How Greening Communities Can Reduce Violence and Promote Health
Camille Bridger

Did you know that injury and violence rank as the number one cause of death for Americans ages 1-44, taking the lives of nearly 200,000 in the US every year?

Violence in communities may be experienced through bullying, fights, shootings, and other acts of terror, leading to a host of mental, physical, and social health problems for community members. Violence disproportionately affects children ages 10-13, of whom one-third are victims of direct violence, and many of whom experience indirect violence in their communities, as well.

Living in a community afflicted by violence is associated with mental health problems, relationship troubles, and poor physical health due to a lack of access to safe spaces for outdoor activities. Witnessing neighborhood or community violence is associated with anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to inciting fear and anxiety among community members, violence in communities can diminish safe spaces for outdoor recreation, which limits community members' access to safe opportunities for outdoor physical activity. These barriers to participating in physical activity may increase the risk of obesity and other diseases associated with sedentary behavior.

Green Space and Reductions in Community Violence

What can be done to reduce violence in communities? One recent trend to combat community-wide violence is the creation of green spaces. This may be in the form of developing a deserted parking lot into a space filled with plants and vegetation or creating a community garden.

A recent study suggests that appropriately designed and maintained green space has the potential to reduce violent crime and gun violence, while making communities safer and keeping residents healthier. The study involved a systematic review of literature and research on the complicated relationship between crime and nature. The researchers initially considered more than 14,000 papers but ultimately winnowed those down to 45 done in the United States, which offered the most relevant insights into how access to nature might improve public safety. Results showed that green space that is designed thoughtfully as a public safety intervention will help reduce crime, but existing green space that is neglected can help crime take root.

Maintenance and Transformation of Vacant Lots

Maintaining existing green spaces and greening vacant lots can transform the physical environment from one that promotes crime and fear to one that may reduce crime and improve perceptions of safety. A study conducted by Charles C. Branas, chair of the epidemiology department at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, and colleagues, along with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, on the effects of greening vacant lots on violent crime, involved three interventions on 541 vacant lots in Philadelphia: a full-scale makeover with grading, planting, and fencing; a basic intervention of clearing and mowing; and no intervention at all. The results showed that the full and basic cleaning and greening interventions significantly reduced violent crime by as much as 30%, reduced people's fear of going outside due to safety concerns by 58%, and increased people's use of outside space by 76%.

This study highlights the mental and physical health benefits of greening vacant lots. Not only can greening vacant lots reduce violent crimes, anxieties, and fears, it can also create a space for communities to get together and feel safe in an outdoor space. The increased safety associated with greening vacant lots can also create spaces for outdoor activities, which could reduce the risk of obesity and other noncommunicable diseases. The work of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's LandCare Program was highlighted in the study for its impact on reducing violent crime in Philadelphia communities. The program maintains approximately 12,000 cleared plots of land—about one third of the vacant land throughout Philadelphia, and transforms vacant lots into a community resource that reduces crime, improves well-being, and creates opportunities for growth and employment for many residents.

For more information on the benefits of green space and community gardens, visit: