In 1990, homicides in New York hit a record high of 2,245–an average of six per day. In 2013, the city recorded only 335 murders for the entire year, despite adding 1 million more residents.
In other words: “the safety of cities can ebb and flow,” as a new report puts it. Meanwhile, the type of threats change too. Twenty-five years ago, nobody was worried about climate change, and the term “cyber-security” had barely been invented. Now they’re more serious challenges than some traditional crimes.
For a snapshot of current risks to cities and a ranking of which are the safest, see the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Safe Cities Index 2015. Bringing together 40 data indicators, it offers a multifaceted view of 50 cities worldwide across four areas: digital security, health security, infrastructure safety, and personal safety.
It’s no surprise that, generally, richer cities are safer. Tokyo and Singapore top the list, while Jakarta, in Indonesia, comes out on the bottom. The top-10 is full of well-off comfortable cities like Stockholm (4th) and Zurich (7th). But the rich-safe link isn’t always there. Some wealthy Middle Eastern places score low down, for instance. “Four of the five Middle Eastern cities in the Index are considered high income, but only one makes it into the top half of the Index: at 25 Abu Dhabi is 21 places above Riyadh at number 46,” the report says.
Tokyo, the world’s most populous city, scores well for digital security, personal safety, and infrastructure safety, despite the risk it faces from earthquakes. Many European cities score relatively poorly for digital safety, but dominate the top-10 list for health security, with Zurich, Brussels, Barcelona and Frankfurt all appearing. Asia dominates the top-10 for personal safety with the very safe (and dull) Singapore coming out best of all.
Interestingly, the safety of cities isn’t necessarily reflected in how safe citizens feel. That’s particularly true of U.S. cities, where people often feel less safe than perhaps they should (Chicago has the widest divergence between safety perception and reality, according to the data). That may be a hangover from the homicide highs of the ’70s and ’80s and perhaps a certain mythologizing of crime through TV and movies. Actually, many American cities are relatively safe these days, though New York is still only in 28th place for personal safety.