If you are pondering a move to a town or city overseas, safety has to be one of your chief concerns. So how do you define “safety”, and how do you measure it?

There are many different ways, but in a recent US survey of what index to use to judge if a city is safe, the majority of respondents opted for an average annual murder rate of less than 5 per 100,000 people.

As murder is the most serious crime of all, it’s understandable that you would choose the places where the chances of that happening to you are the smallest. Even if the infinitesimal possibility of being bumped off somewhere is offset by the far greater risk of being knocked down in the streets, as in the teeming thoroughfares of Vietnam’s urban areas, or even the busy bike routes of London, for example.

Most foul

Let’s look at those murder statistics first.

The Ward Room, Part of NBC Chicago, has put together a list of murders per 100,000 in major (it calls them “alpha”) world cities.

Chicago has the highest murder rate — and according to Ward’s figures it tops even Third World metropolises of Mexico City and Sao Paolo.

This is the run down, starting at the bottom (safest):

Safest Major Cities

RankCityMurders per 100,000 people
3Hong Kong0.6
10New York6
11Los Angeles7.5
12Mexico City8
14Sao Paulo15.6

The report was published in August 2012.

The Ward Room concedes that Chicago could be doing worse: Caracas, Venezuela, has a murder rate of 130 per 100,000.

This is just one of many “safe city” lists, and they are regularly updated. (That doesn’t necessarily happen every year, so you may be looking at something three or four years out of date.) When you do your research, it pays to note when the survey was made, because things can change a lot between, say, 2008 and 2013.

Safety in numbers

One of the most authoritative lists is drawn up by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The safest cities if you want to avoid being murdered, according to that 2012 UNODC study, are Vienna (1.1 murders per 100,000), then, in descending order, Madrid, Yerevan in Armenia, Bucharest, Cairo, Reykjavik, Tokyo, Ljubljana, with Lisbon safest of all on 0.2.

UNODC listed Tallinn (in Estonia), Minsk (Belarus) and Chishinau (Moldova) as the most murderous cities in Europe. Amsterdam tops the list of homicide rates in Western Europe with 4.4 murders per 100,000 people, followed by Glasgow (3.3), Brussels (3) and Prague (2.7). Download the full list.

We are beginning to see the benefits of crowdsourcing data in these surveys. For example in 2012 Trip Advisor published its Cities Survey, based on an analysis of 75,000 surveys, ranking the 40 cities with the largest number of international travellers. It’s named Tokyo, Singapore and Dubrovnik, in that order, as the top three safest cities.

Ready to move abroad? Find out what it could cost to ship your belongings with our guide on international shipping costs.

Sweet Adelaide

What happens if we pull back and measure all criminal activity over a 12 month period? This is what researchers did in the Suncorp Bank Family Friendly City Report, when they identified Adelaide as the safest of Australia’s 30 largest cities.

The South Australian capital returned a crime rate at just 2365 incidents per 100,000 population. Bunbury, Western Australia, and Launceston, Tasmania, followed it in the rankings. Hobart was fourth. Social analyst David Chalke said: “Adelaide is a very polite and well-mannered city … South Australians are just too polite to be criminals”.

If you take entire countries, New Zealand scores well, maybe working out its violent tendencies on the rugby field. That rosy picture served up by the moviemakers – the Tolkien films depict it as coast-to-coast rural idyll (it’s only fiction, so Mordor isn’t anywhere close) – isn’t far from the truth. Murder rates have been falling to just above 1.2 per 100,000 people per year, about the same rate as Switzerland.

Call of the south

South Africa can’t pretend it doesn’t have big public safety issues in its cities, but there are still lots of secure places to live. Of the cities, Cape Town, which also leads the New York Times travel desk’s list of places to visit in 2014, stands out as having one of the the safest centres in South Africa. Other places given a favourable mention in a 2011 survey by Expatica include the Garden Route – the spectacular area between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. Many of the towns here rate highly for public safety.

