Illuminating Crime in Washington, D.C.

Relating illumination to crime in Washington DC.


In urban settings, night-life is vibrant. Streets are roaring with music from local restaurants and clubs, sounds of pedestrians passing by, and humming of cars idle at a stop light. With countless means to enjoy one’s night out, the inevitability of consciousness for their safety is bound to arise.

The sun has been setting and now long gone. People begin to be weary of their surroundings and adjust their walk, even their drive, accordingly. The less we can see, the less we can be seen which creates unsettling ambiguity concerning our environment – we feel that more things can go wrong and so we unconsciously prepare defense mechanisms to combat this. What are we preparing for? Crime, being unpredictable – generates this consciousness of safety when the Sun has past. Masked by darkness, criminals roam with greater freedom, but this we know already. Embracing this, people have long chosen street lighting as our first line of defense. Designers of these urban environments also have traditionally believed street lighting as a primary method to deter crime. Though we may feel safer – in reality, we hope that this actually is true.

Washington, D.C. Our Nation's Capitol

Before uncovering this matter, it becomes imperative to contextualize Washington, D.C. The importance of such is simple – know where you are. The capitol is broken into wards. The wards are comprised of neighborhoods who each are unique in their demographics, culture, and geographies according to the D.C. Office of Planning. Visual representation of their greater aggregation will give a general context of where in the capitol you are in. Defining our ward resolution, we will dissolve these boundaries further.

The Core:
Wards 1, 2, & 6

This region is the core of Washington, D.C. Consisting of where our national government operates, main tourist attractions, and where many corporate affairs reside. The core also has prominent neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill – where many senators and state officials live. Also DuPont Circle, Adams Morgan, and Chinatown which are popular places for night life. Other parts of this region include more troublesome parts which include Colombia Heights and portions of downtown. Prosperity across the region is relatively affluent. With median family incomes greater than $100,000 with Ward 2 in particular doubling that value.

The Northern Periphery:
Wards 3, 4, & 5

Moving towards the northern ends of the Capitol, for context, this region experiences a larger chasm among socio-demographic cohesion than the core. Thus, there grouping is based more of spatial location rather than cohesion of the people. Overall, moving left to right, the wards become less prosperous and characterized with greater levels of poverty and unemployment. Further west, Ward 3 consists of wealthy families (average $200,000 plus family incomes) and 9.5% unemployment rate. In comparison, Ward 5 – our eastern most Northern Periphery ward, stands at roughly $75,000 average income with a fifth of the population unemployed.

Eastern Fringes:
Wards 7 & 8

Being separated by the Anacostia River, these wards are the most isolated physically. In addition to isolation, these wards have had it most rough in regards to development. Ward 8 though also broken into various neighborhoods, is more commonly known for the Anacostia neighborhood which locals attribute descriptions to be a troublesome area. Demographically speaking, Ward 7 is slightly better off but that is no feat in comparison to the rest of the capitol. 37% of Ward 8’s residents are in poverty and roughly a quarter are unemployed. As for Ward 7, 25% are considered in poverty and 20% are unemployed. As mentioned those figures for ward 7 are hardly better in any sense. Overall the eastern fringe region require much needed progress in terms of development.

Street Lighting Our First Line of Defense

One of the first lines of defense for our lively nights is lighting. Where we can see, we can mitigate ambiguities of crime – or at least believe in such rationale. Street lights have been traditional implementations by urban planners as a method to decrease the fear of crime with further hopes that more than just emotion, may deter criminal activity as well. Within this, two main factors stand out to be important – whether street lighting is present and how bright is the light source – if it is present. Generally, pedestrians would be more fearful of crime without the presence of the first and the poor conditions of the latter.

Does crime occur more often in spaces where street lights are dim or not present?

Living in the metropolitan region in our nation’s capital, it is interesting to implore the truth of behind the effectiveness of street lighting. Understanding our conditions of street light presence and brightness, let’s see how these factors orientate themselves within the Washington, D.C. landscape.

The heat map displays our component of presence of lighting, the more lights are located within a smaller spatial vicinity – the larger the heat visual will grow. On the other hand, the next map illustrates the component of brightness of each street light. For this context, there is an assumption that higher wattage of particular street lights equates to the brighter the lights.

The Core

Arguably one of the busiest parts of the Capitol, the Core distinguishes itself further being the densest regarding presence of street lights and also the brightest region. The brightest lights observed constructs identifiable features resembling the main avenues and road segments. This is especially evident in the core where notable places such as DuPont Circle are easily recognized.

