There are few scenes quite as serene and peaceful as an expanse of green grass, shaded by a stately oak tree. The bucolic imagery has the ability to calm and comfort, transporting people from their everyday struggles, if only for a few fleeting moments.
In contrast, thoughts of urban life tend to evoke feelings of anxiety and claustrophobia. For many, the very word “city” brings to mind cold, gray buildings, a lack of natural color and light, and of blight and crime.
Would the introduction of additional green space in high-crime areas help to reduce criminal behavior? A new series of experiments in three cities with high crime and incarceration rates seeks to find out. A five-year, $6 million federal grant is helping to turn vacant lots into “urban oases” in Flint, Michigan, Youngstown, Ohio, and Camden, New Jersey.
“If you live in a bad neighborhood and you plant some trees and do some community revitalization, do you think it will make a difference?” Marc Zimmerman, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, asks in a story by the Marshall Project. “A lot of skeptics will say ‘well, duh! Of course it does.’ And others might say, ‘huh? How can that make a difference?’ But we don’t really know. It hasn’t been adequately tested.”
The Broken Windows theory of law enforcement suggests that crime is exacerbated when there is a sense of disorder in a community. By replacing run-down buildings and vacant lots with maintained green space, a level of order is restored. When order is restored, the theory suggests, crime levels will drop.
A program initiated by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society in 2000 is hoping to clean up one-third of the estimated 40,000 vacant lots in Philadelphia by the end of the year. A subsequent study of these efforts has indicated that in areas with new green space, assaults have declined by eight percent, while reports of disorderly conduct have actually risen by 28 percent. The belief is that the increase in reports is due to residents taking a new interest in their communities. “If you clean a space, people will want to protect it,” says Charles Branas, an epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania who led the study.
“It is nice to look at beautiful fields [rather] than raggedy houses,” agrees Barbara Cole, a resident of one of the newly renewed neighborhoods in Youngstown. “To me, it makes sense for the government to how greening can improve things. It’s worth the money. It will get people motivated. People will want to keep it up.”
Strengthening and transforming communities is a key part of reducing levels of crime and incarceration. By inviting those who live in a neighborhood—including those who have paid the price for previous crimes—to be a part of the solution, change can begin. To learn more about how you can help cultivate community engagement as part of a strategy to bring about a just society, visit our “Justice that Restores” page.