Many cities are finding that something as simple as installing a split rail fence around a cleared and mowed vacant lot not only fights urban blight, it can help fight crime, Stateline reports. Inspired by a program in Philadelphia, cities such as Cincinnati, Houston and New Orleans are using heavy equipment to clear, grade, and seed thousands of vacant lots, believing that empty properties with head-high weeds, scrubby trees, trash and debris are excellent hiding places for guns, drugs, and criminal activity. After the initial cleanup, cities partner with neighborhood groups and nonprofits to care for the lots, or in some instances sell them to people who agree to maintain or develop them.
Installing a fence around a vacant lot can make a huge difference by signaling that although a lot is vacant, it isn’t abandoned. The theory, akin to the “broken windows” philosophy of policing, is that minor crimes, such as littering and vandalism, are signs of social disorder that often invite more serious crime. “Without it, it’s as if the property has no ownership and it’s open to any sort of activity,” said Debora Flora, executive director of the Mahoning County Land Bank in Youngstown, Oh., where 23,000 parcels of land are vacant. In Philadelphia — where the LandCare program maintains 12,000 lots, or more than a quarter of the city’s vacant lots that have been graded, seeded and fenced since 2004 — cleaning up and caring for empty property has proven to decrease crime and save the public money. A 2016 study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Urban Health Lab showed that fixing up vacant lots reduced nearby gun violence 5 percent, and putting functioning windows and doors in abandoned houses, instead of boarding them up, cut nearby gun violence by 39 percent. The study found that every dollar Philadelphia spends on fixing up vacant lots saves taxpayers $26 in reduced costs from gun violence.