury between 1999 and 2006, found the rate of dying from an unintentional injury is over 15 times higher than that of homicide for the population as a whole. Whether you live in rural areas or the city, you’re much less likely to die from a gunshot wound — either from someone else or self-inflicted — than you are in a simple accident. Especially car crashes, which make up the bulk of unintentional injury deaths — motor-vehicle-injury-related deaths occurred at a rate that is more than 1.4 times higher than the next leading cause of death.

The study doesn’t attempt to explain why injury death is more common in rural areas than large urban ones, but some of the statistics are telling. The risk of firearm-related death showed no difference across the rural-urban spectrum for the population as a whole, but varied when divided up by age — firearm deaths were significantly higher for children and people ages 45 and older, while for people ages 20 to 44, the risk of firearm deaths were much higher in urban areas. I’d wager some of that comes down to differences in gun ownership: more households have firearms in rural areas than in urban ones, and sadly, too many gun owners keep their firearms where their children can reach them. The result can be tragic. At the same time, the bulk of victims killed by homicide are young men, according to FBI statistics. And they are more likely to be shot and killed in the cities.

But guns — whether used accidentally or with intent — are much less likely to be the cause of death than another tool: cars. And people drive more, drive longer, drive faster and drive drunker in rural areas than in urban ones, where they can walk or take public transit. Motor-vehicle crashes led to 27.61 deaths per 100,000 people in most rural areas, and just 10.58 deaths per 100,000 people. Those are stark statistics, and they don’t even take into account the cardiovascular benefits that may accrue to urbanites who spend more time walking than riding in cars. It’s not for nothing that New Yorkers, who live in the densest urban area in the U.S., live about 2.2 years longer than the national average.

Of course, not all cities are equally safe — Chicago has seen a terrifying rise in gun deaths in recent years, and there’s nothing safe about a bankrupt and broken city like Detroit, where it can take 58 minutes on average for police to answer a 911 call. (Even there most urban areas have an advantage, though — you’re likely to be much closer to the nearest hospital in a dense city than the spread-out countryside, and minutes matter when it comes to trauma.) But the numbers don’t lie — as scary as we may think urban crime is, the threats that are prevalent in rural areas are statistically more dangerous. We already know that the best way to shrink your carbon footprint is to move to a dense city. Now it turns out that it might be the best way to stay alive too.

MORE: Ranking North America’s Greenest Cities

27 comments
tynol10
tynol10

You're a lowlife for leaving Philly, a fantastic city for NY, a dump and a government leach.  You have no taste.  Doylestown is not a suburb of PHL.  Lansdale is.  Chalfont, just barely, but no farther.  Everything past Chalfont is not in the Philadelphia Metropoltan area.  Sorry..  Doylestown is the BOONIES in the middle of nowhere.

AaronHill
AaronHill

Hahahahaha.Why is everyone so worked up over an observation. I didn't see any "move to the city" lean here at all. If anything i think this article is just pointing out that perception of the city isn't exactly reality.

designosophy
designosophy

The distinction of city vs. rural is not really descriptive enough for determining where it's safest to live. There are so many parts of cities, and there are many types of non-city areas as well. Anecdotally, where I lived in Philadelphia for five years, there were multiple assaults, a murder, shootings, visible drug deals, constant car accidents, and very poor public transportation (It took an hour to get downtown by public transportation, but only 10 minutes by car). Oh, and our dog was attacked by a pit bull. For the lucky few who can afford to position their family in an affluent downtown area, there may be a statistical sense of safety, but this is a far cry from the majority of the city. Where we live now is suburban, but the same socio-economic strata. I've witnessed much less violence and crime. 

Furthermore, truly rural areas are going to have less access to emergency services than suburban or urban areas. I think that's the point of the study.

