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Reston at the Tipping Point: Violent Crime and Increased Population Density (No.


Reston at the Tipping Point:
Violent Crime and Increased Population Density
(Paper No. 1)

Terrill D. Maynard
Reston, Virginia
January 15, 2007


Reston is at a tipping point, a point of no return in its maturation as one of the
nation’s premier planned communities. Within weeks, the Fairfax County Department of
Planning will present proposed changes in the county’s Planned Residential Community
(PRC) zoning code to the Board of Supervisors that, most importantly, would allow the
community’s 64,000 or so population to mushroom by more than 25 percent to nearly
81,000. This change would be accomplished by simply changing three numbers: the
household population factors for single-family detached (houses), single-family attached
(townhouses), and multi-family (condominium) dwelling units. By reducing these factors,
established in the mid-1970s, to reflect the reality of smaller household sizes in the 21st
century, the County would allow developers to build as many as 5,545 single-family
detached or 6,161 single-family attached or 7,921 multi-family dwelling units.

The proposed density increase comes at a time when the County and Reston are
anticipating the 2012 arrival of Metrorail at Wiehle Avenue and, several years later, at
Reston Parkway as part of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail extension. To take advantage
of the new access to public transit and rationalize development around existing Metrorail
stations, the County is developing a set of guidelines for Transit-Oriented Development
(TOD) within a half-mile radius of existing and proposed Metrorail stations. These
“urban villages” at station areas and in nearby Reston Town Center will feature high-
density multi-family units, high-density office space, and a variety of retail businesses
linked to the nearby Metrorail stations.

This is the first of a series of papers to examine the implications of these proposed
changes for Reston’s quality of life. 1 The core argument of this series is that the Fairfax
County Board of Supervisors must recognize the full reality it would impose on Reston
and the County before it decides to change only one element of that reality—household
population factors.

These papers build on an earlier overview by this author called “Future Reston Development: A First
Look at Some Implications for Quality of Life,” November 13, 2006. The paper is available upon e-mail
request to

Reston at the Tipping Point: Violent Crime and Increased Population Density (No. 1)


Crime grows as population grows. It grows for many reasons, but the growth is
largely a function of a growing number of opportunities, criminals, and potential victims.
Of the categories of crime, violent crime—crimes against the person, including murder,
rape, robbery, and aggravated assault as defined by the FBI in its Uniform Crime
Reporting (UCR) system—most seriously affects quality of life. It is the sometimes
literally the sharp edge of crime and warrants special consideration in understanding the
implications for Reston’s quality of life of the potential increase in Reston’s density by
more than a quarter. The most salient questions in looking at violent crime are whether
population density is a determinant of violent crime and, if so, the extent to which violent
crime rates grow as population density increases.

This brief paper tries to capture the essence of independent academic research on
these key issues and apply it to the situation Reston—and the County Board of
Supervisors—faces as it contemplates changes in the community’s authorized population
density. In particular, it summarizes the findings of key credible research—those that
follow rigorous analytical techniques and are not driven by particular views (e.g.—
“smart” growth) and provides limited statistical information about violent crime in
northern Virginia counties to test the applicability of the broader results to Fairfax
County. Most importantly, it presents some original research based on analysis of a
sample of wealthy and populous counties (such as Fairfax County) to examine the
specific implications of increased density for violent crime in Reston.

Key Academic Research Results

Volumes of detailed academic, government, think tank, and other research have
been conducted over decades on the relationship between population density and deviant
social behavior of all kinds, including violent crime. In wrapping up the multitude of
judgments about the link between population density and violent crime, a 1994 National
Academy of Sciences report stated:

“Finally, several studies report a significant and large association
between population density and violent crime. The average correlation
across neighborhoods between population density and violent crime rates
is .68 in the studies of Beasley and Antunes (1974), Mladenka and Hill
(1976), and Smith and Jarjoura (1988). In the latter multivariate study,
density also had one of the strongest effects on violent crime, despite
controlling for a host of social and economic variables.” 2

Robert J. Sampson and Janet L. Lauritsen, “Violent Victimization and Offending: Individual-,
Situational-, and Community-level Risk Factors,” Understanding and Preventing Violence, Volume 3:
Social Influences, Albert J. Reiss, Jr., and Jeffrey A. Roth, eds., National Academy Press, Washington,
DC, 1994, p. 55.

