Community access to vacant land has the potential to reduce crime rates in the US. In Philadelphia, one epidemiologist and his team are trying to show how, while the city council makes a promising policy change to implement a land bank. With revived interest in the city’s land, leaders work to determine how greening tools can secure health and safety for residents city-wide.

There are 40,000 vacant lots in the city of Philadelphia. Ten thousand of these are publically owned and controlled by four agencies, none of which have simple or transparent procedures to sell them. Other properties are owned by individuals who can’t be tracked down. When owners are present, they may be unwilling to part with their valuable space. Community groups, individuals, investors and builders who want to purchase vacant properties have been known to wait upwards of three years for what should be a straightforward sale to occur, leaving the lots open, unproductive and, worse yet, dangerous.

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Residents who live in blighted neighbourhoods, which can be threatening to begin with, can fear vacant lots for what’s hidden within them: guns among the broken bottles and remnants of the drug dealers who set up shop there. Even in neighbourhoods where crime rates are relatively low, vacant lots remain both unproductive – benefitting no one – and expensive for the city. They seem to belong to no one, at least not anyone that neighbours know, and the lack of ownership allows, at best, apathy for the land amongst residents or, at worst, a playing field for criminal activity.

Charles C. Branas is an epidemiologist and director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Urban Health Lab. He has been researching gun violence in both urban and rural areas for over two decades. One of his early studies showed that vacant properties were strongly connected with violent crimes, including those committed with guns, perhaps more than any other neighbourhood indicator. A subsequent study by Branas and other scientists published in the American Journal of Epidemiology went on to show that after vacant lots are greened, there is a significant reduction in violent crime: gun crime decreased by 7 to 8 percent around lots that were greened. The study also reported reductions in vandalism, criminal mischief and stress.

As promising as this data was, Branas recognised the limitations of what he had found. For instance, did the remediation of vacant properties reduce crime, or did it push residents out of the neighbourhood, as a sort of gentrification effect? Conversely, what neighbourhoods held residents with the social connectivity needed to voice greening requests to city leaders and greening organisations? Did health and safety increase more in these neighbourhoods, and what about the neighbourhoods whose voices weren’t as loud?

Image RemovedIn 2013, Branas began a new study that will addresses these issues, among others, and expand on his previous work. A five-year community trial, funded by the National Institutes of Health, will randomly select vacant lots throughout Philadelphia. Out of the hundreds of lots being studied, a third will be randomly chosen to be greened by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s LandCare programme: topsoil will be laid, grass and trees planted, new fencing erected, and monthly maintenance provided; a third of the vacant lots will be randomly chosen to receive only monthly trash cleanup; and a remaining third will be left as is.

The hope is that the study will prove that greening the lots can improve the health and safety of the residents who live around them. If it can, greening is a replicable intervention that can be implemented in and across the US. Measurements of a large number of trial outcomes will be collected through interviews with neighbours, police reports, and other field methods, then analysed by Branas and his team.

As Branas continues his research, individuals and a variety of other motivated groups in Philadelphia may get the chance to more quickly and easily green lots in which they want to invest, due to a promising policy change.

In December of 2013, Philadelphia’s City Council approved legislation for a land bank – a public authority created to handle acquisition, maintenance and sale of vacant property in a timely and efficient manner. The legislation was passed due in large part to the successful activism of grassroots organisations including Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land and Philadelphia Land Bank Alliance.

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The city council is now working to ensure adequate resources and staff. Ideally, land bank officials will organise a streamlined sale process of 10,000 publically-owned properties, as well as follow up with tax-delinquent private owners. One of the hopes of the land bank is that it will allow folks like community gardeners to literally grow roots in a space for which they truly care. Small-scale, neighbourhood-driven projects, like Farm 51 and Norris Square Neighborhood Project, may begin to multiply with this new legislation, complimenting large-scale projects like Philadelphia LandCare.

“Urban agriculture has been a Philadelphia tradition for generations without adequate pathways to preserve deeply rooted community spaces,” writes Amy Laura Cahn, Staff Attorney at the Garden Justice Legal Initiative of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia in her piece published in LA Open Acres. “The land bank law has changed the conversation.”

In her article, Cahn advises that neighbours need to be a part of the conversation about land development in their neighbourhood; everyone needs to understand the law, and new programmes that are erected there need to be transparent.

When neighbours are sufficiently educated on how tools like the land bank and programmes like Philadelphia LandCare work, they can be more involved; the land stands a better shot at truly being productive again.

“We need to give life to the concept that healthy and sustainable communities are built through a range of beneficial land uses and that residents have the tools to access land with the same level of efficiency as any corporate or nonprofit purchaser,” Cahn writes about the land bank.

Progress is propelled by energetic dialogue and collaboration between engaged citizens and decision makers. Philadelphia has the capacity for inspiring versions of both. When it comes to the health and safety of the city, leaders and residents cannot afford to compromise for anything less.

Images used courtesy of PHS