WHYSOLOUD
WHYSOLOUD

Did anyone click on the link and actually read this study before getting pissed off at this second hand account?  The study was commissioned by the Annual of Emergency Medicine with the purpose of gathering information regarding the current state of injury related deaths and what that might mean for people who, in a nutshell, allocate emergency resources.  It's not a question of "city/rural living is better" as everyone seems to be making it out to be.  The editor's summary conclusion for their audience is "although not directly relevant to clinical care, these data support improving access to trauma centers in rural areas, as well as continued violence prevention efforts in all locales."  If you think that message sounds a lot different than, "flock to the cities everybody! country living is for fools with a deathwish!" it's because it is a lot different.

Everyone speaking flaws in the study because of crime rate needs to cool down.  It's not measuring crime, it's measuring injury related deaths.

Want an example about what the study treats as a non-polarizing data point?  How about that the rate of firearm related deaths in the city is no different than the country.  In the city, it's mostly homicides of males between 20 and 44.  In the country its mostly accidents involving children and people over the age of 45.  The rates are comparable, the causes aren't.  Wonder why they don't care about the distinction between the two?  Because this is a study for the Annual of Emergency Medicine.  They just don't care why the person in front of them has a bullet in them, it's not relevant to what they were trying to measure.  They measure how often it happens so they can make an educated judgement about how they might improve quality of care.  The study isn't insulting your choice of lifestyle or even making implications as to which is more beneficial to society as whole.  It's simply stating that they wanted to measure the rate of injury related deaths between rural and urban areas, and this is what we found.


JamesYoung
JamesYoung

This study is flawed. Let's just agree that there are more auto related deaths outside the city limits. Let's also agree that within the city limits there is more of a chance to be murdered. Sooooo which is really "safer"? I'll take country living with the drunk drivers!

Adam_Smith
Adam_Smith

Cities have long made a great deal of economic sense. In particular, the very important advantages of the division of labor are magnified in cities where transportation costs are minimized and communication benefits from being conveniently spread over many modes including face to face conversation. It is actually a little hard to explain why cities have not been more prosperous than they have been.


eagle11772
eagle11772

Statistics don't lie.  Statisticians do.

UleNotknow
UleNotknow

"Perceptions have long existed that cities were innately more dangerous than areas outside of cities... " For good reason. Your "study" is flawed.

dannylow711
dannylow711

People's perception of danger from crime differs significantly from accidents. The statistics show that the danger from crime is higher in the cities than in the country. So from a human perspective, the country is still safer than the city. Crimes are committed by other people. Accidents are an act of God or the random viciousness of the universe if you do not believe. It is human nature to not perceive accidental deaths with the same dread as murder in a robbery. It is illogical but it is very human. Humans are not logical beings.

BillJamesJr
BillJamesJr

I think this study makes a lot of sense. Raw numbers are never going to be higher in the countryside because there are some many fewer people living there, but per capita I can see it. When you consider the fact that automobiles are the leading cause of death it makes it that much more clear. As the author said 'people drive more, drive longer, drive faster and drive drunker in rural areas than in urban ones' I never would have assumed this was the case, but it only confirms what I already felt...i love living in the city. 




fft200855
fft200855

What is the point of this article?  In the beginning the author calls the 503 murders in Philly in 1990 "homicides" then at the end he calls Chicago's current murders "gun deaths".  This article is merely a vehicle to tout urban existance over actually living in a rural area while taking swipes at firearms and those who own them, legally as well as criminal use.

jefnvk
jefnvk

"The study doesn’t attempt to explain why injury death is more common in rural areas than large urban ones, but some of the statistics are telling."


Then why the point of the article?  I can come up with many off the top of my head: farming, logging and fishing are relatively dangerous profession, not too much going on in the city.  People in rural areas tend to be involved in more risky leisure time activity (rafting, dirtbikes, rock climbing, hunting, camping in secluded places).  You car can go over 35MPH in the country.


Yes, your risk of dying in the country may be higher, but when I think about safety, I think about crime as a whole, not accidents.  Accidents are just that: accidents.  Crime is purposeful, and something that on a macro level you can prevent.  What are the crime rates in the city v. the country?  My guess is they are not even close.