Chinatown - Heatmap

Distribution of street light conditions are not even through the region which prompts special focus where they differ. As instance, Ward 1 may be described as a compact lighting ward – overall brightness is not quite as high as the downtown region. And this trend appears more so when inspecting it closer – the further away from the surrounding areas of the White House, the more the subsidiary road segment street lighting’s will be dim. Areas such as Lincoln Park (Ward 6) and Colombia Heights (Ward 1) demonstrate this characteristic. In regards to density, the sixth ward have many smaller clusters in comparison to the rest of the core. An exception would be H Street along the northern section of the ward which happen to be very dense, lots of street lights present, though they are of low brightness.

The Northern Periphery

Less compact and less bright. This is an apt description for this region in comparison to the core. Along with much smaller clusters of dense lighting areas, street lights appear to be less compact across the region.

Ward 3 - Wattage

Wealthy families, such as those in Ward 3, may want more property thus creation of volume is made. Being that this region is furthest away from where it is assumed most businesses, economic, and recreational activities happen, there may be also less of the need to be more compact – a slightly more suburban (though completely still part of a city) orientation. Brightness in these parts substantially differs from the core. Regardless of possible justification, interesting lighting distribution exists.
Outside of bright avenues that connect the distant neighborhoods to the core, wattage output per light seldom exceeds 200 watts – which translate to low brightness across the region. From west to east, Ward 3 contains a significant portion of very dim lights towards its center on top of sparse lighting clusters.
The fourth ward is visually the best in lighting quality with many small clusters of presence of lights and the most average in terms of brightness in the region. This in mind, Ward 5 would be considered the worst in the region.

Ward 5 - Wattage
Outside of main road segments similar to Ward 3, the fifth ward contains the greatest proportions of the lowest wattage output per street light. Furthermore, this ward is also the least compact in street lighting as well.

Eastern Fringes

Resembling the previous northern region, the Eastern Fringes is characterized with similar characteristics. The locations of bright lights (high wattage) are along the main road segments which connect this region to the core. The seventh ward’s northeast boundary is an outlier to this trend across the region. This particular area contains greater numbers of bright lights however local inspection illustrates dim lights in subsidiary streets. This relation is amplified to greater extents across the region where larger number of road segments demonstrate lower brightness along with fewer bright primary paths. Presence of street lights are unique in the region. The closer one is to the Anacostia River – closer to the core, the greater the presence of lights are which equates to greater density and more clustering. Travelling deeper into the region, away from the core, the local neighborhoods receive less presence and also dimmer street lighting. Aside from the outlier area, Marshall Heights (Ward 7) and Congress Heights (Ward 8) exhibit that trend.

Visualizing Lighting Trends

The left chart is a histogram distribution of street lights in the Capitol’s wards and the right chart illustrates average street lights per block. Viewing the wattage – or brightness distribution through the histogram provides useful insight in overall ward lighting characteristics. Though visualized in raw counts, our right chart assists in translating those figures into meaningful values as now there is connections between wattage distributions and average street lighting per block within each ward.

Characterizing various spaces within Washington, D.C. by their street lighting, evidence of disproportionate distribution of lighting glows.
The Core while having the greatest proportions of bright less (the darker shades), also portrays the highest overall street lights per block as a region. In particular the first ward, though lowest in overall number of light fixtures, has the greatest number of lights on an average block. In contrast, the Northern Periphery has the greatest occurrences of street lighting though holds smaller fractions of bright lights with more than half of the total lights within each ward is dimmer in context. The Eastern Fringes becomes different within itself according to lighting trends depicted in the charts. While both wards’ wattage distribution falls between the Core and the Northern Periphery, it is their street lighting per block that differs. Noting across Washington, D.C. wards there is roughly six street lights per block, the eighth ward becomes weaker in lighting quality due to having instead four lights per block. Contributing to darker streets, we will implore the relationship of such to criminal behavior.

Where There's Light, There's Dark Street lights illuminate themselves, let's instead illuminate crime

Crime; a phenomenon that happens everywhere, to various degrees, yet unique in understanding based on where it takes place. In this section, we will look at trends with all criminal activity, specific types of crime and the nature of it – whether violent or not. Here in Washington, D.C. we will see how these illegal acts illustrate themselves and then, see if the picture relates to the Capitol’s street lighting in a meaningful way. All crime data takes place from 2012 to 2015 and more importantly, all crimes took place within the midnight policing shift. This is critical to seeing when it is completely dark and lighting is our primary ally for vision, how crime occurs in Washington, D.C.

While non-violent crimes neglect, parallels between violent crimes - such as assaults, and poor lighting are visible.
Before diving into the spatial nature of crime, the chart shows various categories of crime by ward. The graphic above details crime per person, a normalized approach to interpret trends.

