How To Deter Crime In America’s Cities By Expanding Urban Green Spaces

Many parts of America’s cities are characterized by blight. Abandoned buildings, graffiti-covered walls, and empty, overgrown lots convey a lack of community pride and, more importantly, a lack …

Many parts of America’s cities are characterized by blight. Abandoned buildings, graffiti-covered walls, and empty, overgrown lots convey a lack of community pride and, more importantly, a lack of resources. In recent studies, social scientists have discovered that replacing neglect with vibrant green space not only makes cities beautiful but also deters crime. When urban areas go green, community members also report lower levels of anxiety, stress, and depression.

Changing Assumptions About Urban Crime Rates

Since 1990, crime has fallen in the U.S. in both urban and suburban areas. Between 1990 and 2008, violent crime plummeted 30 percent in America’s 100 largest cities, and property crime rates fell 46 percent. Unfortunately, outside of graduate schools offering criminal justice degrees, many Americans continue to make unfair assumptions about urban areas, their diverse array of residents, and how minority populations influence urban crime rates.

According to the Brookings Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program, crime rates have actually dropped as communities have become more diverse. Between 1990 and 2008, the correlation between increased crime in a particular area and higher percentages of minority residents also diminished. The Brookings Institution reported that the correlation between a high African-American population and higher rates property crime dropped by half, and the correlation between a large Latino population and increased property crime almost disappeared.

As more minority residents have moved to the suburbs, the crime rate in suburbs has held steady or continued to drop. In fact, Brookings found that with all other factors held equal, demographic changes and drops in crime rates actually went hand-in-hand. Their report concludes that cities have not only become more attractive residential choices but also thriving centers of tourism, leisure, and economic activity.

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Why Green Is Good

Despite significant improvements in urban crime rates, both residents and businesses within any community can do more to make sure crime doesn’t happen at all. One of the most affordable and surprising ways to attack crime in a city is to expand and maintain urban green space. Well-maintained green space, according to social scientists, gives residents an increased sense of social control.

In the past, policymakers assumed that trees and other vegetation encouraged crime by giving criminals a place to hide. In fact, more vegetation encourages foot traffic in a city, and the increased presence of people tends to discourage criminal activity. Also, attractive, well-maintained gardens and green spaces convey a sense of social order while unkempt vegetation implies that no one cares for the neighborhood. When residents feel that no one is paying attention and that their neighborhood isn’t under surveillance, the lack of perceived authority encourages deviant behavior to develop. In other words, just adding more vegetation isn’t enough. Cities have to invest time and resources into maintaining their green spaces to increase the perception of social order.

How Eco-Entrepreneurs Can Help

Many eco-entrepreneurs are starting farms in urban areas and sharing their bounty with others through community-supported agriculture (CSA). In New Britain, Connecticut, a diverse city of about 75,000 people, the Urban Oaks Organic Farm covers two city blocks. The garden, which sits on a formerly polluted EPA brownfield site, is surrounded by ramshackle apartments and liquor stores. Although Urban Oaks has weathered crop blights and financial losses, it has stayed in business, swelling both its customer base and its employee ranks.

Mike Kandefer, who owns Urban Oaks, sells some of his organic greens to tony restaurants in wealthier areas, like Westport, home of Martha Stewart. In addition, the farm attracts people to New Britain who wouldn’t otherwise visit the city. However, much of Kandefer’s harvest goes to community members who participate in an Urban Oaks CSA. Customers pay over $500 for twelve weeks, or about $45 per week, for an assortment of organic produce from Kandefer’s urban garden.

How Businesses Can Make a Difference

Eco-entrepreneurs like Kandefer look at vacant lots and see potential. Not every environmentally minded entrepreneur has to start urban farms or CSAs, but they should invest in both adding to and maintaining their neighborhood’s green landscape. Adding foundation plantings or container plants around a small urban storefront, for example, increases curb appeal and encourages more foot traffic. Eco-entrepreneurs who can afford to think bigger should consider green roof systems that can cut down on their carbon footprints.


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