Kid playing in fountain.Photo: Wyoming_JackrabbitCities have a bad reputation with parents, for a lot of reasons. One of the biggest: crime. Ask the average suburban parents why they’ve chosen to raise their family far away from the urban core, and chances are good the topic will come up early in the conversation. Cities might be enriching and green and beneficial for kids in all kinds of ways. But what most parents want to know is, are they safe?

Last week, I chatted with Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, about this very topic. You remember Lenore. She’s the mom who was crucified by the national media back in 2008, after she let her nine-year old son ride the subway alone and then wrote about it for The New York Sun.  A self-described “worrier mom,” Skenazy encourages parents — no matter where they live — to move beyond fears and focus on facts.

Incessant coverage of the most gruesome, horrifying crimes against children makes us think our kids are in constant danger. But, she points out, many of the risks we take great pains to guard against — at the expense of our sanity and our children’s well-being — are actually extremely rare. (The chances of a child being abducted and killed by a stranger, for example, are one in 1.5 million.) In chapter after chapter, Skenazy confronts parental fears, discussing both their roots and their rootedness in reality. For the real dangers, she gives practical advice to help you minimize risk. For the other stuff, she provides reassuring data and tips to help you stop hovering.

So I ask you: Where is the woman who wrote an entire book about risks to children (and knows a thing or two about safety) choosing to raise her own family? Yes folks, a city. Actually, the city: Manhattan.

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The ultimate measure of safety, of course, is whether you’re able to stay alive from one day to the next. By this standard, cities are safer than many suburbs — at least, according to a University of Virginia study.

Potential dangers in any residential location arise from leaving home to travel to work, shop, attend school, attend church, visit friends, or go to civic functions and family gatherings. Tabulating traffic fatalities is the best method of measuring these dangers, the researchers concluded.

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They also examined homicides by strangers, because they are the murders most likely to be associated with going about one’s routine business out of the home, and they may be related to proximity to dangerous areas.

The study found that the most dangerous regions of nine metropolitan areas (Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh) are the outer suburbs. (Inner-ring suburbs were the safest, with central cities coming in second.) People, especially children, are most likely to be hurt or killed in an automobile crash, and, not surprisingly, automobile crashes are more prevalent in areas that require cars to get around. (Outer suburbs also tend to be dominated by two-lane roads, which are responsible for roughly 77 percent of automobile fatalities.) Even though the risk of homicide by a stranger (incidentally, a small percentage of all homicides) is slightly higher in central cities, the difference is not enough to overcome the significantly elevated risk in outer suburbs of a fatal car crash.

Of course, there’s more to safety than staying alive. Most of us would also like to avoid being assaulted, harassed, or robbed. So what of the crime that does exist in cities? According to Skenazy, that’s going down — and not just a little bit. We’re talking historic lows. Crime rates have been falling in almost every category (including crimes against children) since the mid-90s, and are no higher today than they were in 1974.

This is not to say that all cities are safe, or even that all neighborhoods in low-crime cities are safe. Certainly, there are places where children are at great risk — either of participating in a culture of violence or of being caught in the crossfire. And of course, rare, horrific crimes can happen anywhere. But what’s important to remember is that there is nothing inherently dangerous about cities. On the contrary.

Says Skenazy. “For every worry about an urban environment, there’s also something that makes it safer.”

In central cities, there are more people around. More eyes and ears (with cell phones) on the street mean less opportunity for crime. Skenazy suggests that the best way to keep kids safe in cities is to teach them basic street smarts, so that they can avoid dangerous situations or find help if they encounter one. And, tell kids not to go off with people they don’t know, but also teach them “To talk to strangers. That way, if they’re ever creeped out by someone in the proverbial white van, they can run to the man across the street, raking his leaves, and say, ‘Help! I’m being followed!’ Or they can run into a shop and say, ‘Call the police!’ Or, ‘Can I please borrow your phone?”’

Urban parents can take comfort in the fact that their children, on the whole, are not in greater danger than children who live in other environments. Still, we cannot dismiss the importance of security – both real and perceived- and its influence on where families choose to make their homes. NYC transportation chief Janette Sadik-Khan said it well in her recent interview with Sarah Goodyear. “When you think about it, safety and sustainability are deeply intertwined. You can’t get people to ride a bike if they don’t feel safe. You can’t get more people onto a bus if they feel like the streets are dangerous. They go so deeply together.”