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Frontiers of Biogeography

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Does vegetation structure influence criminal activity? Insights from Cape Town, South Africa


Dense vegetation, especially thickets of trees or shrubs, has been associated with actual and perceived crime risk in several parts of the world. In some contexts, invasive alien trees and shrubs can create a habitat structure that is very different from that provided by native vegetation. The role of alien and native plant species at different stages of invasion/densification in mediating criminal activity within a managed landscape remains poorly documented and elaborated. Using the South African city of Cape Town (a rapidly growing metropolitan centre within a global biodiversity hotspot) as a case study, we discuss the role of alien, invasive and native vegetation in mediating criminal activity in urban areas, particularly in a developing-country context. We argue that the incidence of crime may not always be determined by the biogeographical status of dominant plants (i.e., whether vegetation is dominated by native, alien, or invasive alien species), but rather on the structure/habitat they provide. A stronger link between crime and vegetation is likely in areas where tree invasions have drastically altered vegetation structure. This paper draws attention to a novel interaction between humans and vegetation and highlights the need for context-specific approaches when managing plant invasions, particularly in urban areas.

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