16. Environmental Criminology

16.4 Theoretical Approaches Within Environmental Criminology

Antonio Robert Verbora

The following section discusses the key environmental criminology theories that seek to explain the causes of crime. It is important to note that each of the following theories discussed has its own strengths, weaknesses, as well as gaps, and is applicable (in this case) to the understanding of environmental criminology in general. It is worth noting that some of these theoretical approaches can be applied to study other crimes under the umbrella of criminology and can be used for other disciplines as well (psychology, economics, etc.). For the purposes of this chapter, the four theoretical frameworks to be discussed are routine activity theory, geometric theory, rational choice theory, and pattern theory.

Routine Activity Theory

One of the main theories associated with environmental criminology is routine activity theory. Routine activity theory predicts how changes in social and economic conditions influence crime and victimisation and it has become one of the most cited theories in criminology. It was first posited in 1979 by Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson, who defined routine activity as “any recurrent and prevalent activities which provide for basic population and individual needs, whatever their biological or cultural origins” (Cohen & Felson, 1979, p. 593). Essentially, the activities we all engage in through the days, months, weeks, and even years of our existence are all associated with our routine activities: these activities can range from extra-curricular, to work-related, to school-related activities—for example, going to work, attending school, seeing one’s friends, or running errands. Further, these activities are commonplace and involve multiple people moving through space and time (Andresen, 2010; Felson, 2013; Felson, 2017). If we want to look at changes and crime trends, we can refer to Cohen and Felson’s (1979) notion that these changes are closely associated with changes in routine activities, which are closely associated across time, across space, or between individuals.

Routine activity is not a general theory of crime; however, it has been expanded to explain a plethora of crimes (Felson, 2013; Felson, 2017). It is important to note that this theory focuses on the actions of individuals, rather than the neighbourhood and its characteristics. Moreover, routine activity theory is closely associated with human ecology (Andresen, 2010, p. 14), which is significant because it takes into consideration the importance of time. In the context of time, human ecologists state that “ecology is generally defined as understanding how a population (humans, for example) survives in an ever-changing environment” (Andresen, 2010, p. 15). So, where we work, where we live, and where we mingle (all associated with space) are where we spend our time; however, also knowing when we are at those specific places and locations is important. As such, routine activity theory acknowledges the important interplay between space and time in everyday activities, including criminal activity.

Routine activity theory focuses on crimes that involve (1) at minimum, one motivated offender, (2) one suitable personal or property target, and (3) the absence of a guardian capable of preventing such a violation (Cohen & Felson 1979; Felson, 2013). For a more detailed explanation of these three elements refer to Table 16.1 below. These three essential elements help explain why crime is likely to occur as they converge in space and time (Felson, 2017). As Andresen (2010) states, “it is the convergence in time and space of these three elements that is necessary for a crime to occur; moreover, it is the changes in the nature of this convergence that changes crime” (p. 17). For a visual illustration, see Figure 16.1.

Table 16.1: Routine Activity Theory – The Three Essential Elements of Crime
Information adapted from Andresen (2010)
Motivated Offender
  • An individual who is capable and willing to commit a criminal activity
  • An individual who has true intent to commit a crime against another individual and/or property
  • Essentially, the motivated offender has everything he/she needs to commit a crime, physically and mentally
Suitable Target
  • Any type of individual and/or property that the motivated offender can damage or threaten in the easiest way possible
  • In order for a target to be deemed suitable, this means there is a greater chance that the crime can be committed
  • Four different attributes of what makes a target suitable (VIVA):
    1. V: Value (The value of achieving the target)
    2. I: Inertia (The physical obstacles of the target, e.g., weight, height, strength, etc.)
    3. V: Visibility (The attribute of exposure which solidifies the suitability of the target)
    4. A: Access (The placement of the individual/or object that increases, or decreases, the potential risk of the intended attack)
Absence of a Suitable Guardian
  • A person or object that is effective in deterring offence: meaning that the presence of guardianship in space and time can prevent and/or stop crime
  • Includes friends, as well as formal authorities, such as private security guards and public police


Figure 16.1: The Crime Triangle – Routine Activity Theory

To conclude, routine activity theory has traditionally been used to explain residential break and enter, burglary, domestic violence, and physical assault.  This theory provides significant insight into the causes of crime problems as it pertains to a particular place (e.g., drug dealing locations) and amongst victims (e.g., domestic violence). The theory explains why crime is often concentrated at specific places and locations and contributes to the understanding of the uneven spatial and temporal distribution of such crimes. More specifically, spatial and temporal patterns in family, work, and leisure activities influence what kinds of situations emerge, and changes in a society’s routine activities can cause changes in the kind of situations people confront.



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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Antonio Robert Verbora is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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