It’s no secret for many an urban dweller that illicit drug deals happen out in the open on their city streets. But what makes a certain corner, block of buildings or public park more popular for shady exchanges than others? Looking at Chicago, new research by Rutgers University’s Criminal Justice Department examines the impact of the physical features of a city on drug deals, and, more specifically, how drug dealers and buyers take advantage of the urban built environment to find more secure and effective places to make a deal. Jeremy D. Barnum, Walter L. Campbell, Sarah Trocchio, Joel M. Caplan, and Leslie W. Kennedy examined 28 such physical features, building up on previous research which found that half of all drug transactions in Jersey City, New Jersey, took place on just 5% of street segments.

Using publicly available municipal data on drug arrests and known hot spots from the City of Chicago, the researchers put figures regarding cannabis, heroin, crack and cocaine together with a relatively new technique for crime analysis known as risk terrain modelling (RTM) to explore the physical environmental features that create ‘ecological advantages’ for both dealers and buyers.  “Studies have suggested that some locations are better suited for open-air drug dealing than others because of their particular environmental features, such as hotels, bars, or public transportation stops. These have been termed “ecological advantages” because they can be exploited to enhance both accessibility and security when buying and selling drugs,” explains the research team on the London School of Economics’ blog.

“We assessed the relationship between 28 environmental features that were likely to bolster accessibility or security in open-air drug markets for four drug types: cannabis, heroin, crack, and cocaine…Overall, we identified 11 environmental features related to cannabis dealing, 12 for heroin dealing, 11 for crack dealing, and 3 for cocaine dealing,” they continue. The results mirror what many refer to as the ‘broken window theory’ wherein physical dilapidation and visible blight seem to attract further disarray and antisocial behavior: foreclosed buildings – of which there are many in Chicago – were found to attract a disproportionately high number of drug transactions, across all four drug types studied. “The relative risk values indicate that the risk of drug dealing near foreclosures alone was higher by a factor of between 5 and 16.5 compared to other features in each model.

drug deals dealers urban environment

Additionally, the RTM analysis showed that security, for both drug dealer and buyer, is enhanced by broken street lighting, affordable housing, and problem landlords and thus higher rates of drug deals across all drug types tend to happen there. In terms of accessibility (which the researchers describe as places that “are easy to get to, familiar, and draw a large number of persons who could potentially purchase drugs… [that] often produce legitimate activity that allows dealers and consumers to blend in to their surroundings.”), gas stations, grocery and liquor stores and other late night establishments were at high risk for drug deals.

“Our research demonstrates a practical approach for generating actionable intelligence to highlight the environmental features that facilitate different open-air drug markets,” explain the academics who go on to say that their study could be used to inform proactive and place-based policing strategies, as well as crime prevention through urban design. “As improvements in open source data and crime analysis continue to grow, we expect future research to build upon our current findings and further improve public safety efforts.”