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One Way To Reduce Firearm Violence? Cleaning And Greening Vacant Lots

Emily Sullivan/WYPR


Jerlene Boyd has lived in the west Baltimore neighborhood of Boyd-Booth since JFK was president.. One of the greatest scourges the neighborhood has ever faced, the 80-year-old says, is the “real eyesore and nose sore” of illegal dumping in vacant lots. 

Now, a lot at 50 S. Pulaski St. once infamously known as a ground for dumping has been transformed into a lush green space – big, bright and welcoming, with a smatter of trees.

“It’s a huge blessing,” Boyd said. “I thank God every day for it.”

The transformation came about through Lots to Love, a new city program that is turning 47 vacant lots into green spaces. Studies show that vacant lot remediation, as these efforts are called, leads to remarkable benefits, including reduced gun violence and improved community health. 

Kimberly Knox, a Green Network Coordinator with Baltimore city, ushered in Lots to Love. She asked Boyd and her neighbors to identify lots in need of greening. They, along with other city community leaders, chose other vacant lots in the Upton, Shipley Hill and Carrollton Ridge neighborhoods. They’re close to schools, recreation centers and business retail corridors. Seventeen are on or near Frederick Avenue and another 29 are on or near Pennsylvania Avenue. 

“We went to communities and said, ‘how can we connect green spaces throughout Baltimore to make sure that everyone has access to green space,’ ” Knox says.  

After the lot on Pulaski was chosen for the program, workers -- and excited community members -- spent three days clearing it. They hauled mattresses, broken furniture, bottles and other junk and installed a crisp tan fence to prevent future dumping. 

There are more than 17,000 vacant lots throughout Baltimore. More than 60 percent of them are privately owned. Unlike similar city programs, Lots to Love worked primarily with privately owned lots. Knox says her office reached out to each lot’s owner to inform them of cleanings; only one owner responded.

The program was inspired by LandCare, a similar Philadelphia vacant lot remediation program that’s legendary among urban planners for its wide-spanning benefits. 

Charlie Branas, chair of Columbia University’s Department of Epidemiology, led a series of studies from experts across academic fields on LandCare’s effects. It’s about time Baltimore implemented a similar program, he says. 

“We think that once you clean and green these spaces, the benefits of reduced crime and improved mental health continue to be maintained for years to come,” he says. 

One study found that remediated lots lowered neighbors’ stress levels and increased their rates of exercise. Another showed that areas near remediated lots experienced a significant reduction in firearm violence – and those reductions hold steady over the years. Meanwhile, the rates of nonfirearm violence crimes, such as physical assaults, remained the same. 

That’s because vacant lots often act as storage units for illegal firearms, Branas says, and cleaning them reduces opportunities for crime. Firearms were discovered in many lots his team studied during the remediation process. Knox says no firearms were recovered at 50 S. Pulaski. 

The city budgeted around just $50 per square mile of cleaning. “Urban blight remediation is a low-cost, high-return solution to firearm violence,” Branas concluded in one study.  

Boyd believes this -- a clean, welcoming lot sends a strong message that crime is not permitted nearby, she said. She wants nothing more on this planet than for the neighborhood shootings to stop. 

“With all this gun violence we are losing too many babies in the process, too many children,” she said. “Now, if they got some violence to do, they gotta do it someplace else.”

And once lots become green, they usually stay that way. Neighbors, who often have advocated for greening efforts for years if not decades, don’t want those lots to revert to their once-decrepit state. 

“If there are any kind of little nuisances that are occurring on those spaces,” Branas says, “neighbors willI informally police that space to make sure that it remains a benefit to the community.”  

That unwanted activity includes things that may lead to serious crimes in the space. Boyd, who is a frequent presence at the lot, says she won’t allow for any kind of disruption there, such as drinking.  

Knox says, many of the community leaders she’s worked with have been advocating for more green spaces for years. Now that they’ve arrived, leaders are eager to run with it. Boyd and the neighborhood association, for instance, is hosting a free kid’s movie at the end of September. 

“They have all sorts of great ideas of what they want, what they want to do in terms of activating the lot, and that makes it even more exciting,” Knox said.  

Crucially, Branas says, greened lots lead to great benefits without the negative consequences of gentrification, such as displacement. His study showed that less than 5 percent of Philadelphia’s greened lots became developed spaces and that property values generally remained the same, meaning there was little likelihood of getting priced out of the neighborhood. 

The city is also partnering with local workforce development organizations to train, hire and employ local residents to care for the lots twice a month. These community financial opportunities increase benefits even more, Branas says. 

“You got lower gun violence and you got more jobs for local residents and the growth of local businesses within within your community,” Knox says. “So it's a win-win-win-win.”

Lots to Love began its remediation efforts in April; it will end in October. Knox, along with her colleagues at the Office of Sustainability, cobbled the project’s funding together together with a series of city and state grants. They hope to run the program again next year.

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