Overall criminal activity (leftmost bar per ward) is relatively static across the Capitol – except in Wards 3 & 4. Both of which are identified in the Northern Periphery. Noting these exceptions, the average overall crime is significantly greater than the third and fourth wards. What explains for this difference? The third ward’s dim lighting, smaller clustering, and average street lights per block would be tough to explain for the lack of crime in traditional beliefs on the deterrence of crime through lighting. As described, Ward 4 had the best lighting conditions in the northern region yet its crime per capita is greater than that of the third ward. Regarding all criminal activity, street lighting quality amongst wards provide no clear relationship between the variables.

Breaking it down further, all crimes may be categorized as violent and non-violent situations. Our introduction presents us on a night stroll in the city and while all crimes are inconclusive to street lighting, perhaps evaluating these categories would be significant; as differing implications depending on the type of crime may play a role.

There are surprising results to find within our graph in relation to this. Ward 8 in particular, our most poor and low income ward speaks a dangerous fact. For every crime that does occur, there has been roughly a 50% record of it being violent in nature. Followed by Wards 7 then 4 – these areas have experienced larger numbers of violent crimes in relation to all criminal activity. Noting our previously observation of low crime per person in the fourth ward – when it does happen, there are greater odds of it being violent in nature. Does violent crime, bear any special relationship to the eighth, seventh, and fourth ward lighting conditions?

Well, the eighth ward is characterized with lower total lighting, lowest street lights per block, and uneven pockets of lighting. Noting earlier Ward 7’s lighting conditions – overall average street light density per block and also a decent wattage distribution, it is important to keep in mind how spatially, street lights are disseminated through the ward. Though the numbers conveys preferable lighting conditions, remember the street light maps. It was observed there that bright lights occurred along only main road networks connecting to the core and the outlier Northeast Boundary sector. Local neighborhoods and subsidiary streets depicted dimmer lights (Marshall Heights) and our clustering of dense areas of lighting remained true when close to the Anacostia River. Street lights are not distributed evenly throughout the ward which has been recognized when mapped – utilizing this information at a later point, we will map criminal activity as well. Lastly the fourth ward though the best amongst the Northern Periphery, still share the same characteristics of the Eastern Fringes with predominantly bright lighting only amongst the main avenues. Outside of this, again, we see dimmer local neighborhoods whose density presence of lighting is relatively sparse to that of the Core.

Concerning our grouping of wards, do any trends stay unique and true?

  • Eastern Fringes: Average crime occurrence, however almost a one-to-one ratio between violent and non-violent crimes.
  • Northern Periphery: Drastic differences across the region. As one moves east, the greater number of crimes. As mentioned, Ward 4 displays a high ratio between the two cateogories of crime thus far.
  • The Core: Also average crime occurrence across all wards. Notably higher non-violent crimes than violent types in Ward 2 where the first and sixth wards show a roughly 2:1 respective ratio.

With the categories of crime and how interesting partial correlation may be drawn concerning violent crime, it would be worthwhile to illustrate the nature of the crime across Washington, D.C.

Observing the Eastern Fringes, the overall hue gleams reddish which supports the high violent nature of crimes noted earlier. Region wide, examining where larger violent crime pockets occur, supportive insights towards street lights and less crime exist. With lower block light density for Ward 8 in particular, violent crimes illustrates partial relationship to poor street lighting.

Ward 8 - Non-violent & Violent Crimes
In fact, these areas overlap with clusters of violent crime. Marshall Heights in the seventh ward exhibits this characteristic. The neighborhood to the north contributes better lighting to its residents and upon viewing the map also contributes a smaller proportion of violent crime. Moving towards the south in Ward 8, there is Congress Heights – another particular low light density and overall brightness in relation to its surrounding neighborhoods. Though not a formal statistical relationship – visually we can see that the less we can see on the streets, the greater the tendency for a violent crime to occur.

Outside of the eastern region, the relationship continues to exist. Areas such as Columbia Heights (Ward 1), Southwest Waterfront (Ward 6), and Brentwood Park (Ward 4) all contribute to poorer local environment lighting conditions and supports the relationship with larger occurrences of violent crimes.

Through this perspective, it is recognized the relationship between violent crimes and poor street light conditions. The poorer the conditions, the more violent crimes thrive. Moving deeper, let’s examine instances of each category.

