The Greening of Community Safety

The Greening of Community Safety

History: I am no sociologist, but for many years, riding the train from the suburbs into Chicago, I remember being uplifted and then discouraged by what I saw from the train’s windows. I became unconsciously aware that my spirits could rise and fall, just looking out a window. Why? Environment.

I always exited those rides either entering the canyon of tall Chicago buildings, or the quiet neighborhoods where I lived, places of green lawns and tidy homes. But I could not forget the buildings, the tracts of land in between that made me sorrowful for the people who lived there. I was looking at struggle, at the disadvantaged. In some cases, I was looking at real poverty. But then the train kept going, taking me away. 


Actually, back in the day, I could tell you who in my town, my neighborhood, was lax in keeping up their houses, their yards. When you live in a place of order, the disorder stands out. And when two or three homes in a row begin to slip, gradually the entire block can fall into a pattern where upkeep is ignored for one reason or another.


Deterioration can quickly occur in small towns, suburbs, but also in our PUBLIC SPACES if we are not alert to preventing a downward spiral. Research that proves this is always welcome, especially when it is backed by people like Eugenia C. South, Charles Branas and John MacDonald who decided to do some investigating of the subject, because they wanted to make a difference. 

In the city of Philadelphia, they randomly chose places to receive an intervention. Partnering with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, they transformed vacant lots by cleaning up abandoned mattresses and furniture, condoms, needles and other trash. They then planted new grass and trees, installed wood post and rail fences around the area and made sure that regular maintenance occurred. The grass was cut, weeds pulled and trash picked up.


Gun violence went down significantly. Quoting the article: “The steepest drop in crime, up to 29 percent, was in the several blocks surrounding vacant lots in neighborhoods whose residents live below the poverty line…Over 18 months, we analyzed for and did not find any evidence of crime simply being pushed to other parts of the city.”  


The group then studied abandoned houses with broken windows, crumbling facades and interiors riddled with trash. They randomly selected houses to 1. receive new doors and windows, full interior remediation (adding new doors and windows, cleaning the outside of the house and yard); or 2. only a trash cleanup intervention, or–no intervention at all. Their findings, which will be published, demonstrated a clear reduction in weapons violations, gun assaults and shootings as a result of the full remediation. 

Similar interventions have strong evidence toward violence protection efforts. An interesting example: in Cincinnati, a loss of trees from pests was associated with a rise in crime. In Chicago, people living in housing that was surrounded by more trees reported less mental fatigue and aggression than counterparts who lived in barren buildings. 

Thus I think back to my train ride–and though I always was blessed with a destination that included trees, grass and in warm weather bird song–compare that to garbage strewn streets and buildings barren of greenery. 

The team of researchers also discovered that structural repairs to heating, plumbing, electricity and roofing to homes of low-income owners were associated with a drop in crime, including homicide. The more homes that were repaired in a certain area, the higher the impact in preventing crime. 


The author, Eugenia C. South, who is an MD working in the trauma bay, leaves us with this thought: …after I care for shooting victims in the trauma bay of the ER, I ask myself–what if we, as a country, make intentional decisions to invest in people and their neighborhoods? Instead of dying, would they flourish?

I am grateful to GREEN STREETS CAN REDUCE VIOLENCE Eugenia C. South, which appeared in THE NEW YORK TIMES.