Why Cleaning Up Abandoned Lots Can Reduce Shootings

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Abandoned lots and houses can act as “storage lockers” for illegal guns.

By Francie Diep

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(Photo: Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images)

In his earlier days, Charles Branas studied whether aggression-management classes prevented violence. He found that sometimes such classes worked, sometimes they didn’t, and even when they did prove effective, cities often weren’t interested in providing the necessary funding.

Branas, an epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, thought there must be a different way to reduce violence in cities — maybe some kind of environmental tweak that would affect a lot of people at once. So he ran a focus group in Philadelphia. Respondents came back to him with a surprising answer: Clean up the abandoned lots and buildings in the neighborhoods.

In a series of studies, Branas and his team found that forcing absent homeowners to put real glass in their windows instead of plywood, and substituting trash with grass in abandoned lots, tends to reduce criminal shootings in the vicinity. In fact, for every dollar Philadelphia spends on enforcing abandoned-house laws, it saves $5 in criminal justice and medical costs as a result of fewer shootings occurring. And for every dollar that goes to remediating lots, Philly gets $26 back. The abandoned-lots program, called LandCare, had a budget of $2.9 million this year, with which it maintained 10,000 lots totaling a half square mile of land, according to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which runs LandCare.

“We’re finding what seem to be unique effects, in terms of a reduction of gun violence, for neighborhoods, if these spaces are changed in inexpensive ways,” Branas says. “This is something that can be scaled to a lot of different places.”

For every dollar Philadelphia spends on enforcing abandoned-house laws, it saves $5 in criminal justice and medical costs.

The key seems to be fact that people stash illegal guns in abandoned parcels and houses. “The Philadelphia police calls these spaces storage lockers for illegal firearms,” Branas explains. Staffers at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society say they often find guns in the weeds. When those places undergo a remodeling, the guns — and the shootings — disappear.

In Branas’ latest study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers compared lots and buildings in Philadelphia that had and hadn’t been fixed up between 1999 and 2013. Every repaired house, for example, was randomly matched with a cited, but unfixed house elsewhere in the city — a lost twin, if you will. The researchers gathered monthly crime statistics for the area around each house for a year. They had data on 676 buildings and more than 17,000 lots.

On average, in the year after a clean-up, the areas around remediated lots saw 5 percent fewer shootings than the areas around un-remediated lots, and remediated houses experienced 39 percent less gun crime. That’s a boon not only for city coffers, but for neighbors as well. In a previous study, Branas and his colleagues showed that walking past abandoned lots raised locals’ heart rates and stress levels, perhaps because these places were known crime magnets.

Other cities including New Orleans; Newark, New Jersey; Youngstown, Ohio; and Flint, Michigan, have run similar clean-up programs. As a way of reducing shootings, clean-up is a much more politically expedient idea than gun control.

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