Cities, Municipal

Analysis of health, safety and greening vacant urban space

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Last updated: December 12, 2011

Philadelphia-Horticultural-Society

As many U.S. cities have de-industrialized, urban acres previously used for commerce or factories have been cleared and left as vacant, often rundown, lots. In recent years, however, some of these have been reclaimed as “green” or open space for public use. Groups in Philadelphia, for instance, consistently improved lots by “removing trash and debris, grading the land, planting grass and trees to create a park-like setting, and installing low wooden post-and-rail fences around each lot’s perimeter to show that the lot was cared for and deter illegal dumping,” as scholars from the University of Pennsylvania note in a 2011 study.

The study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, “A Difference-in-Differences Analysis of Health, Safety and Greening Vacant Urban Space,” focused on Philadelphia’s greening initiative from 1999 to 2008 to assess its impact on both personal and community well-being. The researchers compared information on more than 50,000 vacant city lots (approximately 10% greened and 90% not greened), and correlated this data with bi-annual community health surveys of some 5,000 city residents and police department crime statistics.

The study’s findings include:

  • Lots converted into green space throughout the city were strongly correlated with a lower rate of gun assaults during the study period.
  • Rates of vandalism and criminal mischief declined in one section of greened city lots studied.
  • “Vacant lot greening was associated with residents reporting significantly less stress and more exercise in select sections of Philadelphia.” The authors suggested that the new greened lots were seen as safe recreational spaces by residents, and social differences in each neighborhood may have impacted green space use.
  • However, instances of disorderly conduct actually increased on average. Illegal dumping increased in one area of lots studied.

The authors suggest that two social science theories may help explain how greening can positively impact a community:  “The ‘broken windows’ theory suggests that vacant lots offer refuge to criminal and other illegal activity and visibly symbolize that a neighborhood has deteriorated, that no one is in control, and that unsafe or criminal behavior is welcome to proceed with little if any supervision…. A related theory, the ‘incivilities’ theory, suggests that physical incivilities, such as abandoned vacant lots, promote weak social ties among residents and encourage crimes, ranging from harassment to homicide.” However, the researchers caution that their “knowledge of how exactly the greening of vacant lots works to change health and safety remains limited.”

Tags: poverty, crime, guns, exercise, brownfields


Writer: | December 12, 2011

Analysis assignments

Read the University of Pennsylvania study “A Difference-in-Differences Analysis of Health, Safety and Greening Vacant Urban Space.”

  1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
  2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
  3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

Read the issue-related Boston Globe article “Breakthrough on Broken Windows.”

  1. If you were to revise the article based on knowledge of the study, what key changes would you make?

Newswriting assignments

  1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
  2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
  3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
  4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.

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