Assessing the Differential Impact of Vacancy on Criminal Violence in the City of St. Louis, MO

Date01 June 2021
Published date01 June 2021
Subject MatterArticles
CJR996795 156..172 Article
Criminal Justice Review
2021, Vol. 46(2) 156-172
Assessing the Differential
ª 2021 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
Impact of Vacancy on
DOI: 10.1177/0734016821996795
Criminal Violence in the City
of St. Louis, MO

Branson Fox1, Anne Trolard1, Mason Simmons1,
Jessica E. Meyers2, and Matt Vogel3

This study employs risk terrain modeling to identify the spatial correlates of aggravated assault and
homicide in St. Louis, MO. We build upon the empirical literature by (1) replicating recent research
examining the role of vacancy in the concentration of criminal violence and (2) examining whether
the environmental correlates of violence vary between north and south St. Louis, a boundary that
has long divided the city along racial and socioeconomic lines. Our results indicate that vacancy
presents a strong, consistent risk for both homicide and aggravated assault and that this pattern
emerges most clearly in the northern part of the city which is majority African American and has
suffered chronic disinvestment. The concentration of criminal violence in South City is driven pri-
marily by public hubs including housing, transportation, and schools. Our results underscore the
importance of vacancy as a driver of the spatial concentration of violent crime and point to potential
heterogeneity in risk terrain modeling results when applied to large metropolitan areas. Situational
crime prevention strategies would be well served to consider such spatial contingencies as the risk
factors driving violent crime are neither uniformly distributed across space nor uniform in their
impact on criminal violence.
GIS, risk, violence, vacancy, modeling
Empirical research demonstrates that levels of interpersonal violence are not evenly distributed
across urban areas. Crime rates vary substantially from neighborhood to neighborhood, even from
street to street within the same neighborhood (Weisburd et al., 2012). There is general consensus that
1 The Institute for Public Health, Washington University in St. Louis, MO, USA
2 Saint Louis Area Violence Prevention Commission, MO, USA
3 School of Criminal Justice, University at Albany, State University of New York, Albany, NY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Branson Fox, Institute for Public Health, Washington University in St. Louis, 660 South Euclid Avenue, CB 8217, St. Louis,
MO 63130, USA.

Fox et al.
the spatial concentration of urban violence is intricately linked to the socioeconomic composition of
an area and features of the local built environment (see Vogel & Messner, 2019, for a recent review).
A growing body of research highlights the ways in which micro-places—often conceptualized as
street segments or addresses—affect the spatial concentration of crime. A common observation is
that approximately 5% of all addresses in a city account for 50% of all crime (Weisburd, 2015).
Research in this area often focuses on identifying features of the built environment that either
generate or attract crime (Brantingham & Brantingham, 1993). Indeed, the literature is replete with
studies demonstrating the role that bars, parks, and entertainment venues play in crime
While there has been some recognition that the factors driving the spatial distribution of violence
vary from city to city, considerably less attention has focused on the differential impact of these
features within urban areas. This is an important oversight. After all, elements of the local environ-
ment that attract and generate crime are not uniformly distributed across cities. Nor is there a good
reason to suspect that their influence on crime will be uniform across places. For instance, a night-
club might provide greater opportunity for interpersonal conflict in a poorly regulated downtown
neighborhood than in a highly regulated college neighborhood. Most American cities are character-
ized by some degree of segregation: Resources, public investment, and local facilities are often
disproportionately distributed along racial and socioeconomic lines. It follows that the factors
driving interpersonal violence in certain areas of cities differ both in concentration and influence
from other areas.
The current study builds upon and moves beyond the empirical literature in two key regards.
First, we employ risk terrain models to examine how vacancy, a crime attractor implicated in recent
research, contributes to the spatial concentration of homicides and aggravated assaults in the city of
St. Louis, MO. In this effort, we answer recent calls to address the dearth of replication studies in the
discipline (Pridemore et al., 2018; Savolainen & Van Eseltine, 2018) and further develop the nascent
understanding of the relationship between vacancy and crime. Second, we extend prior research by
examining whether the influence of vacancy on interpersonal violence varies between North and
South St. Louis, long divided along racial and socioeconomic lines. Our results largely confirm the
importance of vacancy in the spatial concentration of interpersonal violence in North St. Louis,
replicating findings from studies conducted in Akron, OH, and Baton Rouge, LA (Porter et al., 2019;
Valasik et al., 2019). The spatial concentration of criminal violence in South City is more strongly
linked to points of travel, such as light rail stations and gas stations, and public hubs, such as housing
and schools.
Literature Review
Environmental Criminology
Environmental criminology posits that criminal decision making is influenced in large part by
environmental context (Bernasco & Luykx, 2003). With theoretical roots dating back to the
mid-1850s, the original application of environmental criminology came in the form of Park and
Burgess’s concentric zone theory of urban expansion (1925). Shaw and McKay’s (1942) observation
that (1) rates of juvenile delinquency clustered in areas characterized by high levels of residential
turnover, ethnic heterogeneity, and socioeconomic disadvantage and (2) these trends remained
relatively stable over time, provided some of the earliest evidence that characteristics of places,
above and beyond the characteristics of the people living within, were consequential for understand-
ing the concentration of crime within cities.
Contemporary explanations for the spatial distribution of urban crime coalesce around three
complementary perspectives: routine activity theory, rational choice theory, and crime pattern

