Fixing Neighborhoods from the Outside In

What happens when you fix up abandoned buildings in inner-city Philadelphia neighborhoods? Besides improving the look of the space, minor building remediation can cause local crime to go down, says a recent study by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. In addition to building on decades of research on the role of physical spaces in the wellbeing of neighborhood residents, the study is the first to show the direct impact of building remediation efforts on crime, with the most significant reduction (39%) seen in gun assaults around targeted buildings in the year after the improvements. Penn researchers also conducted a sister study of abandoned land in 2011, which found an association between greening of vacant lots and reduced risks of neighborhood violence, stress, and sedentary behavior. Together, these findings suggest that low-cost neighborhood fixes can yield significant returns in the form of reduced crime and improved health outcomes.

So how can funders get involved? One philanthropic opportunity related to improving neighborhood spaces is the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s (PHS) Philadelphia LandCare Program. LandCare works with community-based organizations and city agencies to transform vacant land into neighborhood assets via simple landscaping and maintenance, including removing trash, adding fences, and planting to create a “park-like” setting . With more than 10 million square feet “cleaned & greened” in Philadelphia, the PHS LandCare program has been well documented in its program benefits of improved safety and neighborhood stability, including a reduction in gun-related crimes by approximately 7% around those greened lots, as well as positive neighborhood outcomes related to health and safety. Other studies have found approximately 17% and higher increases in value for properties adjacent to the lots.

In a Q/A with our team, PHS Senior Director of Vacant Land Bob Grossmann highlighted the low costs of this program. “The installation cost (i.e., “cleaning and greening”) costs about $1 per square foot, by using bulk purchasing of materials, like trees and seeds, and competitive bids for contractors,” said Grossmann. “There are also low, ongoing maintenance costs for upkeep during the warmer months (about $10 per visit), which is critical to having the desired long-term impact within the community. So, for example, the average lot in Philadelphia may take $1,000 to clean and green, and $140/year to maintain ongoing.” For approximately $1,000 a lot, we believe that the related impacts on local neighborhoods is well worth the investment- don’t you?

Download our profile of LandCare here. To take action, contact PHS via their website or find other examples of turning vacant spaces into vibrant places within your local community and communities nationwide at Centers for Community Progress.

To read the press release of the recent study on abandoned buildings from Penn Medicine, click here.