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Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design


Last Updated: 4.26.2021

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In many cities, residents engage in grassroots efforts to reclaim space and participate in shaping engaged and safe communities. They hold weekend barbecues in newly greened lots, transform overgrown areas into community gardens, and help neighbors replace broken windows and old porch lights. City and nonprofit groups also spearhead initiatives to change spaces by altering the flow of foot and vehicle traffic and investing in greening projects and supporting resident initiatives.

The environment in which we grow up, live, work, and grow old can have a major influence on our individual actions, and research increasingly shows this has implications for reducing gun violence. Our surroundings—what researchers often call the “built environment”—changes the way we think, feel, and make decisions.1Bratman GN, Daily GC, Levy BJ, Gross JJ. The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition. Landscape and Urban Planning. 2015; 138: 41–50. South EC, Kondo MC, Cheney RA, Branas CC. Neighborhood blight, stress, and health: a walking trial of urban greening and ambulatory heart rate. American Journal of Public Health. 2015; 105(5): 909–913. Garvin E, Branas C, Keddem S, Sellman J, Cannuscio C. More than just an eyesore: Local insights and solutions on vacant land and urban health. Journal of Urban Health. 2013; 90(3): 412–426.

With this in mind, many urban programs have been carried out to reduce gun violence by reshaping public spaces. This work is often called “crime prevention through environmental design”—sometimes referred to as CPTED—as it involves deliberate efforts to change the built environment to reduce crime and increase community safety. Programs encompass a wide variety of approaches and efforts to rehabilitate areas and make violence less likely to occur. Violence can be discouraged by these visible signs that a community is cared for and watched over.

Because gun violence is so costly, and these simple fixes are not, communities save hundreds of dollars for every dollar that’s invested.2Branas CC, Kondo MC, Murphy SM, South EC, Polsky D, MacDonald JM. Urban blight remediation as a cost-beneficial solution to firearm violence. American Journal of Public Health, 2016; 106(12): 2158–2164. The following are some examples of successful and innovative programs in cities across the country.

Vacant Lots

Many interventions focus on vacant lots, as about 15 percent of the land in US cities is vacant or abandoned.3Branas CC, South E, Kondo MC, Hohl BC, Bourgois P, Wiebe DJ, MacDonald JM. Citywide cluster randomized trial to restore blighted vacant land and its effects on violence, crime, and fear.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2018; 115(12): 2946–2951. These lots, as well as abandoned buildings, provide hiding places for guns and can contribute to the sense that police and government are not invested in a community.4Klineberg E. The Other Side of “Broken Windows.” The New Yorker. August 23, 2018. Because these sites often receive little public attention, they can foster illicit activity, including gun crime, away from the watchful eyes of community members or law enforcement.5Ellen IG, Lacoe J, Sharygin CA. Do foreclosures cause crime? Journal of Urban Economics. 2013; 74: 59–70. Stucky TD, Ottensmann JR. Land use and violent crime. Criminology. 2009; 47(4): 1223–1264.

…if we didn’t have the City of Philadelphia backing us, I’m not sure we would still be doing this work.

—LandCare Director, Keith Green

Philadelphia, PA: the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS)

In Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) started the LandCare program to clean and green vacant lots. Over 12,000 parcels containing 16 million square feet of vacant land have been cleaned up thus far. The contours of the program are simple: debris is removed, grass and trees are planted, and a basic fence is added. PHS contracts with landscape businesses, including minority-owned companies and community organizations, to regularly maintain the lots. A 2018 randomized control trial of lot restoration in Philadelphia found significant reductions in crime and gun assaults (-9.2% and -5.8%, respectively) over a three year period, without displacing crime. Simply cleaning (rather than greening) vacant lots in neighborhoods below the poverty line yielded the most dramatic reductions in crime and gun assaults (-13.3%and 29.1%, respectively).1Branas CC, South E, Kondo MC, Hohl BC, Bourgois P, Wiebe DJ, MacDonald JM. Citywide cluster randomized trial to restore blighted vacant land and its effects on violence, crime, and fear. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2018; 115(12): 2946–2951. Individuals who live near the treated lots use outside spaces more for relaxing and socializing and report fewer safety concerns.2Ibid. The city’s support has been essential. The city provides all of the funding for the program, and City Council members recommend lots for cleaning and build support for the program in their communities.3Philadelphia Horticultural Society LandCare FAQs. Other efforts in Philadelphia are also leading to decreases in crime. Urban Creators, a community collaborative in North-Central Philadelphia, transformed a two-acre garbage dump into a farm called Life Do Grow. In the area surrounding the farm, violent crime has decreased by 40 percent.4Urban Creators. 2018 Annual Report. Published 2018. Urban Creators has also built two community gardens and nine school gardens and provided over 100 jobs to community youth.5Ibid.

City leaders, nonprofits, and residents all play a role in a successful crime prevention program.

Gary, IN

In Gary, IN, Mayor Karen Freeman- Wilson has worked to address the city’s significant vacant and neglected buildings problem, a result of decades of population decline. Hundreds of residents, in partnership with the University of Chicago, took to the streets to collect information on the more

than 58,000 parcels in Gary to measure the scope of the problem.1Gary Counts. They found that about one in five buildings in Gary are vacant and 44 percent of land parcels do not have a building or structure.2Gary Counts. Data & Reports. Euvino S. Gary official sees vacant lots as opportunities for growth. Northwest Indiana Times. November 18, 2017. Mayor Freeman-Wilson and Gary residents are hard at work to improve these lots: the city received $11 million in state funds to demolish over 450 vacant and abandoned homes,3Gary, Indiana, Redevelopment Department. Demolitions. the Indiana National Guard tore down several homes that were attracting criminal activity,4Cross L. Indiana National Guard partnering with city of Gary on demolitions. Northwest Indiana Times. August 1, 2018. and other improvements have been made such as establishing a public garden in downtown and the planting of tulip poplars in partnership with a private group.5Euvino S. Gary official sees vacant lots as opportunities for growth. Northwest Indiana Times. November 18, 2017.