Reston at the Tipping Point: Violent Crime and Increased Population Density (No. 1)

To be sure, population density is a top-level demographic determinant of violent crime
and only one of a multitude of individual, situational, and community risk factors
addressed in this one hundred-plus page chapter by Robert J. Sampson, one of America’s
most respected and prolific writers on urban issues, and Janet L. Lauritsen. .

A research report published in the British Journal of Sociology the following year
that examined drivers of violent and property crimes in 98 percent of all U.S. counties
(3,076 counties) corroborated the results of the National Academy study. 3 The focus of
the research was on testing the “subculture of violence” theory and its possible drivers,
especially in the South and among African-Americans. 4 Few of the study’s findings
supported the subculture of violence theory prevalent at the time, largely putting the
concept to rest, but—by examining a series of variables that might explain criminal
activity—it provided valuable insights into the importance of population density (and
population change) as a determinant of violent crime. In summarizing their results, the
authors note: “Urbanity is the main determinant of property crime, urbanity and
population density are important factors in violent crime, and poverty, divorce and
density figure strongly in homicide.” These results are captured in Table 1 below taken
from this study, which shows the variables in their order of importance as determinants of
violent crime as reflected in the absolute value of their “t” scores.

Table 1:
Regression Results for Determinants of Violent Crime
In a County-level Study of U.S. Counties

Variable b Beta t Signif.

% Black 6.941 .369 15.1 .0000
% Urban 3.031 .317 15.0 .0000
Pop. Density .031 .196 12.4 .0000
% Hispanic 4.399 .161 8.9 .0000
% Church members -1.550 -.101 -5.3 .0000
% Nat. American 4.299 .086 5.2 .0000
% Unemployed 16.939 .077 4.4 .0000
% Pop. Change 1.116 .093 4.3 .0000
% Age 5-17 -10.391 -.095 -4.0 .0001
Divorce Rate 6.342 .053 3.1 .0025
Source: Kposowa, et al., p. 93.

Augustine J. Kposowa, Kevin D. Breault, & Beatrice M. Harrison, “Reassessing the Structural Co-
Variates of Violent and Property Crimes in the USA: A County Level Analysis,” The British Journal of
Sociology, V. 46, No. 1, March 1995, pp. 79-105.
To help minimize analytical bias in using others’ research results, I have found it useful to use the
results—where the results stem from rigorous analysis—in a manner not intended by the original research.
In this case, I have shifted the focus from the subculture of violence to the impact of population density.

Reston at the Tipping Point: Violent Crime and Increased Population Density (No. 1)

Violent Crime in Northern Virginia

A look at the situation in northern Virginia using 2004 data suggests that the
judgments reported a decade ago by the National Academy and Kposowa, et al., remain
true today. U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics for the eight northern Virginia local police
agencies in 2004 corroborates that, as the Academy study states, violent crime rates
increase with population density—except for rural localities. (See Figure 1 below.) The
correlation between density and violent crime rates in this small northern Virginia sample
is .64, similar to the rates recorded in the much larger studies noted by the National
Academy. Fairfax County, with some 59.3 violent crimes per 100,000 population in
2004, is right on the trend line for northern Virginia counties.5 Moreover, the “J-curve”
shape of the trend line is consistent with a broad range of research studies showing rural
violent crime rates somewhat higher than suburban rates with violent crime rates
increasing sharply as density increases in urban areas.

Figure 1:
Northern Virginia Counties/Cities: Violent Crime Rate
by Population Density, 2004

300 Alexandria
Violent Crimes per 100,000 People


Arlington County

Prince WilliamCounty
Spotsylvania County

Stafford County
Current Proposed
Loudon County Reston Reston
Fairfax County Density Density
Fairfax City

0 2 4 6 8 10 12 14
People per Acre

Data from the Fairfax County Police Department available on the County’s website indicates that the
County had a much higher violent crime rate in 2004—99.77 violent crimes per 100,000 people. The BJS
data is used here to ensure comparability across multiple jurisdictions that may have different reporting
standards and policies.

