Gardening with a whole community could reduce violent crimes in neighborhoods, study says


Community members working on a spring planting project at a community garden in the University Avenue Corridor in Flint, Michigan. Image: University Avenue Corridor Coalition

By Vladislava Sukhanovskaya

Youngstown, Ohio, became a platform for an experiment on how community engagement in repurposing vacant lots can influence violent crime.

Demolition of abandoned buildings became a widely accepted strategy “to address deteriorating abandoned buildings in cities with a concentrated vacancy,” according to a recent study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published in the American Journal of Community Psychology.

In 2016, Youngstown had 4,000 vacant properties that needed to be demolished, according to the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp., a neighborhood development organization.

However, lots that are left empty after demolition can attract criminal activity, according to the study.

It also showed that cleaning up and greening the lots helps to reduce violence. That effect improves when the local community is engaged in those activities instead of having the lots professionally mowed, it said.

But even professionally mowing helped. “Street segments in areas receiving community-engaged maintenance or professional mowing experienced greater declines in violent crime density than street segments in areas receiving no treatment,” the study said.

The decline was greatest when community residents took care of vacant lots.

“The community engagement [model] saw a reduction of over two crimes per square mile, while the professional [mowing model] had a reduction of slightly under one crime per square mile,” said Laney Rupp, the center manager at the Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center and a researcher at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Rupp is a coauthor of the study.

If lots in the neighborhood are left without attention, research shows a seasonal spike in violent crimes, Rupp said.

Under the FBI’s definition, violent crime includes homicide, robbery, arson and rape, according to lead author Catherine Gong, a data analyst for the research project and a U-M graduate in statistics.

Rupp said, “Some of the projects that they did, they cleaned these tires and painted them and there were plantings, so there was this higher level of investment than just mowing.”

The study is based on the theory of busy streets. To describe it, Rupp points to the broken windows theory.

“When you have one broken window, it attracts more disorder. People feel unsafe, and they’re less likely to go out of their houses. And there is a negative spiral of neighborhood decline,” said Rupp.

The busy streets theory is the opposite.

“If you engage residents and improve their neighborhoods, they’ll get to know each other, they’ll build social resources. They’ll then feel like their environment is safer and more orderly. They might be more likely to go outside,” said Rupp.

Gong said, “It is a good way to work on crime prevention, but it needs to be sustainable. It can be hard.”

She said that there should be compensation for such work and gave the example of the Clean & Green program in Flint, Michigan, that started in 2004.

In 2022, the program funded 800 residents who maintained around 3,600 vacant parcels, according to Michael Freeman, the executive director of the Genesee County Land Bank Authority that started the program.

Other study authors are from the U.S. Forest Service, Rutgers University, Columbia University and the CDC.

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