JohnMcCarthy
JohnMcCarthy

Interesting and counter to what I had expected, but still not enough reason for me to head to the city.

Garzhad
Garzhad

Yet another pointless 'study'. Are they Actually trying to say that city-goers are Healthier? Get real. The few minutes you spend walking to and fro public transit are nothing compared to hours of outdoor games, sports and roughhousing that tends to go on in rural areas, and this isn't even factoring in the better air quality.

And you wanna reduce your carbon footprint? Well sugar, you arn't doing that in a city either. You really want to reduce it, you get a place in the countryside, get your own wind/solar power and go off the grid completely. Grow some of your own food. I've got a small vegetable plot that keeps me stocked for the entire growing season.

arv301
arv301

Also, rural America has a lower violent crime rate than Great Britian and Japan. This is even with all of the guns in rural America. I now live in a rural area and we don't all own guns, drive drunk and I really don't see a lot of people doing this. Most cities, outside of New York and Chicago, don't really have public transportation that the majority use. In Los Angeles, Dallas, etc most drive. Rural America lacks good health care, that is probably driving the statistics up.

arv301
arv301

" Chicago has seen a terrifying rise in gun deaths in recent years" Chicago did have a spike in murders last year, 500 up from about 450 the year before. But it had around 1000 murders in 1994. If you grew up in Chicago in the 70s and 80s and drive around Chicago today, it is very obvious that the city is much safer today!

eagle11772
eagle11772

Out of large cities, those with populations MORE THAN 1.5 million people, New York has the LOWEST rate of violent crime, and one of the LOWEST homicide rates in the U.S..

kathleenf
kathleenf

Very misleading story. Yeah, rural areas are more dangerous because we use tools and equipment that city people don't. All I saw in your story was how we drive drunk for miles when farm equipment is a greater hazard. And sure we have guns (shotguns more likely) because we have predation and porous boundaries with wildlife. One's chances of coming across a rabid fox or skunk is virtually zero in the city. We don't need guns for two leggers -a point your story missed.

And sure, one's carbon footprint may be lower in the city but again, we're bearing more of the load so that facile assumption isn't accurate either. Let's all move to the city... now who do you think is going to grow your food or fibers for your clothing?

tynol10
tynol10

@designosophy  But Philadelphia is a great city.  It has EXCELLENT Public trans, btw.  Move closer.  There's no way it took 10 mins by car and an hr by Rail.  Sorry, you're wrong sir.  They have fantastic system, if not the best in the country.  I mean, if you want poor public transit that is inefficient, Bankrupt, non multimodal, doesn't pay it's bills, and fails all inspections (Philly's system repairs a lot of their crap), then look no farther than NY.

JosephBuchanan
JosephBuchanan

@WHYSOLOUD At least the city folk are using the guns for their intended purpose. They should be lauded for blowing each other away deliberately rather than blowing themselves away accidentally.

AnthonyVito
AnthonyVito

@Garzhad You are listing exception type people. Typical "rural" Americans have much higher rates of obesity then city dwellers. So rural residents on average are _not_ spending hours outside enjoying the country side. They are in front of the TV. City dwellers often find it's easier and faster to walk a mile to the store, or shop, or bar, than to drive. Couple miles here and there during the week, adds up quick.


Again with carbon footprint you have listed an "exceptional" situation. One where someone builds an off the grid house, and grows some food. This is not typical. Typical rural livers use fossil fuels, are obese ( apparently ) and don't grow their own vegetables( or probably eat any vegetables.) Their energy use is greater due to the higher likely hood of a separate house vs apartment building(cooling and heating energy) and the additional miles driven in a vehicle.

eagle11772
eagle11772

@tynol10.  You're wrong.  You're either honestly mistaken, or lying.  Which is it ?  Look it up.  There are many up-to-date references readily available to check.  Chicago (so-called home of The Obamanaic and Rahm Emmanual) has now, and has had for years, a homicide rate QUADRUPLE that of New York's homicide rate.  Look at the number of homicides in New York and Chicago on their respective official crime stats sites that both cities maintain.