This article is part of The Toll: The Roots and Costs of Gun Violence in Philadelphia, a solutions-focused series from the collaborative reporting project Broke in Philly. You can find other stories in the series here and follow us on Twitter at @BrokeInPhilly.
By Charles Ellison | The Philadelphia Citizen
Multiple studies find that environmental fixes to low-income neighborhoods reduce gun violence dramatically. WURD’s midday host combines five of them into one bold plan
When tackling any given crisis, Philadelphia continues finding itself paralyzed from a mix of no creativity (despite showcasing itself as a “center of the arts”), little ingenuity (despite boasting about the presence of top global academic and research institutions), and city politics that function as the textbook definition of an oligarchy (despite bragging about being the historic “birthplace of democracy”). Yes, an oligarchy: Philadelphia is still a city where, on average, just under a quarter of all residents make decisions for themselves and the other 80 to 85 percent. More on that later.
This is clearly the case as, upon this writing, Philadelphia now marks 418 murders at the top of the 10th month in 2021—and, at this pace, braces itself to surpass the 500 murder record of 2020. On top of that, more than 1,700 people have been non-fatally shot, their lives permanently traumatized and destroyed from the unthinkable nightmare of bullets piercing flesh and bone.
The city’s response to that? Ongoing beef between a union-checked Mayor, a social justice-dreaming District Attorney and an impervious Police Commissioner who seems to be in it for the resume boost. A non-committal, absent Mayor who refuses to say much other than the usual press release boilerplate. A City Council that, each week, either passes way more pointless honorific resolutions in its very public sessions of The Whole or holds self-soothing pressers on big new-spend anti-poverty programs that no one can track and seems to never get to the people they claim it’s designed for.
It gets better. A police department that gets pay raises when it can barely solve homicides (… when the victims are Black). A steady stream of funding to a vast ecosystem of frontline community groups, violence prevention outfits and interventionist networks that some privately grumble aren’t measured on a performance metric of fewer violent crimes. And perennially pissed-off and justifiably scared residents who demand immediate results, but keep re-electing the same feckless elected class by showing up with an average 25 to 30 percent turnout rate in each local election.
Philadelphia is stuck in a mud of its own making with the same stale set of ineffectual approaches. It’s been doing this for a long time. With violence rising, such dangerous times would call for something other than what’s being done. All city energy into something fresh—perhaps, a series of counter plays which completely flips over the table, even if, for the moment, it leaves a mess on the floor and those seated with egos bruised.
That missing approach is nature.
The city could be much better at reducing violence … by teaming up with nature. What hasn’t been rolled out in any bold way is a city-wide violence mitigation strategy that is completely centered in a heavy reliance on the environment. How environment is defined could mean any number of things: but we all agree that it describes the spaces we live in. We also understand that many of those spaces, right now, are literally under attack from an accelerated trend of gun violence; when people are shot, killed or intimidated by the incessant war zone activities outside their home, that is the definition of an active attack on that space.
What we also know, based on an exhaustive body of research, is that the state of a community’s environment or the habitat people live in, is one determinant of that violence. We know that the most distressed zip codes are the most violent or crime-plagued. The steady build-up of social determinant pressure from the convergence of poverty, lack of economic access and unemployment are, of course, constant fixtures in crime-infested neighborhoods.
Yet, too often we’ve allowed those same neighborhoods to accept a low standard of deteriorating spaceBlack youth, the population most heavily impacted by violence, are stuck in zip codes overcome by a hazardous and toxic cauldron of trash, vacant properties, little-to-no tree canopy, pollution, climate-instigated heat waves and the disappearance of green space such as parks, gardens, lawns, vegetation and other forms of standard horticulture that are, yes, a standard in more affluent parts of a city. Even when these embattled neighborhoods have parks, they aren’t cared for and allowed to languish into unsafe space.
“This conversation I had with a young person recently sticks out in my mind when we talk about how much neighborhood environment influences violence,” Rev. Greg Holston, senior advisor on policy and advocacy to the Philadelphia District Attorney told Reality Check on WURD. “He said that ‘Everytime I walk out of my house I see trash, dirt and filth. So, how do they expect that not to affect me or not to shape the way I view my neighborhood?’”