Criminal Justice Review 46(2)
theory. Routine activity theory (Cohen & Felson, 1979) argues that the key elements of a criminal
event are the presence of a motivated offender, a suitable target, and the absence of capable
guardianship. Crime is higher in places in which targets abound and guardianship wanes. Rational
choice theory assumes that offenders make deliberate decisions to engage in criminal conduct
(Cornish & Clarke, 1986). Characteristics of the local environment factor into the cost–benefit
analysis and render some places more desirable for criminal conduct than others (see also
Bernasco, 2010; Bernsaco & Luykx, 2003; Groff, 2007). Crime pattern theory identifies crime
attractors and generators that facilitate the opportunity to commit crime. Crime attractors are spaces
familiar to potential offenders and thus opportune for criminal acts. A particular street known for sex
work is one example. On the other hand, generators are not necessarily known for criminal activity,
but rather they provide ease of access to opportunities for criminal action, like a shopping mall or a
concert venue. In some cases, these conditions remain constant or occur with discernable regularity,
leaving certain places perpetually more vulnerable to crime (Brantingham & Brantingham, 1993).
Vacancy and Crime
Emerging research suggests that vacancy is a particularly salient driver of interpersonal violence
(Boessen & Chamberlain, 2017; Porter et al., 2019; Valasik, 2018). However, findings regarding the
relationship between crime and vacancy have thus far proven inconclusive (see Wo, 2019; Spelman,
1993). Vacant homes convey a general absence of informal social control. They also provide
physical shelter for illegal activity, such as drug sales, to be conducted away from prying eyes.
Underground markets are “stateless” social locations that bring together sellers and buyers who have
little formal recourse to settle disputes. Those engaged in underground activity are especially
attractive targets for theft and robbery. Areas with high levels of vacancy may place upward pressure
on criminal conduct by concentrating targets (e.g., those engaged in crime) and limiting guardian-
ship, ultimately contributing to higher rates of interpersonal violence. For instance, Bernasco and
Block (2010) highlight the importance of “home like” anchor points (p. 36) referring to vacant
buildings or vacant lots where criminally inclined individuals tend to congregate. Consistent
with this theme, Porter and colleagues (2019) find that offenders report vacant homes to be
“opportunistic because they provide cover, unoccupied spaces, and are easy targets.” Similarly,
Valasik et al. (2019) report that homicide tends to cluster around vacant properties in Baton Rouge,
LA. In a randomized control of Philadelphia neighborhoods, Branas and colleagues (2018) reported
significant reductions in crime around vacant properties that had been restored compared to those
that remained blighted.
The effect of vacancy on crime is...

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