Can smarter land use help stop violence in the community?

baltimore-vacant-rowsThe public health field often looks at changing individual behavior to get better outcomes – we offer driver’s education to prevent accidents, or conduct public service announcements about the importance of exercise to lower obesity levels.

New research on violent crime helps illustrate the fact that the choices people make are influenced by the places they live, and that what we choose to do with the physical space in our communities can play a critical role in our efforts to help keep people safer and healthier.

In September, researchers documented the rise of rural suicide rates in California, and found that suicide deaths were more likely to occur in both rural and urban places with concentrations of bars and taverns, suggesting that development patterns that increase access to alcohol can increase incidents of violent behavior.  The University of Pennsylvania’s Charles Branas arrived at a similar conclusion earlier this year when he looked at gun assault rates in Philadelphia. While Branas found no connection between gun violence and the prevalence of bars, he did find that the presence of venues offering take-out liquor sales was correlated with a spike in assaults. Branas speculates that because take-out liquor stores tend to separate employees from the activities of their patrons (often behind bullet-proof glass), they leave the surrounding area vulnerable to alcohol-fueled predatory crimes and violent disputes.

Branas is now studying the linkages between vacant properties and crime, and he’s found a strong link between vacant parcels of land and aggravated assaults. In fact, total assaults in a given set of blocks increased by 18.5% for every additional vacancy in a given area.

His next step? To systematically assess the effects that the stabilization of vacant property might have on rates of crime and health outcomes. Branas wants to find out if the communities that invest in short-term fixes like greening and fencing vacant lots see aggravated assault rates surrounding those vacancies reduced. He’ll also examine the impact on neighboring residents’ feelings of stress and fear, which, when elevated, can lead to an additional array of health issues.

As new research illustrates the important and complex relationships between crime and how we develop (or neglect) land, it also points us toward several solutions.  We can try zoning for fewer alcohol outlets, or shorter hours of operation, or service limits; stabilizing and treating vacant properties through greening strategies and community engagement; and focusing police attention around the types of businesses and properties that have been shown to lead to higher crime rates.

Putting our finger on the contributions that the built environment may have on violent behavior or poor health can lead us to solutions — helping to make our communities safer and healthier places to live.