Fight Crime With Gardens

greening vacant lots

Story at-a-glance -

  • In U.S. cities, about 15 percent of land sits vacant or abandoned; these spaces are associated with increased crime and stress to residents, especially in low-income neighborhoods
  • Researchers “greened” abandoned lots, cleaning up trash and debris, grading the land, planting grass and trees to create a park-like setting and installing a low wooden fence around the perimeter to signal that the lot was being cared for
  • Significant benefits were reported due to the greened lots, including a significant reduction in gun violence, burglaries and nuisances, with the latter two falling by 22 percent and 30 percent respectively
  • In neighborhoods below the poverty line, the transformed lots reduced overall crime by more than 13 percent and gun violence by nearly 30 percent
  • Residents also reported significant benefits, including feeling 58 percent less fearful of going outside due to safety concerns

By Dr. Mercola

In U.S. cities, about 15 percent of land sits unused, vacant or abandoned. These spaces, which translate to an area the size of Switzerland, are associated with increased crime and stress to residents, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Plots of land with low-lying trees and shrubs, for instance, have been associated with a greater fear of crime, researchers wrote in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), as the vegetation may hide potential attackers and illegal activity.1

Vacant lots that have been cleaned up or "greened" seem to have the opposite effect and are linked with greater feelings of personal safety and lower levels of violence and crime.

Charles Branas, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, and colleagues decided to find out where vacant land restoration could have a citywide impact on crime and resident well-being, so they worked with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and Philadelphia Division of Housing and Community Development to clean up hundreds of vacant lots in Philadelphia.

'Greening' Vacant Lots Reduces Crime and Violence, Increases Feelings of Safety

The researchers specifically chose interventions that were inexpensive, scalable and sustainable, such that one day they could be applied to other U.S. cities. The main intervention involved removing trash and debris from the lots, grading the land, planting grass and trees to create a park-like setting and installing a low wooden fence around the perimeter to signal that the lot was being cared for.

The cost for the intervention averaged about $5 per square meter (3.8 miles) with upkeep coming in at about 50 cents per square meter. The lots were regularly maintained throughout the study period. Another set of lots received a second intervention, which consisted of cleaning the lots of trash and debris and maintaining the cleaning for the duration of the study. A third set of control lots, which received no attention, was also included. A total of 541 lots were involved in the study.

Outcomes were measured over three years via police reports of crime and nuisance as well as surveys of 445 nearby residents. "We tested the effects of these interventions on the commission of violence and crime, as well as perceptions of fear and safety among individual study participants, at a citywide level," the researchers wrote.2

Significant benefits were reported due to the greened lots, including a significant reduction in gun violence, burglaries and nuisances, with the latter two falling by 22 percent and 30 percent respectively.

Further, in neighborhoods below the poverty line, the transformed lots reduced overall crime by more than 13 percent and gun violence by nearly 30 percent.3 Residents also reported significant benefits, including feeling 58 percent less fearful of going outside due to safety concerns. A 76 percent increase in their use of outside spaces was also reported. According to the study:4

"[S]tructural dilapidation and blight can be key causes of negative outcomes in terms of people's safety, both their perceptions of safety and their actual, physical safety. When left untreated, vacant and blighted urban spaces contribute to increased violence and fear. The physical components of neglected and impoverished urban environments can be changed in inexpensive and sustainable ways as a direct treatment strategy for violence and fear in cities.

Restoration of vacant spaces using well-delineated interventions … is a scalable and politically acceptable strategy that can significantly and sustainably reduce persistent urban problems like gun violence."

Gardens Not Only Prevent Crimes but Are Good for Rehab Too

As any avid gardener knows, there’s something intrinsically soothing about getting outside and putting your hands in the dirt. Such productive stress relief, then, would seem to be a natural match for prison systems looking to rehabilitate prisoners while also providing a valuable product: food. Prior to the 1970s, many prisons, including Alcatraz, had gardens. Then came an era when, as The Washington Post put it, “lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key justice took hold."5

Gardens in prisons disappeared, along with their many profound, yet little-recognized, benefits. Preliminary research in California prisons suggests that among prisoners who participated in gardening programs, less than 10 percent returned to prison.6 Typically, more than 60 percent will be sent back to prison after committing new crimes or violating parole,7 so the simplistic act of gardening seemed to have a significant effect in keeping people out of prison.

That amounts to an approximate savings of $40 million to the state and taxpayers based on the average state cost to incarcerate someone at $47,421, according to the Insight Garden Program (IGP), which helps U.S. prisons establish gardens.8 IGP director Beth Waitkus told the Post, "The demand is huge … Prisons see the value of this. When you have to tend to a living thing, there's a shift that happens in a person."9

Some prison garden programs use their harvests to feed inmates, both saving money and adding to the quality and taste of the food. Others donate food to low-income areas, allowing prisoners to give back to areas where many of them were raised. Still other prison gardens generate so much food that they're even able to donate to churches, nursing homes and schools.