Just because people live in low-income zip codes shouldn’t mean they are forever sentenced to an unrelenting hellscape of violence. Deteriorating spaces in Philadelphia should be aggressively cleaned, revived and rebuilt, and doing so should be a top priority of policymakers, public servants and community organizers who claim they’re attempting to stop the violence.
The recipe for dramatically reducing violence through environmental justice and low-cost sustainability can be done—rather immediately and rather cheaply. As a John Jay College Research advisory group argued last year (during the pandemic) in an analysis of effective violence prevention … without police, “[p]lace-based interventions that are structural, scalable, and sustainable have been shown to reduce violence and many strategies are economically viable. Increasing the prevalence of green space in a neighborhood, improving the quality of neighborhood buildings and housing, and creating public spaces with ample lighting suitable for pedestrian traffic can be cost-effective ways of decreasing community violence.”
A Five-step Strategy
Imagine, for a moment, if we took one violence-struck Philadelphia neighborhood and resolved to fight that crime through use of the tested and peer-reviewed research that’s already been done. We could do that by combining just five strategies:
Plant Trees. We already know that planting more trees and beefing up what’s called a “tree canopy” will not only shade and cool heat wave-stricken communities, but also sharply reduces violence. A 2012 University of Vermont study discovered “a 10 percent increase in trees roughly equaled a 12 percent decrease in crime” in Baltimore, even controlling for socioeconomic factors. Pre-pandemic, SmartCities Dive also reported how “… researchers in New York City … found that each year the city’s street trees deliver $122 million in benefits, or about $209 a tree. The city spends about $14 million each year on its tree program, suggesting a hefty return on their investment.”
That doesn’t even get into the job creation from needed tree-planting services when the violence prevention strategy begins As American Forests CEO Jad Daly pointed out last year in The Hill while pushing for U.S. involvement in the global 1 trillion tree effort “ … each $1 million invested in activities like tree planting can produce as many as 39.7 direct, indirect and induced forest-related jobs.” And, don’t get us started on the health benefits for a bad air quality city like Philly when that’s one less neighborhood grappling with a high rate of asthma cases and chronic respiratory diseases.
Restore Vacant Land. As we’re planting trees in that neighborhood, reducing some violence, creating instant tree-planting jobs and cleaning up the air, we can simultaneously create some more landscaping, mowing and greening jobs by completely cleaning out and restoring all the vacant land and lots. A 2018 study by Penn researchers (among others) published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences actually put that scenario to the test, using more than 500 Philadelphia neighborhoods as control samples. The results: “Significant reductions in crime overall (−13.3 percent), gun violence (-29.1 percent), burglary (−21.9 percent), and nuisances (−30.3 percent) were also found after the treatment of vacant lots in neighborhoods below the poverty line. Restoration of this land can be an effective and scalable infrastructure intervention for gun violence, crime, and fear in urban neighborhoods.”
Interestingly enough, that also saves the city money, resources and the hassle of accumulating social costs from so much untaxed and wasteful vacant land. As Billy Penn reported earlier this year “[P]laces like Philadelphia, Detroit and Baltimore, … have the highest number of vacant properties among big U.S. cities. An estimated 12,000 properties sit vacant in Philly—about 42,000 when you include vacant lots—while less than 6,000 people are experiencing homelessness, according to the most recent city count.”
Keep Housing Affordable. According to West Virginia University researcher Zachary Porreca in a study that just dropped last month, “some 5,800 (21%) of Philadelphia’s shootings over the decade of this study’s window can be attributed to spillover effects from gentrification.” Spillover is not only from the displacement and stressors imposed on low-income residents, but the effect from illegal actions (such as illicit drug markets) being pushed into neighboring communities that are still distressed.
Gentrification is a controversial and contentious topic in Philadelphia. Long-time and mostly Black Philadelphia residents point to it as a source of compounding housing and economic woes: the more new developments are built, the more affluent and Whiter people move, the less affordable housing becomes. But a 2019 Federal Reserve of Philadelphia study disputed the effects of gentrification in Philly, finding, as WHYY reported, “… little evidence to support the conventional understanding of gentrification as a massively disruptive influence on the well-being of lower-income city residents.”