Cleveland, OH: Reimagining Cleveland

Reimagining Cleveland, a project of the Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, views vacant land as an asset that can help the city’s long-term success. Cleveland has nearly 28,000 vacant lots, a number that is expected to grow as the city continues to demolish abandoned buildings.1Mallach A, Steif K, Graziani K. Center for Community Progress. The reimagining Cleveland vacant lot greening program: Evaluating economic development and public safety outcomes. Published 2016. Through grant funding of nearly $2 million to more than 100 projects, Reimagining Cleveland is empowering local residents to participate in improving their community. Vacant lots have been transformed into pocket parks, community gardens, market gardens, neighborhood pathways, and orchards, among other projects. A quasi-experimental evaluation of Cleveland’s greening program from 2011–2014 found that, on average, intervention lots experienced a 58 percent reduction in aggravated assaults, though this effect faded six months post intervention. The program, however, has struggled to obtain funding for additional interventions, despite its promise.2Mallach A, Steif K, Graziani K. Center for Community Progress. The reimagining Cleveland vacant lot greening program: Evaluating economic development and public safety outcomes. Published 2016.

Arts and Culture

Art and cultural activities can be an important part of crime prevention efforts. Often called “creative placemaking,” this involves using art to increase public safety and engagement with public spaces. These interventions take a variety of forms, from temporary art installations, performances, and permanent artistic spaces to murals and sculptures. Creative placemaking has the greatest impact when combined with other strategies.

Detroit, MI: Urban Neighborhood Initiatives

In Detroit, Urban Neighborhood Initiatives engages in a variety of activities to build safe and thriving environments. The Southwest Urban Arts Mural Project mixes arts programming with youth development: youth receive training from professional artists during the winter, and then are hired to design and paint murals in the summer.1Urban Neighborhood Initiatives. Youth Development Programs. Residents, local businesses, and corporations can commission murals.

Improving the Look of Vacant Buildings

Often, vacant buildings have broken windows and doors or are boarded up with plywood. These are visible signs that the home is not cared for, and communities have developed creative strategies to combat this problem.

When we think about deterring crime, we need to pursue a broad range of strategies beyond traditional law enforcement. A well-lit street deters crime better than a dark alley, just as opportunities for work and play promote safety better than disadvantage and disconnection.

– Elizabeth Glazer, director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice6The City of New York, Office of the Mayor. Mayor de Blasio announces pioneering study on how outdoor lighting reduces crime. Press Release. March 11, 2016.

In Philadelphia, a local ordinance requires the owners of abandoned buildings to remove deteriorating plywood and install working doors and windows or face large fines.7Kondo MC, Keene D, Hohl BC, MacDonald JM, Branas CC. A difference-in-differences study of the effects of a new abandoned building remediation strategy on safety. PLOS One. 2015; 10(8). A 2016 quasi-experimental study of abandoned building and lot remediation in Philadelphia found that both reduced firearm violence -39 percent and -4.6 percent, respectively, saving taxpayers an estimated $5 per dollar invested in remediating buildings and $26 per dollar invested in remediating lots.8Branas CC, Kondo MC, Murphy SM, South EC, Polsky D, MacDonald JM. Urban blight remediation as a cost-beneficial solution to firearm violence. American Journal of Public Health. 2016; 106(12): 2158–2164.

Flint, MI, takes a different approach; they use artistically painted boards to cover the windows of vacant properties. The city’s Blight Elimination and Neighborhood Stabilization division works with local artists to design the boards.9Engh R, Harris SF, Nicodemus AG, Lewinski D, Allinger CA. Metris Arts Consulting & Center for Community Progress. Creative placemaking on vacant properties: Lessons learned from four cities. Published 2018.

Newburgh, NY, and Wilkinsburg, PA, also use artistically painted boards.10Ibid. New Orleans’ Fight the Blight Program works in partnership with Tulane University to rehab the outsides of abandoned homes and adjoining lots to prevent crime.11Kondo MC, Morrison C, Jacoby SF, Elliott L, Poche A, Theall KP, Branas CC. Blight abatement of vacant land and crime in New Orleans. Public Health Reports. 2018;133(6): 650–657.

Shining a light on high-crime areas

Gun crime benefits from darkness. Poor lighting makes witness identification more difficult and may make residents less likely to report or intervene in crimes. But there is a simple solution to this problem: improving lighting in areas with higher rates of gun crimes.

In New York City, violent crimes occur at higher rates in areas of concentrated disadvantage, including public housing developments. In 2014, the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety (MAP) was launched, a partnership between the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the police, and residents from 15 high-crime public housing developments.12The City of New York, Office of the Mayor. Making New York City’s neighborhoods and housing developments safer. Press Release. July 8, 2014. One element of the plan focused on the critical need for enhanced security lighting. Temporary lighting was installed in all 15 developments, and the city has since

installed improved permanent lighting in many of them to illuminate pathways, public areas, and doorways. A 2017 randomized control trial in New York City found that adding one additional outdoor light per square city block reduces nighttime outdoor assault, homicide, and weapon crimes by 12 percent over a six month period.13Chalfin A, Hansen B, Parker L, Lerner J. University of Chicago Crime Lab New York. The impact of street lighting on crime in New York City public housing. Published 2017. Similar programs in Atlanta, Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Fort Worth have been implemented as well.14Clarke RV. The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing. Improving street lighting to reduce crime in residential areas. Response Guide No. 8. Published 2008.

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