Reston at the Tipping Point: Violent Crime and Increased Population Density (No. 1)

Testing a Sample of Populous and Wealthy Counties

Although scientific research and contemporary anecdotal information on northern
Virginia counties suggest that density plays an important role in violent criminal
behavior, these results do not adequately control for two vital features of Fairfax County:
its economic vitality and its large population. To control for these factors, a data set
containing pertinent information combining the 100 wealthiest U.S. counties (as
measured by median household income) and the 217 counties with a population of
250,000 or more based on U.S. Census 2000 data. The result is a sample set of the 42
wealthiest and most populous counties in the United States (see Figure 2 below). Even in
looking at this group of its populous and wealthy peers, it is important to note that Fairfax
County had the highest median household income in the country in 2000. Fairfax was
also the fourth most densely populated county in the 42-county sample behind Nassau
County, NY, Orange County, CA, and DuPage County, IL. In short, Fairfax County is a
true leading edge county among its peers as well as in the nation.

Figure 2:

Median Household Income & Population Density,
Populous & Wealthy US Counties, 2000

Fairfax County
Morris & Somerset Counties, NJ
Median Household Income

Nassau County, NY
$70,000 DuPage County, IL

Orange County, CA



0 1,000 2,000 3,000 4,000 5,000
People per Square Mile

Of these 42 elite counties, the FBI has complete UCR data on twenty-eight
counties for 2002, the year closest to the 2000 census for which count-level violent
crimes data is publicly available. Even so, two of these counties are extreme outliers:
Anne Arundel County, MD, with a reported violent crime rate of 650 per 100,000
population and Rockland County, NY, with a rate of 1.4 per 100,000. These appear to be

Reston at the Tipping Point: Violent Crime and Increased Population Density (No. 1)

artifacts and these two counties were dropped from the sample, leaving a sample size of
26 counties. There appear to be other issues with the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting
(UCR) data, in particular, the FBI data and Fairfax County Police Department are not
always consistent, reporting is voluntary and some states (including Illinois) and many
counties (including New Jersey) do not report this information, etc. Nonetheless, it is the
most complete and uniform set of nationwide serious crime data available and sufficient
for this preliminary assessment.

Population Density

As shown below (Figure 3), a linear regression analysis of the FBI violent crime
rates in these counties against their population shows that, even among the 26 wealthiest
American counties, a positive relationship exists between density and violent crime
rates. 6 From a statistical analysis perspective, the highly dispersed nature of this small
sample, reflected in the extremely small coefficient of determination (r2=.0113) and
broad standard deviation (82.0), undercuts the explanatory power of the relationship,

Fairfax County fares extremely well in comparison with its peers in this
regression analysis. The violent crime rate in Fairfax County in 2002 (51.9 per 100,000
according to the FBI Crime in the United States (CIUS) report) was much less than the
average for this elite set of counties (an average violent crime rate of 77.3 per 100,000
people). It was also only about three-fifths (59.1%) of the rate estimated by the
regression for a wealthy and populous county of its density in 2000 (2,449 people per
square mile). More broadly, the County rate was less than one-ninth the violent crime
rate for the nation as a whole in 2002 (494.6 violent crimes per 100,000 people) near the
end of a decade of annual declines in the national violent crime rate. The specific causes
for this exceptional result are beyond the scope of this research, but no doubt include a
culture of strong family and personal values, a vibrant local economy, a highly effective
police force, and a strong social services program.

This paper uses linear regression analysis using the least squares method throughout. Non-linear
logarithmic analysis better fits the entire sample range with the curve bending sharply toward the origin on
the left and the slope flattening some on the right. Nonetheless, over the range of values and sample size
explored here, the linear regression is suitable and easier to comprehend.