Then there is Port St John’s on the Transkei Wild Coast; Cape St. Francis, a seaside town close to Port Elizabeth; and towns on the sparsely populated West Coast – such as Yzerfontein, Churchhaven and St. Helena Bay.

Don’t take your guns to town, son

Business Insider reported in July 2013 that the USA was becoming a much safer country, and it was a long-term trend. It looked at 2012 figures from the FBI’s latest report on crime in cities with populations of more than 200,000.

Irvine, California, is named the safest city in the USA for the 9th consecutive year. Fremont, Calif, and Plano, Texas are second and third.

Another six of the safest cities are located in California. Nine of the 20 safest cities are located in the Southwest.

Another, more recent (2014) survey by Movoto Real Estate, based on FBI crime data shows Irvine, Calif., as the safest city, followed by Fremont, then Gilbert, Arizona. In this study Plano cams fifth. The report took into account murders, violent crimes, and property crimes.

Escape the weather

Look beyond the standard indices on the level of crime, and there’s a wealth of information on other things. One of my favourites is the 2012 survey conducted by the US company Sperling’s for the New York Times.

In 2011 the company ranked all 379 U.S. metro areas according to the risks their citizens run from tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, droughts, hail, and weather events such as extreme rain, snow, heat and cold.

So if you’re thinking about where to move to the USA, the places with the lowest risk from weather and natural disasters are mainly in the Pacific Northwest.

At the top of the list are Corvallis and Salem in Oregon, followed by seven places in Washington State including Spokane, Seattle-Bellevue-Everett, and Olympia. Grand Junction in Colorado also makes the top 10.

As a measure of how safety and well-being list-making is growing, in 2013 Sperling’s followed this with a list of the “Most Secure Places to Live in the US”, looking at metropolitan areas with a population of 500,000 or more.

The list addressed almost everything you could think of to do with safe, comfortable and stress-free living – economic stability, crime statistics, extreme weather, risk of natural disasters, housing depreciation, foreclosures, air quality, environmental hazards, life expectancy, motor vehicle fatalities, and employment numbers.

Top of the list of large metro areas was Bethesda–Gaithersburg–Frederick, in Maryland, followed by the Grand Rapids-Wyoming Metropolitan Area in Michigan and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Also featuring in the top 10 were; Omaha, Nebraska, San Francisco–San Mateo–Redwood City, California, Portland, Oregon and Dallas.

Anyone planning to move people are planning to move to the USA with their families might like to note the 2010 Parenting Magazine list of safest cities for families. Topping the list was Scottsdale, Arizona, followed by Arlington, Virginia, and El Paso, Texas. Ann Arbor, Michigan; Mesa, Arizona; Anaheim, California; San Diego; Portland, Oregon; New York City and Mobile, Alabama made up the list.

Safe, by design

There are many ways to judge how safe a city is. Planners are adopting a wider, more academic point of view. When it comes to improving public safety they now talk about “intelligent design” and “smart solutions”.

Gaspar Viega, a senior director at Alcatel-Lucent specializing in public safety said: “If you think about safety only in terms of reducing crime, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the city will be kept safe. For example, you can look at casualties from poor traffic management and auto accidents. It’s also about the level of pollution in a city. This is how a safe city should be analyzed.”

Veiga believes that the challenge to become a safe city can be boiled down to three questions: How do we reduce crime? How do we promote mobility? How do we create a better environment for safety and quality of life?

The 2000s have seen the rapid growth of technology enlisted to head off terrorist threats. But cameras and other monitoring devices seem likely to infiltrate all parts of city living.

Veiga believes that tomorrow’s cities will be fully connected. “They will have a command and control center where all data will be sent. Intelligent sensors in bridges and buildings will instantly warn of earthquakes or structural problems and re-route traffic.

“Business intelligence tools and the semantic web will anticipate events and mitigate risks, from earthquakes to criminal acts and other problems generated by human activity.”

If that sounds too much like a remake of Minority Report for you, it looks like the inevitable and inexorable march of technology will take us to a point near there. And if it makes our environment safer, many may see that as a price worth paying for the all-inclusive surveillance.