Photo of a an overturned wheel barrow in front of a solid metal fence. Photo by Michael Coghlan, Flickr CC

Addressing gun violence in the United States is often a heated political issue — polarizing constituents around what solutions are best to address it. Reducing the thousands of firearm homicides and nonfatal shootings that occur each year will require some serious debate and complex solutions. But there is one surprising factor that may reduce gun violence — cleaning up neighborhoods. A recent study featured in Huffington Post shows that this simple strategy of “cleaning and greening” vacant lots may have some far-reaching impacts on reducing crime.

The researchers partnered with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s LandCare program to randomly select lots in Philadelphia for either a full transformation (picking up trash, putting up a fence and grass seed, and maintenance), a partial makeover (trash removal and mowing only), or left untouched.The researchers then measured shootings in the area from 2011 to 2015.

They found that areas that received the full “cleaning and greening” saw a 7% reduction in shootings, and the partially treated areas a 9% reduction, when compared to areas with no cleaning or maintenance. John Macdonald, one of the study authors, notes that this cleaning strategy did not appear to displace shootings to other blocks, and that cleaned up lots could have other health and safety benefits. He also noted that the solution has its limitations and needs more research to understand the impacts of “cleaning and greening”:

“You couldn’t green a city and just eliminate the chronic problems of gun violence that are highly concentrated in city blocks just by doing remediation to places.” 

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg notes “broken windows” theory — the idea that visible signs of crime, like broken windows, creates an environment that encourages further crime —  is the main impetus behind this experiment. However, he also points out that broken windows theory has been used to justify policing of low-level crimes like public drinking — particularly against people of color and homeless people. These policing practices were not only severely misguided, but completely overlooked the environmental aspects of the original theory:

“What’s so striking is that the [original 1982 article The Atlantic] was actually much more about broken windows than it was about bad people…For decades now, we have fought crime by trying to crack down on people.”

Rather than reducing crime “by punishing people,” Klinenberg suggests that we need more resources and social infrastructure in communities that are heavily impacted by crime. As he concludes, “What we have not done is invest in places and rebuild places where crime is concentrated.”