Urban Gardens May Be the Key to Solving America’s Crime Problem

urban gardens

Urban gardens are certainly a welcome addition to cityscapes, but that’s not all they are; new research shows that an increased presence of parks and other urban green spaces can actually reduce crime in the surrounding area.

While this field of research is relatively young, a few distinct examples have proven the ways in which urban gardens appear to reduce crime.

The Research: Crime and Urban Gardens

In Youngstown, Ohio, a city that was struggling with high unemployment in 2010, a decision was made to convert the 31 percent of the city’s land area that was vacant into urban gardens. Over a period of four years, this project advanced, and later, the community was invited to improve these various spaces as they liked, creating green spaces, community food gardens, and other spaces. A team of researchers examined crime data in these areas and found that since 2010, not only was violent crime reduced, but “spill-over” crime reduction occurred in nearby areas as well.

In 2000, Philadelphia launched a similar project to convert roadside gray spaces into plots to soak up rainwater. The same research team that studied the Youngstown crime rates found reduced narcotics possession near these sites, even though narcotics possession actually went up over the same period in Philadelphia.

In California, researchers surveyed 31 distinct urban sites and found that 90 percent of all incidents of vandalism or graffiti occurred in areas without urban gardens or other green spaces.

Yet another study, this time in the UK, at the University of Cardiff, showed in 2015 that parks and green spaces in urban areas can reduce crime by up to four percent.

Why Is Crime Reduced in Areas with Urban Gardens?

All of the evidence seems to point in one direction — the question is why the introduction of urban gardens works so well to reduce crime.

An exploration of this phenomenon, prepared by Kathleen Wolf, PhD in June 2010 at the University of Washington’s College of Environment, delved into the social, psychological, and environmental reasons why urban gardens and crime may be inversely related.

“Crime behavior is the result of a complex blend of social and environmental factors,” she writes. “Urban conditions such as crowding, high temperatures, and high levels of noise have all been linked to aggression and violence.” A reduction of these factors can, therefore, be attributed to the associated reduction of crime; introducing urban gardens fulfills these goals.

Michelle Kondo, one of the authors of the study on Youngstown and Philadelphia, explores a different angle of this idea: she writes that improved visibility afforded by urban gardens and other green spaces deters theft by removing hiding places for assailants or loot, and the improved aesthetics of the new spaces makes them seem less anonymous and therefore not as attractive for crime. In other words, the likelihood — or perceived likelihood — of getting caught increases with the addition of urban gardens.

“It could be that having some sort of facility that is owned and operated and maintained by the city, that could have [Philadelphia Water Department] vans coming by you never know when, that could signal that you might not want to hang around there,” Kondo told Citylab.

Psychologist Dr. Netta Weinstein explained yet another element of this idea, namely her belief that human exposure to nature brings about greater social cohesion, which deters crime.

“Individuals may be losing touch with nature as their contact with it decreases worldwide,” she told Western Daily Press. “The positive impact of local nature on neighbors’ mutual support may discourage crime, even in areas lower in socioeconomic factors.”

Wolf agrees that these gardens can create a better sense of community, therefore reducing crime.

“From a social perspective, trees and safety are directly linked through the dynamics of defensible space, territoriality, and social ties,” she writes. “Neighbors who have strong social ties form more effective social groups, and become more capable of building consensus on values and norms, monitoring behavior, intervening if problem behaviors occur, and defending their neighborhoods against an increase in crime.”

More American cities would do well to take a page from the books of these urban centers in adding even more urban gardens to their cityscapes.

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Urban garden image via Shutterstock

Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.