Gardens Lead to Transformations

Gardens have the power to not only transform physical spaces but also the people who tend to them. San Quentin State Prison in California is among those participating in the IGP. Research suggests that prison gardens and other environmental programming "contribute profoundly toward transformative values re-identification, which is integral to a rehabilitative experience that inspires lasting change."10

In addition, for people who are incarcerated and facing personal crisis, gardening improved the sense of personal control along with deepened environmental understanding. IGP also reported on Waitkus' master thesis, which looked at the effects of a garden on the physical environment and social climate of the prison yard at San Quentin State Prison. The following benefits were noted:11

  • The garden was the only place where different races could congregate and work in teams without fear of violence from others
  • Gardens invited attention, use and refuge
  • Being in or near a garden reduced stress
  • Gardeners gained benefits from directly working with nature, creating the possibility for hope and further change

Spending time in nature to nurture plants gives people in prisons a chance to learn new information, perform complex tasks and problem solve,12 while at the same time offering mental, emotional and even spiritual benefits. Researchers wrote in the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine that interacting with nature positively affects multiple dimensions of human health:13

"Physiological effects of stress on the autonomic nervous system are lessened. Psychologically, deficits in attention can be restored or minimized, and people report feeling greater satisfaction with a variety of aspects of life.

The presence of the natural world promotes social health by encouraging positive social interaction and lessening the frequency of aggressive behavior. Spiritual well-being is enhanced through the experience of greater interconnectedness, which occurs when interacting with the natural world."

IGP has since expanded, operating in eight prisons in California as well as facilities in Indiana and a re-entry program for people leaving New York facilities. One graduate of the program, a man named Julius, credits IGP with making him a better person:14

"Now that I'm out, I'm more active in the community and in work. When the garden is planted, and the work is done, and the vegetables grow, it brings a lot of people together. That's the way community grows … Learning about different plants and herbs inspired me. There were a lot of herbs that I didn't know about. Plants can help you a lot. There's actually stuff you can grow that can cure the problem.

Knowing that it is actually good for the body, I try to eat healthier and set a good example for others in my community. I was going through a rough time in my life, and IGP helped pull me out of anger issues. I'm more caring than I was in the past. When I'm having problems or having a bad time, I take some time to meditate and try not to stress about it."

Sustainability in Prisons Project Helps Build Healthy Communities

Another example of how prisons are connecting with nature — with stellar results — is the Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP), a partnership founded by the Evergreen State College and Washington State Department of Corrections. The program offers science, sustainability and environmental education programs in all 12 Washington state prisons, leading to such impressive outcomes as:15

  • Growing about 492,000 pounds of produce for food banks and prison kitchens in one growing season
  • Raising and releasing more than 13,000 caterpillars and adult butterflies onto lowland prairies as part of the Taylor's checkerspot butterfly program
  • More than 1,100 students have graduated from a 50-hour environmental course in preparation for environmental careers, resource savings and positive community involvement
  • Since 2009, more than 2 million rare and endangered species were grown and delivered to lowland prairies as part of the program's prairie conservation nurseries

SPP has more than 180 programs in all, from beekeeping and worm composting to land restoration and plant and animal habitat. Many former SPP participants report forming "environmental identities" that last after they're released. Participants have, for example, pursued environmental education and environmental careers as well as shared what they learned with their families and communities.16

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Prison System (PSS) also operates a composting program that keeps 685 tons of food waste out of landfills every year, turning it into compost instead. The program also saves Philadelphia $40,000 a year in landfill costs.17 PSS built a composting facility via a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and now creates so much "black gold" that they give it away to the community for free.

There’s also the Philadelphia Prison Orchard Project, which got its start from a donation of 200 fruit trees. The prison-created compost is used to fertilize the orchard, and inmates are able to work in both areas. PPS has partnered with Temple University and inmates can earn a vocational certificate in organic farming after completing the program.

Reaping the Benefits of Gardening in Your Own Backyard

Prisoners are only one population that stands to benefit from gardening. Benefits have also been revealed for older adults. In those who are institutionalized, gardening promotes an “internal locus of control and well-being,” similar to what is experienced by prison inmates. A decrease in sadness and anxiety was noted among institutionalized older adults who gardened, while in general gardening by older adults is linked to:18

  • Feelings of accomplishment
  • Well-being and peace
  • A decrease in depressive symptoms
  • A protective effect on cognitive functions
  • The development of social links

Gardening has also been shown to increase fruit and vegetable intake among school-aged children,19 while offering benefits for veterans, including lower cortisol levels, improvements in post-traumatic stress disorder and depression and greater quality of life.20

A study in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports also concluded, "A regular dose of gardening can improve public health," noting that gardening is associated with reductions in depression and anxiety and increases in life satisfaction, quality of life and sense of community.21 There's even research showing that people with chronic pain had significant reductions in anxiety, depression and fatigue, and an increase in the ability to manage their pain — all from therapeutic vegetable gardening.22

Of course, growing your own vegetables and fruits is also one of the best ways to ensure ready access to fresh, nutrient-dense and chemical-free food, which is one of the most compelling reasons of all to try gardening. If you’re ready to get started, here are 10 DIY gardening hacks to help you create the perfect garden.