As population increases and cities expand, many people in urban areas become disconnected from Nature. Technology has exasperated this disconnect by providing entertainment via computers rather than being outdoors. Yet, over 100 studies have shown the positive impact Nature has on human health and well-being. People’s connection to Nature supposedly fosters more caring for others. Without contact with Nature, people are more likely to feel depressed or alienated.
While Philadelphia has the lush Fairmount Park system, many poorer neighborhoods are devoid of green space. Approximately 1 in 13 blocks are 50% or more vacant land. The Police Tribune reported in July 2021 that homicide rates have increased by 35% since 2020. Philadelphia now has the highest murder rate in the country. No wonder a friend from upstate refers to our city as “Killadelphia”
A recent article by South in The New York Times discussed eﬀorts to reduce violence in Philadelphia by creating more green space. With the help of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the author, along with colleagues, created mini parks on vacant lots. Of the hundreds of lots, some had trash cleanup only or no intervention for comparison. They found the largest drop in crime, 29%, in the poorest neighborhoods where there was green space and where lots were cleaned. This study confirms that neighborhoods without green space, where houses are deteriorating and trash accumulates, are more likely to spawn crime. As one resident said, “And seeing vacant lots and abandoned buildings, to me that’s a sign of neglect. So I feel neglected.”
In 2005 a Masters thesis by Lim at the University of Texas reviewed articles to ascertain the relation between green space and violence. Green space included tree cover, parks and ground cover; violent crime included murder, assault and theft. Of 30,000 articles, 45 were selected as worth studying. Later in 2019 Shepley et al continued the review. They learned that green space increased social interaction and reduced stress. Their hope was that using research, they could empower government and communities in urban areas to support green spaces to reduce crime. With green space people are more apt to interact and feel connected. Green space also inspires exercise, which has a mental as well as a physical health benefits.
This is especially important for children as green spaces provide a positive outlet for interaction. Another benefit is that trees reduce heat which has been proven to provoke aggression.
Numerous studies find similar results. Branas et al studied 5112 abandoned buildings and vacant lots from 1999 to 2013. Providing green space significantly reduced gun violence but didn’t aﬀect non gun violence. In another study Branas et al. randomly assigned 541 vacant lots to green remediation or nothing for comparison. Over 38 months those living near green lots reported significantly less violence as residents socialized more. Police reported significantly less gun violence, burglary and other crimes. This is critical since vacant lots make up about 15% of land in US cities.
Studies around the country support the need for green space to reduce crime. In Cincinnati there was a rise in crime after a pest infestation destroyed many trees. In Chicago those in public housing with trees felt less stressed or aggressive than those living in barren housing. In Portland, the planting of trees reduced violence, especially in lower income neighborhoods. In Houston, the incidence of crime near neighborhood gardens did not decrease though residents perceived less crime and felt positive about the neighborhood revitalization. In Springfield, Ohio a program called Conscious Connect, begun by a Black man, like the program Philly Peace Park, hopes to reduce violence by utilizing green space.
Restoring land with trees and plants seems to be a proven intervention for reducing crime. This being the case, why are we not pouring more resources into urban green spaces?
The savings for taxpayers can be as much as $333 for every dollar spent on greening vacant lots instead of for medical expenses and incarceration resulting from violence. Investment in green spaces saves the City money as well as making life more pleasant for urban residents. The addition of trees and plants is a win-win strategy to decrease violence while addressing climate change. Everyone benefits from having more access to Nature.
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