Public health and “all those other reasons” have a burgeoning champion in the person of Charles Branas, an associate professor of epidemiology as well as emergency medicine at the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine, whose academic portfolio ranges from cartographic modeling to criminology research.

“There’s been so little done with greening and open green space and its impact,” Branas says. “People have been debating it for decades, but there’s been very little actual empirical work done on this ... We’re following on some of Susan [Wachter]’s work and expanding on more than just the economic impact for specific property owners. We’re really thinking about the neighborhoods and the health and safety impacts.”

Branas and several colleagues have come at it from several angles, one of which involves ecological studies—population-scale analyses of phenomena like the impact of smoking on lung cancer rates. While considered less robust than cohort or case-control studies, ecological studies can produce insights that help epidemiologists model the effects of certain behaviors or interventions on things like neighborhood crime levels. That’s how vacant land rose to Branas’ attention.

“What was striking about these models [that came out of our study] is that, in the laundry list of different things that could have affected crime—economic conditions, poverty, racial conditions, segregation, all these things—vacant properties rose to the top as the strongest effect in terms of correlating with crime. And so that was really telling. I was very surprised by it.”

This line of inquiry is still in progress, but it has yielded some more specific observations.

“What we’re finding in this is that there are certain crimes that seem to have been highly affected by the greening,” Branas says. “For instance, we think gun assault is something that’s been highly affected. And maybe gun robbery at some level.

“We think that’s the case because there’s been some early anthropologic ethnographic work in places like New Haven and Detroit where they will follow criminals with illegal firearms. And most of them don’t carry their weapons with them. This is one theory, right. Most of them don’t carry their weapons with them because it’s illegal to have them. You have other arrests, you’re a felon: you’re not going to carry your weapon, but you need it because you’re part of this illegal drug trade, let’s say, for instance. You need that protection. So they will often, apparently, store the weapons on vacant lots.”

Branas is currently planning to embark on an experiment in which a large group of vacant lots will be randomly selected to be greened, and the subsequent public-health and crime impact compared to another randomly selected group of similar lots that were not greened. He also hopes to install time-lapse cameras in some vacant lots to gather finer-grained observations.

“In our fieldwork, going and visiting the lots,” he explains, “at the middle of the day, you will see a goat path beat into the middle of the lot if it’s very overgrown. There are a lot of places to hide. Clearly people are entering and going through them and using them in some capacity. But it’s unclear how much and for what. And it would be really neat to observe this firsthand, if possible, before and after a greening intervention. So what happens? What’s the foot traffic like when the lot’s overgrown and trash strewn, versus after you green it? Does it really change? I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t.”

Depending on the results, Branas points out, greening could turn out to be an unusually cost-effective crime-reduction mechanism.

“Public health has really, over the past 40 years or so, concentrated more on dealing with individuals and a biomedical model or a bio-behavioral model, where you’re really seeking to either treat people medically and try to get them more treatment, or you’re seeking to treat them one by one as individuals and try to change their behavior with some psychological campaign,” he observes. “Those are wonderful. In fact, many of them have been shown to be incredibly successful. The problem is, scaling it up isn’t so easy and is immensely costly. Millions of dollars to treat a handful of high-risk kids in one neighborhood is wonderful, because those kids do reap the benefit of that. But it’s not sustainable because you can’t keep spending millions of dollars year after year for a handful of kids.

“So in thinking about greening,” he goes on, “it’s sort of a long shot—or it was. But if it works, it’s incredibly inexpensive, relative to an army of psychologists or public health workers going into the neighborhood. And everyone may get the benefit of the greening: people who are high-risk and coming through the area, and people who live there and so forth whether they’re high-risk or not.”


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FEATURE: The Park of a Thousand Pieces by Trey Popp
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