Caring For a Common Space: Research Connects Urban Greening With Safer Neighborhoods

Posted 02/21/12 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Building Trails, Success Stories

Photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day volunteer cleanup on the Richmond Greenway, Calif. © Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

One of the most stubborn obstacles to building new trails, particularly in big cities where crime and public safety are often dominating concerns, is the perception that such pathways encourage or increase incidents of vandalism, assault, vagrancy and theft in nearby neighborhoods.

From our many years facilitating both urban and rural trails in communities of all shapes and sizes, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) staff understand that, in fact, the opposite is true. Time and time again we see new multi-use trails bring human activity and a level of ownership and care to areas once abandoned and neglected. It's the basic premise of all "neighborhood watch" programs: the constant surveillance of residents and businesses is often the most efficient deterrent to antisocial behavior.

While RTC has compiled substantial evidence of experience regarding crime and urban trails, which has been documented and presented through our Urban Pathways Initiative(UPI), until now we have lacked hard scientific data to support that anecdotal library.

Which is why a groundbreaking study on the effects of urban greening in Philadelphia, recently published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, has drawn so much attention from urban planners, community groups and sociologists alike.

The study puts solid data behind what we have long known: that bringing human traffic, community activity and opportunities for recreation to once neglected, defaced areas brightens unlit spaces, making them safer and increasing their 'value' - whether measured in terms of real estate indices or appeal to the community.

The authors of the study conducted a decade-long comparative analysis of the impact of Community LandCare, a vacant lot greening program in Philadelphia. In the treated lots, local resident volunteers and neighborhood groups improved abandoned lots with topsoil, trees and fencing, and conducted regular maintenance. The treated lots were compared with vacant lots that were eligible for greening but did not receive treatment.

The results demonstrated that vacant lot greening was associated with consistent reductions in gun assaults across all four sections of the city, and consistent reductions in vandalism in one section of the city. There were also a number of stress and wellness benefits for local residents associated with transforming the neglected sections.

"Economic downturns, deindustrialization, and population outmigration have made the abandonment of land a challenge for many US cities," the authors write in the introduction to the study, A Difference-in-Differences Analysis of Health, Safety, and Greening Vacant Urban Space. "These vacant lot treatments often produce immediately noticeable, visually dramatic results; are straightforward to implement; cost little, relative to other urban health and safety programs; and are responsive to community concerns."

"With respect to safety, the 'broken windows' theory suggests that vacant lots offer refuge to criminal and other illegal activity and visibly symbolize that a neighborhood has deteriorated, that no one is in control, and that unsafe or criminal behavior is welcome to proceed with little if any supervision. A related theory, the 'incivilities' theory, suggests that physical incivilities, such as abandoned vacant lots, promote weak social ties among residents and encourage crimes, ranging from harassment to homicide. Central to both theories is that criminals are thought to feel emboldened in areas with greater physical disorder while, at the same time, residents are driven toward greater anonymity and are less willing or able to step in and prevent crime. We can speculate that violent crime may have simply been discouraged in the presence of greened and tended vacant lots which signaled that someone in the community cared and was potentially watching over the space in question."

The Department of Health and Human Services will host a free webinar this week to discuss the release of the report and its impact on violence and injury prevention.

Urban trails generate precisely the same community activity and ownership, making the study an important resource for trail proponents. The results have particular bearing on RTC's Urban Pathways Initiative. Though most municipalities have long come to accept that creating commuter and recreational pathways is good for the neighborhoods they pass through, from time to time fears of increasing crime and vandalism are raised to oppose the development of a new trail. Unfortunately, these fears, though countered by years of evidence, are sometimes still enough to derail a project.

At a recent meeting of the Woodside Civic Association in Silver Spring, Md., residents opposed plans to extend the Capital Crescent Trail, asserting that it would bring crime to the neighborhood. Despite hearing the testimony of Darien Manley, chief of Montgomery County Park Police, who stated that trails do not bring crime to neighborhoods, the fear of increased crime and vandalism is still the basis of opposition to extending this enormously popular used commuter and recreation trail.

According to local blog, Silver Spring Trails, Chief Manley stated that some crime does occur everywhere, and there will be some crime on trails, but typically there is less crime on a trail than in the neighborhood that the trail passes through. Manley stated that studies by the National Park Service and others show that the nationwide experience is similar to what he has experienced in Montgomery County: that crime is generally low on trails.

Photo of DC Prep students take activities on the Met Branch Trail, DC © Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Chief Manley told the gathering that criminals like secluded areas where with generally fewer potential witnesses. Trails, especially busy trails like the Capital Crescent Trail, bring in people who are using the area lawfully, and these lawful users put eyes on the trail that drive crime away.

Similar fears recently impeded construction of a missing section of the Old Plank Road Trail through Chicago Heights, Ill., and continue to threaten widely supported plans for an elevated greenway through Queens, N.Y.

This month, RTC unveiled a short documentary, Is It Safe? Crime and Perceptions of Safety on Urban Pathways, which related the experience of communities in Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Ohio, and Richmond, Calif., before and after trails were opened in their neighborhoods. Murals replaced graffiti, and kept it away; trailside gardens and parks replaced smashed windows and broken fencing; and local children walk and bike to school where before they had feared to tread.

Despite some remnants of opposition, more and more homeowners and local officials are experiencing firsthand the transformative effect that urban trails have on neighborhoods. Not only have they become much sought-after transportation amenities that have a measurable effect on home values and health indicators, they are rallying points for the community, the catalyst in many instances for a renewed sense of caring for a common space.

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