The major goal of this study is to advance the understanding of structural conditions and social processes in relation to crime problems in urban neighborhoods. Residents’ subjective perceptions of disorder and crime as well as collective social capital are key mechanisms in the complex social processes shaping the development of neighborhoods. The core of the study is a large community survey of ca 6.500 residents in 140 neighborhoods in Cologne and Essen, two large cities in North Rhine-Westphalia with high levels of ethnic diversity. Analyses focus on fear of crime, biased disorder perceptions, collective efficacy and interethnic relations. This study has a special focus on older adults which have been oversampled in the survey sample. Collaborating with the TH Köln, the study has developed and tested an intervention program addressing feelings of insecurity among older adults. More information (in German) on this module at The study collaborates with the Australian Community Capacity Study (ACCS) for comparative analyses of crime and social processes in German and Australian neighbourhoods. The study has received funding by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (program call on urban security) between 2013 and 2016, and a travel grant from the Australia-Germany Joint Research Co-operation Scheme (DAAD/Go8).

Data collection

Our res­ults high­light the dangers of a naïve “Broken Win­dows” concept.

For the study, 85 neighborhoods in Cologne and 55 neighborhoods in Essen were randomly selected with an oversampling of poorer neighborhoods. The neighborhoods are represented by small administrative units with a mean area size of 0,56 square kilometers (SD = 0,55) and a mean population of 2,900 (SD = 2,100). Socio-demographic data and geocoded police data on offenses and calls-for-service measure structural conditions and registered crimes.

Within these neighborhoods, a random sample residents aged between 25 and 89 years was drawn from the population register with an oversampling age group 60 to 89 due to the project’s special focus on older residents. In anticipation of varying response rates by levels of neighborhood disadvantage, the numbers of addresses used in the sampling adjusted upwards or downwards according to the concentration of welfare recipients. The survey was administered as a postal survey following the Total Design Method TDM) with two reminder letters but without incentives. The overall response rate in the first wave (T1) spring 2014 was 41%, and in the second wave in autumn 2015 57% of T1 participants. In absolute numbers, the dataset comprises 6.565 respondents in T1 and 3.401 respondents in T2. The mean number of respondents per neighborhood is 44 (SD = 8).

Systematic Social Observation (SSO) of physical and social disorder was carried out by trained undergraduate students during May and November 2015 in all 140 neighborhoods. In each neighborhood, three street crossings were randomly selected as “nodes” of small networks of all street segments in a 200 m buffer around this starting point. This resulted in the observation of a mean number of 34 face-blocks (one side of a street segment) per neighborhood representing ca. 40 % of all existing face-blocks. Two different observers were send to each neighborhood to reduce bias. For each face-block, the observers assessed the frequency of 17 different types of physical and 17 different types of social incivilities (in most cases by actual counting, or, as in the case of broken glass and cigarette butts, by estimating frequencies) as well as indicators of building structure, mixed land use, and traffic volume. The observers completed an observation checklist on a GPS-enabled tablet. The items were summed up to indices of physical and social incivilities, standardized by the length of observed face-blocks and log-transformed to account for the highly skewed distribution.


Analyses have so far focused on fear of crime, disorder perceptions, victimization and collective efficacy.

Fear of crime as well as disorder perceptions are seen as biased cognitions of urban dangers predominately driven not by crime volumes, but by neighbourhood structural disadvantage and ethnic diversity. Controlling for SSO disorder and individual socio-demographic composition, respondents perceived more disorder (relative to independently observed disorder) in neighbourhoods with higher concentrations of social disadvantage, strongly outweighing the effects of objective disorder. For the first time, we investigated the role of cross-level interactions between individual residents‘ attitudes and neighborhood conditions in disorder perceptions. The effect of minority concentration was moderated by attitudes towards migrants. The perception bias was much less pronounced if the respondents held more favorable attitudes towards migrants, compared to respondents with more xenophobic attitudes. These results underline the relevance of implicit ethnic stereotypes in shaping neighborhood perceptions and reputations, and the dangers of a naïve “Broken Windows” concept.

Exploiting the panel survey design and using random effects modeling, we examined both between-person differences and within-person changes in different psychological and behavioral dimensions of well-being associated with victimization. Results show that feelings of unsafety, worry about crime and avoidance behaviour increased after victimization, but detrimental consequences did not extend to more general indicators of well-being as positive affect and life satisfaction. The within-subject design results in attenuated effects of victimization compared to cross-sectional research designs which cannot control for unobserved heterogeneity.

As a starting point for cross-national comparisons of our findings, we employed multilevel SEM to test for measurement equivalence of collective efficacy across German and Australian neighbourhoods and to model its association with concentrated poverty, ethnic diversity, and residential stability. We found that the measurement of collective efficacy is metrically equivalent in both countries, modeling two latent factors on the respondent level – the two components informal social control and social cohesion/trust – but only one latent factor on the neighborhood level. Considering the relationship between the key correlates of collective efficacy, we found broad similarities but also substantial differences across contexts and compared to U.S. research, particularly concerning the role of ethnic diversity which has a stronger diminishing effect in Germany than in Australia.