Reston at the Tipping Point: Violent Crime and Increased Population Density (No. 1)

Figure 3 :

Violent Crime Rate and Population Density, 2000/2002:
Populous & Wealthy US Counties
y = 0.0086x + 66.042
R = 0.0113
Violent Crimes per 100,000 People

Current Proposed
Reston Reston
Density Density



Fairfax County










People per Square Mile
Sources: US Census 2000, FBI CIUS 2002

A serious concern arises, however, when one applies this model to Reston’s
current and prospective density, which are both literally “off the chart” in density in this
sample of wealthy and populous counties. Even now, at 10.33 persons per acre (6,611
per square mile) Reston’s density is 42% greater than Nassau County, NY, and moving to
a density of 13 people per acre would make Reston 79% more densely populated than
Nassau County. Using the model alone suggests that the 2002 violent crime rate in
Reston ought to have been about 123 violent crimes per 100,000 people. Discounting
that rate for the overall low violent crime rate in Fairfax County suggests that Reston
would have had a violent crime rate of 88 per 100,000 people, or 57 violent crimes in
2002. Although data on Reston’s violent crimes is not available (the Reston Police
District data incorporates most of northwest Fairfax County, excluding Herndon), these
results intuitively seem close to the mark.

Increasing Reston’s population density to 13 people per acre (8,320 per square
mile) and using the same regression and county adjustment in this sample suggests: (a)
Reston’s projected violent crime rate is likely to rise 17 percent to about 102 per 100,000
people and (b) its total violent crimes are likely to rise to about 83 per year. Thus, by
looking simply at the relationship between population density and violent crime, the
model—adjusted for the County’s exceptionally low violent crime rate—suggests that
violent crime in Reston would climb some 47% as the community reaches its maximum
allowable population density.

Reston at the Tipping Point: Violent Crime and Increased Population Density (No. 1)

Increased Density over Time

More important than a relationship between population density and violent crime
at a point in time is the extent to which increasing population density affects violent
crime at the end of the growth period. Using changes in population from 1990 and 2000
reported in U.S. census data for the same 26-county sample of wealthy and populous
counties provides some insight in to the relationship. Three of the top four fastest
growing counties were in Texas (Collin, Denton, and Fort Bend counties) and Gwinnett
County, GA, was the fourth. Collin and Denton counties are noteworthy in that they
experienced huge percentage increases in population density over the decade (86% and
56% respectively) while maintaining exceptionally low violent crime rates in 2002 (19.9
and 26.8 per 100,000). Still, these two large Texas counties had a population density less
than one-quarter of that in Fairfax County in 2000. Results for rapidly growing Gwinnett
County, GA, most illustrate the link between density growth rate and violent crime rate,
and nearby Montgomery County, MD, show that violent crime rates may be high even if
density increases are relatively low. (See Figure 4 below.) Also, as with the earlier
regression, the relationship between the dispersed data and the small sample size suggest
a modest explanatory value in the relationship as reflected in the moderate correlation
(corr. = .1742), small coefficient of determination (r2 = .0303), and other statistical

Figure 4:

Violent Crime Rate and Increased Density, 1990-2000:
Wealthy and Populous U.S. Counties
Proposed y = 69.942x + 59.361
Increase in 2
R = 0.0303
Reston Density
250 Montgomery Gwinnett
Violent Crime Rate per 100,000




Fairfax County Denton
50 Collin












Growth in Population Density

Reston at the Tipping Point: Violent Crime and Increased Population Density (No. 1)

In contrast to its leading role in wealth and population density in this 26-county
sample, Fairfax County’s population density grew at a below average rate (18.5%)
compared with the 25.6 percent growth rate for this peer group in the 1990s. Probably
the key reason for Fairfax’s comparatively low density growth rate over the decade is the
fact that, among the counties in this sample, it was already the third most densely
populated county in 1990 behind Nassau County, NY, and Orange County, CA. As in the
earlier results, its 2002 violent crime rate (51.2 per 100,000) was still significantly below
that suggested by a linear regression of the 2002 rate against the change in population
(72.3 per 100,000 population).

As with the earlier regression on density alone, the stronger relationship between
increased density and increased violent crime is worrisome when applied to the situation
in Reston. Using the results of the previous regression, we estimate that Reston has a
violent crime rate of 88 per 100,000 population or about 57 violent crimes per year
consistent with its current estimated population of 64,277, i.e.—consistent with the
County’s low violent crime rate and intuitively close to actual results for 2006. If Reston
nears its maximum allowable population density by growing 25 percent in the next ten
years, the regression indicates Reston’s violent crime rate would grow 23.8 percent to
105.5 violent crimes per 100,000 people, and its number of violent crimes would grow by
59.8 percent to 91 violent crimes per year. (See Figure 5 below.)

