Cleaning up and greening up urban blight—neighbors working together to turn the site of a demolished building into a community garden or park—has become the feel-good story of urban renewal. But a recent study suggests that “greening” can do more than just boost neighborhood morale—it can actually fight crime.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania recently studied how projects to clear and plant vacant lots affect violent crime in urban areas, gathering police statistics and surveying nearby residents on their perceptions of security before and after a Philadelphia botanical society spruced up several nearby vacant lots. The results were promising: not only did neighbors report feeling significantly safer, but there were measurable reductions in total crime.
And while sociologists are still studying the potential of vacant lot greening as a violence-prevention measure, the idea that the urban environment has a hand in how residents behave—and feel—is already taking root.
In Detroit, where there are 10 residential demolitions for every new home built, and a third of the city’s 139 square miles is vacant land, organizations like The Greening of Detroit mobilize neighborhoods to reclaim open space. “Adopt a Lot” programs help neighborhoods transform overgrown, rubbish-filled spaces into parks, playgrounds, and gardens. In a recent victory, the nonprofit partnered with the city government to demolish a set of blighted apartment buildings—which had been a magnet for arson and vandalism—and turn the land into a wildflower meadow.
“It took a toll not only on the neighborhood, but on the police and fire departments that had to come out every single week,” says Dean Hay, director of green infrastructure for The Greening of Detroit. After a year of looking at “burned-out apartments,” neighbors said they felt gratitude, relief, more community connection, and a greater sense of safety, he said.
Detroit hasn’t yet collected crime data on the vacant lot cleanups, but residents aren’t waiting for the statisticians to tell them what they can already see: that a greener city makes for a stronger city, and in more ways than you might expect.