Can Urban Gardening Be The Answer To Inner City Violence?

Urban gardening in Chicago

Many Detroit (and non-Detroit) natives may be familiar with Charlie LeDuff’s 2014 Detroit: An American Autopsy. Written in the wake of Detroit’s declaration of bankruptcy, which, if you have lived here for any length of time you know was only the final nail in the coffin.

Things in urban Detroit were bad for a long time, and people were leaving the city for a long time before the city declared bankruptcy. It’s only that that decision brought the city’s problems to national attention in a new way. Many Detroit natives feel that declaring bankruptcy was actually a step forward for the city.

LeDuff’s book chronicles the history of Detroit. This includes the migration of working-class and poor southerners to the car factories in the early part of the 20th century – and the raw picture of daily life for Detroit’s few citizens in the years immediately following bankruptcy. He writes about Detroit fire-fighters dutifully putting out fires set deliberately in vacant homes day after day, and about the dangers inherent in simply living in the city which had too few resources for its too few citizens.

Running as a backdrop to all of this drama is the reality we have all seen in pictures. The reality you can still see by driving around the neighborhoods at the perimeters of downtown Detroit. They are littered with vacant homes and vacant lots. Both of which contribute to crime and violence in these increasingly underprivileged neighborhoods.

How Urban Gardening is Transforming Violence

Detroit isn’t the only city dealing with urban gun violence and crime, not by a long shot. However, there is an interesting study which links a reduction in gun violence not to “new laws and treatment programs for criminals,” but to gardening, or at the very least, cutting the grass in vacant lots.

A group of people in Philadelphia actually did this. Charles Branas, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and Philadelphia Division of Housing and Community Development enlisted local contractors to clean up hundreds of the more than 44,000 vacant lots across Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

It wasn’t just a simple mowing in most cases. Some of the abandoned lots were made into parks. The contractors removed trash, leveled the land, planted new grass and trees, and built low fences. Some lots only had litter removed and the lawn mowed.

Three-Year Study

A third control group stayed the same but was monitored. It was a three-year study in which police reports were analyzed and people in the affected neighborhoods were interviewed both before and after the vacant lots were changed, or not.

Here’s what they found:

Compared with leaving the lots as is, transforming lots into parklike spaces or sprucing up them up with trash removal and mowing reduced overall crime by a modest amount, less than 10%.

However, the effects were amplified in neighborhoods below the poverty line. There, landscaping vacant lots reduced overall crime by more than 13% and dropped gun violence by nearly 30%, the team reports today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Burglary and nuisance reports also plummeted in these neighborhoods by nearly 22% and 30%, respectively, thanks to the gardening.

Neighbors felt safer as well. Residents living near lots converted to parklike environments perceived less crime in their neighborhoods and reported feeling 58% less fearful of going outside than people living near unimproved lots. People who lived near renovated lots also used the spaces to relax and socialize 76% more than inhabitants near unmodified lots.

More Good News

There is more good news. These interventions could end up costing only about $5 per square meter in initial costs and about $0.50 to maintain. That means it’s not too expensive for an entire city to adopt.

In addition, think about what this does for a neighborhood. A lot that was once used as a dumping ground or an escape route for drug dealers becomes a park. Suddenly, people who didn’t feel safe going outside, have a place to socialize, a place to take their kids outside to play. They have a way to get sun exposure.

More powerful still, a neighborhood with regular, positive interactions is more like to form bonds, to help keep each other safe and to keep the criminal element away. Green space for those in need may not be the frivolous add-on our policy-makers think it is – or so thinks a Chicago landscape architect who did not participate in this experiment. It might just be foundational for the restoration of a community. Thankfully, there is some research now to back this up.

Detroit’s Vacant Lots

These ideas aren’t new to Detroit, however. Detroit residents have been farming in the city’s backyards and abandoned lots since the 1970s when then-mayor Coleman Young started the Farm-A-Lot program which subsidized urban farming on vacant land within city limits.

You could call City Hall to request a parcel to farm. The program is now defunct. However, that hasn’t stopped residents from making a go – pioneer style – of being self-sufficient.

They have had to be self-sufficient. For a long time, city services were discontinued in many neighborhoods where too few people lived. This includes the lights.

However, in the midst of this very real darkness, something amazing has emerged, and it’s changing the city landscape slowly.

Many urban farmers started small in Detroit and expanded, with neighborhood permission, into abandoned lots; growing more and more food over the years.

Here is a short list of some of the many garden-related programs and  independent farms that have started either before or since Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013.


With this new study out about the correlation between urban gardening and green spaces and a decrease in urban gun violence, hopefully, we will see policies change accordingly. Who knows? With all of this vacant land and the need for revitalization of the city, Detroit could become a new world leader in urban green spaces and urban farming, simply because of the tenacity of its residents.

Photo credit: Steven Walling. [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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