All Crimes & Thefts

Outright, it becomes difficult to associate crime with poor lighting within the capitol. This was also seen with our inconclusive results from earlier. Our dense and bright Core region is covered with crime and the clustering trends do not support our belief of the effect of street lighting. Many of the largest clusters lay on top Washington, D.C.’s main road segments. Through mapping crime we can even pick out parts of 16th street and Georgia Avenue in the center. This weakens the support of the deterrence of criminal behavior through street lighting as along these street segments, both bright and presence conditions of light are made evident as discussed earlier. Though we may spot points of high crime – these bear no relationship visibly to that which effects street lights may have.

Categorizing into violent or non-violent crime already, we will explore instances of each type.

Georgia Avenue - Thefts

Thefts, a non-violent crime, occurs most often in terms of crime. Little relationships exists between poor lighting characteristics and high numbers of theft. In fact, it becomes visible, as earlier, along our main streets – where high light density and brightness both are capture, there is also high thefts. Along 16th street and Georgia Avenue, the streets identified by mapping crime, may be visualized again just through mapping thefts themselves. Chinatown also diminishes the belief that proper street lighting reduce instances of crime. Being filled with lights and also a popular area for night-life, being visible apparently makes you an easier target.

It seems as if crime and non-violent crimes neglect street lighting. Let’s draw attention towards an instance of violent crime.


This type of violent crime does trend in areas where lighting conditions also trend to be poor. What do most of the neighborhoods where large clusters of assaults exist have in common? Across these areas we had understand that lighting density is similar across the board, however, these areas in particular share another common characteristic. Much of the assault occurrences appear in neighborhoods where outside of the main road segments, the surrounding blocks illustrate low brightness.

Brightwood Park - Assault

Neighborhoods such as Colombia Heights, Trinidad/Carver, and the Southwest/Waterfront areas correlate with high assault occurrences and also dimly lit localities. What about the seventh and eighth ward? Unlike the distinguishable clusters identified previously, a more dangerous trend resonates from the Eastern Fringes. Though there are also clusters, instances of assaults coats itself practically uniformly across the region. This blanketing trend witnessed however, interestingly enough still conforms to correlation established earlier.
The seventh ward also has average block lighting density however the aggregation of assaults in neighborhoods such as Marshall Heights and Greenway are among the largest and demonstrates this notion of lower brightness relating to higher assault rates. For comparison, take a look at Marshall Heights. Just to the north of the neighborhood, the Northeast Boundary contains higher wattages within the lighting of its block streets than Marshall Heights. In addition to being dimly lit, Marshall Heights presence of street light – its density, is considerably sparse than its juxtaposing area. Now compare the assault rates of the two juxtaposing areas – Marshall Heights is rampant relative to its northern area.

Marshall Heights (Ward 7) - Assault

Congress Heights (Ward 8) - Wattage
We are continuing to see this continue relationship now in Ward 8 to even a larger extent. The eighth ward’s street lighting density is the poorest amongst the capital. Averaging between one or two less lights per block and observing this veil of assault all-over the ward, the relationship is proving stronger and stronger. Back to our cluster analysis, Anacostia, Congress Heights, and Washington Highlands presents the greatest areas for assaults. Once again, these areas have their surrounding neighborhoods with dim lighting and below average clustering of presence of street lights.

Moving from location to location has demonstrated that assaults – to a greater extent violent crimes, does conform itself to our idea of street lights being our first line of defense. When our lights are gone – assaults are what illuminates instead.

Choose the Light Side Sometimes it can make the difference

While the presence of a street light can mitigate our vulnerability of crime, both physically and consciously, street light conditions have shown little support that good lighting conditions equates to less criminal activity as a whole. From the particular aspect of assault however, we have been able to attribute correlation through many cases where street lighting does effect the deterrence of a type of violent crime. On the other hand, we have actually seen parallels concerning theft and sufficient lighting as well.

With these two examples of violent and non-violent crimes – perhaps this speaks further upon the nature of how these crimes interact. Non-violent crimes such as theft appear to be neglectful of lighting environments while violent crimes like assault try to avoid proper lighting situations. The consequences of violent crimes are more severe than non-violent and as a possible victim, we should be wearier of an upcoming assault than theft.

And so, how are supposed to feel when we trek the pavements of Washington, D.C. at night? Though crime itself is a complex problem to address solely with street lights – we have seen to an extent the effect of crime where thresholds of lit streets are not met. Especially considering the violent nature of those particular crimes, it is important to understanding our lighting environments.

As we find ourselves migrating through the capitol in the evenings, now knowing that sometimes better lighting can be leveraged, notice the lights that surround you – it can make a difference.

Photo Credits

  • Featured Image by Andy Feliciotti;
  • Washington, D.C. by brennamedia;
  • Where There’s Light, There’s Dark by 9thCycleStudios;

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