Still, a 2016 Pew study noted, for the neighborhoods that have experienced gentrification—Graduate Hospital, for example, and Point Breeze—the effects are dramatic. Plus, as the Fed Reserve stated: “… [f]ew [studies] suggest that the poorest residents will benefit from market-rate construction of any kind, because their incomes are often too low to reasonably accommodate any market-rate rent without subsidy.”
For our sample neighborhood, what if we created a more intentional neighborhood housing upgrade model that makes the housing truly affordable for everyone that lives there–including renters–in an effort to further eliminate the violence?
Clean Up The Trash. As the easily corruptible saying goes “poverty is a state of mind”–which is easy to say for those who don’t live through it or billionaires who refuse to pay taxes. But, it makes a point when we consider the alarming state of Philadelphia’s trash crisis and how it not only encourages further decay of habitable spaces, but sends the signal that such space is not cared for and can, in turn, be an easy target for neglect, crime and violence. So, as we’re planting trees, cleaning vacant lots, and ending harmful gentrification in this one neighborhood, let’s also hire teams of people to simply clean all of it up.
That would entail quick, but all-day sweaty fixes like mowing unkempt grass and eliminating every last pile and morsel of trash in that neighborhood. Yet, the effects of that show a promising benefit of lowered violence. As that aforementioned John Jay College Research Advisory Group on Preventing and Reducing Community Violence cited from another study “ … simply mowing the grass and cleaning up trash significantly reduced shootings by 9 percent.”
Repair homes. Lastly, we get to home repairs for every home, owned or rented, in that neighborhood. Imagine a complete mix of house restoration contractors hiring and leading in-training, apprenticed and skilled laborers—from plumbers to roofing experts to flooring specialists and electricians—to restore every last home in that neighborhood. According to another Penn study examining Philadelphia’s Basic Systems Repair Program (BSRP)—which has been around since 1995—homes that received BSRP repairs revealed a 22 percent drop in violent crime: “This data revealed lower instances of all crime, including homicide, on blocks with a single BSRP-repaired home compared to blocks that were eligible for a BSRP-repaired home but did not get the intervention.”
Once again, the goal: refresh and restore the entire neighborhood as trees are being planted, grass is getting mowed, gentrification is on a break, all the trash is getting picked up and every piece of vacant land is getting restored and possibly greened. All of this in a bid to end violent crime—and to also, finally, create a self-sustaining economy of residents, particularly young people, who are being employed and deployed to do this work.
What Just Happened?
All those strategies added together could add up to a 93 percent reduction in violent crime. (Though, granted, no one has studied the effects of combining all five approaches). But, would it even be that hard and costly to try it this way? Even if they cut shootings by half, the benefits would far exceed the investment in time and money—and, we would have created an entirely new “green infrastructure” economy of new jobs and talent from that same community.
Just imagine if we applied that approach to every distressed, gun-stricken neighborhood.What exactly is holding Philadelphia back from implementing such effective, evidence-based strategy? One problem is that it might seem too good or too easy to be true. City officials and policymakers seem aware these recommendations exist, but don’t take them seriously enough to deploy them in a way that’s audacious and consolidated, like what we described above. What if Philly created a citywide “Place-Based” Strategy and required all relevant agencies and city-funded organizations to implement that model?
Instead, Philly gets sloppy violence reduction done in pieces. It’s executed haphazardly, in silos and often according to the whims of who’s in charge: like an uncaring Mayor riding out his second and last term. It might be a Councilmember or two who suddenly, out of frustration, jumps up and organizes a quick community clean-up in the aftermath of violence. There are micro-examples of success—like PowerCorpsPHL or West Philly’s Green City Works.
Yet, nothing ever seems Marshall Plan-like or citywide, and it operates more like a lottery system at best. Expert violence prevention strategists and policymakers who’ve been in that game for a long time appear baffled at the environmental or “place-based” strategy as the leading approach. “A lot more people are starting to think about this and talk about this. Part of it is that we can’t rely on it for just short-term relief and that happens all too often,” says Rev. Holston. “This only works with a long term investment.”
Now’s the time to do more than just think about it. We’re going to explore this idea of a citywide gun violence reduction strategy that relies almost exclusively on the environment during the annual ecoWURD Environmental Justice Summit at Bartram’s Garden on October 11 from 1-4pm. Green, livable, clean and tree-lined spaces that are safe should be a permanent normal in every zip code, especially the ones that need those elements the most.