Can more art equal less crime?

Maya Moritz, a first-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Criminology, is building the case, studying the effect of Philadelphia murals on the city’s crime rate.

Philadelphia is a city of murals, with more than 4,000 (official and unofficial) gracing the walls of its diverse neighborhoods. In dense urban areas, murals can bring together a community and help beautify a neighborhood. They may also reduce crime.

Maya Moritz giving a lecture in front of a mural.
Maya Moritz presenting at the 2024 Penn Grad Talks. She won first place in the Social Science category. (Image: Brooke Sietinsons)

Maya Moritz, a criminology doctoral student in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, was inspired to investigate this hypothesis after she met professor of criminology and sociology John MacDonald. Author of “Changing Places: The Science and Art of New Urban Planning,” MacDonald is known for his place-based research, which looks at how interventions such as lot greening, litter cleanup, and improved lighting affect crime. MacDonald surmised that murals could have similar benefits, but little research had been done.

As Moritz embarked on the project last fall, she began to see why. To determine a link between murals and crime rate, Moritz needed to know exactly when each mural had been painted—a much harder task than it sounds. It took her eight months to gather information on 200 murals. “I’ve had to email and call every single artist to try and find out when they painted their mural,” she says.

She’s also conducted plenty of on-the-ground research, with the hopes that the murals she tracked down would display exact commemoration dates. No such luck. “My walking around ended up being more about understanding the context,” she says. “Like how much graffiti does a mural have? What state is it in? How visible is it? Is it near a park or a playground? Has a building been torn down nearby or has something else gone up in front of it? There are all sorts of things you can’t find out just by looking at a website.”

This story is by Judy Hill. Read more at OMNIA.