Study participants around both interventions reported feeling safer and therefore went outside more often to socialize with neighbors. People around greened lots reported feeling less depressed. This experiment provided clear evidence that changing neighborhood conditions can improve — and improved — seemingly intractable community and mental health problems.
Next, our team conducted a similar trial where we studied abandoned houses, which often have shattered windows, crumbling facades and are riddled with trash. We randomly selected houses to receive either a full remediation (adding new doors and windows, cleaning the outside of the house and the yard), a trash cleanup only intervention, or no intervention at all. Our findings, which are not yet published, demonstrate a clear reduction in weapons violations, gun assaults and shootings as a result of the full remediation.
Other similar interventions have strong evidence toward inclusion in violence prevention efforts. In Cincinnati, for instance, a loss of trees because of pest infestation was associated with a rise in crime. And in Chicago, people living in public housing with more trees in common areas reported less mental fatigue and less aggression than did their counterparts in relatively barren buildings. My team has also demonstrated that structural repairs to heating, plumbing, electrical and roofing to the homes of low-income owners were associated with a 21.9 percent drop in total crime, including homicide. The more homes repaired on a block, the higher the impact on crime.
Gun violence is expensive, costing billions of dollars annually. Simple, structural and sustainable changes are often low-cost and high-value interventions. We have demonstrated, for example, that in Philadelphia, for every $1 invested in greening, society saves up to $333 that would have gone toward costs such as medical expenses, policing and incarceration.
Across the country, efforts such as The Conscious Connect in Springfield, Ohio, and The Philly Peace Park, in Philadelphia, both led by Black men, are transforming physical spaces to positively influence physical, mental and social health. Organizations such as these, rooted in and led by the community, should be fully resourced in violence prevention efforts.
The reasons that changing places prevents violent crime are not immediately clear to many. Each time we leave our homes and traverse our neighborhoods, the environment is getting under our skin to influence our physical functioning, our thoughts, our behaviors and our interactions. This often happens without our conscious awareness.
A resident of West Philadelphia, a predominately Black neighborhood, crystallized the connection between place and people in a qualitative study I conducted to better understand how people perceived the links between vacant land and health. The person said: “It makes me feel not important. Like I think that your surroundings, like your environment [vacant land] affects your mood, it affects your train of thought, your thought process, your emotions, and seeing vacant lots and abandoned buildings, to me that’s a sign of neglect. So I feel neglected.”