Clean Those Vacant Lots: A Neighborhood Anti-Crime Strategy That Works

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Philadelphia's PLC program has cleaned up over 12,000 vacant lots since 1996, with significant reductions in crime. Photo courtesy the Manhattan Institute

While many criminologists advocate addressing the sociological roots of crime, such as racism, poverty and unemployment, two researchers claim that quicker and more cost-effective results might come from a (literally) more grassroots approach.

In a study published by the Manhattan Institute as part of its Urban Policy 2019 series, John M. Macdonald and Charles C. Branas found that a Philadelphia program to revitalize abandoned lots in the city’s blight-ridden neighborhoods resulted in “significant” reductions in shootings and assaults.

“Decisions about how and where cities invest resources in the abatement of vacant lots could have a greater influence on reducing crime than many realize,” they concluded.

The so-called Philadelphia LandCare (PLC) program began turning vacant lots into “pocket parks” in 1996, replacing rubbish-covered areas with fenced-in greenery, water fountains, barbecues, gardens, and swings. Local residents were paid to maintain the lots—weeding and mowing them twice-weekly during the growing season.

With research funding from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the authors studied crime rates in the neighborhoods surrounding 500 lots, chosen randomly from the 12,000 urban spaces that had been transformed by the program up to 2008.

They found that between 1999 and 2008, shootings in those spaces went down by 8 percent, assaults with guns declined by 4.5 percent, and nuisance crimes such as public drinking and illegal dumping were down by 7 percent.

“The effects were even larger for neighborhoods below the poverty line, with the PLC treatment leading to a 29 percent reduction in gun assaults and a 28 percent reduction in nuisance crimes,” they wrote.

The authors also examined nearby areas to check if criminal activity had merely been displaced to other blocks that had not been “greened,” and found “no evidence of rising crime.”

“This was not surprising, as a review of studies of place-based interventions finds that they are about as likely to find a diffusion of crime reductions to nearby places, as they are to find displacement,” they wrote.

Charles Branas

Charles Branas

”The opportunity to engage in crime facilitated by vacant lots may not easily be transferred to nearby places after lots have been cleaned and greened.”

Branas, professor of epidemiology and chairman of the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and Macdonald, professor of criminology and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, said their findings corroborated the work of other scholars who argue that “place”—more specifically, attention to environmental design— has a role in shaping crime.

Urban blight feeds a “spiral of decay” that exacerbates criminal activity, according to the theory, giving a signal to drug dealers and other offenders that they have a free pass to conduct their activities without fear of being impeded by police enforcement.

The PLC program, conducted in partnership with city officials and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, was an attempt to reverse the deterioration in Philadelphia neighborhoods fueled by de-industrialization and the flight to the suburbs since the 1960s and 1970s.

Although some cities have been able to reverse the process with new investment, others like Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, and St. Louis have continued to see large tracts of land in their centers abandoned to urban blight, the authors said.

Philadelphia’s initial cleanup efforts were funded by the city, private philanthropy and local community organizations. The program uses a network of 18 organization which hire local landscape contractors, who in turn hire local residents to provide the upkeep—making the program a job generator.

Efforts to rehabilitate those tracts are relatively cheap: Sprucing up a typical lot costs between $1,000 and $1,300, and the upkeep amounts to about $150 a year.

“Our overall calculations suggest that $1 invested in the PLC program returns $26 in net benefits to taxpayers from reductions in gun violence, and as much as $333 in general costs to society, such as pain and suffering costs associated with a gun assault,” the authors said.

While the program may be comparatively low-cost at the micro-level, investing in a  city-wide cleanup program could run as much as $5 million, the study conceded. And that doesnt include addressing the more complex roots of deindustrialization and urban decay, such as fixing  potholed roads and improving public transit.

Nevertheless, the authors argue even small, incremental changes in the inner-city environment can have big consequences.

Interviews with residents also suggested that the sustained efforts to maintain the lots and keep them attractive also fueled a sense of engagement, vigilance and commitment, which also may have played a part in steering away troublemakers.

Similar programs are now underway in Youngstown, Ohio and Flint, Mich. New Orleans and Chicago are also in the process of launching cleanups.

john Macdonald

John M. Macdonald

The advantage of such programs is they “do not require large-scale structural investments from taxpayers,” the authors wrote.

“Given that crime and related problems are highly concentrated in the same places, this means that strategic planning can have large-scale population benefits.”

They continued: “Imagine a likely scenario where a hundred blocks in a city are responsible for 20 percent of all serious crime. Addressing blight on these blocks alone could translate into a 5 percent–10 percent reduction in crime for the entire city.

“As a means of reducing crime and the fear that it creates in urban neighborhoods, changing places is often easier than changing people.”

The complete study can be downloaded here.

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