A possible methodological concern in this calculation is whether Reston will
achieve its full proposed allowable population increase of more than 25 percent in a
decade. In the 1990s, counties among this peer group averaged better than 25 percent
increases in density and, now in Reston, developers already have applications pending for
3,570 multi-family units that could add nearly 7,500 people—about 47% of the
potentially allowable population growth—within the next 3-5 years. Thus, it is not
unreasonable to expect Reston to reach its maximum allowed population density within a

Reston at the Tipping Point: Violent Crime and Increased Population Density (No. 1)

Figure 5:
Reston: Violent Crime & Violent Crime Rate Increases
from Increased Density over a Decade
Violent Crime
Proposed Reston Density Increase
Violent Crime Rate
100 109.0
80 88.0


40 85
57 62


0% 5% 10% 15% 20% 25% 30%
Percent 10-year Density Increase

Multivariate Analysis Combining Density and Density Increase Effects

Examining this 26-point data set of wealthy and populous counties nationwide as
a whole using more rigorous linear multivariate analysis techniques paints a bleaker
picture of the potential impact of greater density on violent crime while increasing the
explanatory power of the regression. In this case, both the population density in 2000
and the change in population in the decade 1990-2000 are solved simultaneously to
assess the effect on violent crime. The addition of the density change variable raises the
explanatory value of the model (to r2 = .0656) although the coefficient is still too small
for full-scale statistical analytical purposes. One can use the regression results (Table 2
below) to project the impact different of changes in density over a decade. As reflected
in Figure 6 below, the impact of those changes grows dramatically density increases. If
Reston were to “fill out” to near its maximum density—a 25 percent increase in
population density—over the next decade, the regression suggests that the violent crime
rate in Reston would rise by 60 percent and the number of violent crimes would virtually
double from 57 to 113.

Reston at the Tipping Point: Violent Crime and Increased Population Density (No. 1)

Table 2:
Multivariate Linear Regression Results for
Density and Changes in Density (LSM)

Factor d(Density) Density Intercept
Coefficient = 101.33 0.0165 29.88
Sex = 87.66 0.0177 41.14

R2 = 0.0656
SEy = 82.59
Std Dev (y) = 81.95
N= 26

Figure 6:

Reston: Impact of Current Population Density & Increased
Density over a Decade on Violent Crime & Violent Crime Rate
Violent Crimes per Year Proposed Increase in Reston Density
140 Violent Crime Rate
120 130.0
100 109.0
80 88.0 88
60 66


0% 5% 10% 15% 20% 25%
Percent 10-year Density Increase

Reston at the Tipping Point: Violent Crime and Increased Population Density (No. 1)


The preceding regression analyses of a sample of wealthy and populous peer
counties nationwide suggest that increasing Reston’s authorized population density by
reducing the household population factors alone may have a profound adverse impact on
violent crime—and the quality of life—in the community. In particular, the results
suggest that Reston’s violent crime rate per 100,000 people could escalate some 17-60
percent if the community’s density were increased by the 25 percent proposed in the PRC
zoning law changes. The concrete result of that density increase is the likelihood that
violent crime in Reston would increase by 47-98 percent, from an estimated 57 violent
crimes per year to somewhere between 83 and 113 violent crimes per year.

Although there can be little doubt that violent crime rates and, hence, violent
crime, tend to increase with increased population density, the results presented here are
not without their methodological issues. The key methodological issues relate to the
small size and highly-dispersed results of the sample in each of the three regressions.
These characteristics undermine the explanatory power of the regression analysis. In
addition, other potential determinants of violent crime may need to be factored into the
analysis. Of value in making a decision to allow increased density would be an
assessment of the impact of potential strategies to mitigate increases in violent crime with
density increases and their associated costs.

In the end, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors may decide that it is worth
the social and political cost to change the PRC zoning ordinance to accommodate more
intensive development in Reston. Before it does that, however, it ought to conduct a
thorough, systematic analysis of the impact of population density increase on the full
range of economic and quality of life values, not just violent crime. From a Restonian’s
perspective, this preliminary assessment suggests a decision to increase the community’s
population allowed density by some 25 percent will lead to a substantial deterioration in a
critical element of Reston’s quality of life—the risk of being a victim of violent crime. In
short, Reston would become a more dangerous place to live, work, and play.