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Green Solution to Crime?

Study Finds How Parks, Other Spaces Are Designed and Maintained Could Reduce Gun Violence

By Samantha Watters

Pathway through trees

Photo by Edwin Remsberg

A recent study shows that well-designed and maintained green spaces could help reduce gun violence and violent crime.

Well-designed and maintained green spaces could help reduce gun violence and violent crime, making for safer and healthier cities and communities, a recent study from a team including a University of Maryland researcher found.

The collaboration between researchers from UMD, Cornell University and the University of Virginia (UVA) also found that green spaces and parks that aren’t designed with safety in mind, or aren’t well maintained, can have the opposite effect.

At a time of high stress for the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when anecdotal evidence suggests that violent crime may not be falling along with other types of crime, the findings published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health have clear implications for public health policy, as well as the future of urban planning and development, the researchers said. 

“There is an understanding that the physical environment has measurable effects on people in all sorts of ways, and given the state of the country, our research team felt it was a good time to look at how outdoor spaces might have an effect on issues like gun violence and violent crime,” said Naomi Sachs, assistant professor of landscape architecture at UMD.

The findings were based on a comprehensive review of 45 previous studies of the impact of green space on violent crime, including gun violence, assault, murder and robbery in urban areas. The next step is to understand the mechanisms that link green space design and maintenance to crime rates.

“Design is really important, both physically and for policy and programming,” Sachs said. “So using techniques like lighting, trash cans, proper maintenance, clear visibility, clear boundaries and other CPTED [Crime Prevention through Environmental Design] tenets that people have found to be successful in parks and other public green spaces is very valuable.”

The researchers reviewed the distribution of various kinds of urban green space—not just parks—because of the variability in what constitutes a park. Some are mostly paved and offer little or no green space, while open green spaces may not be in established parks. Whatever the space, how effectively it is maintained plays a key role in not just safety, but nearby residents’ sense of civic pride.

“There is a huge amount of inequity when it comes to the distribution of parks in this country. And parks need to be not just parks, but healthy, well-maintained parks with many different types and levels of engagement, including nature engagement,” Sachs said.

Discussion of methods to control violent crime is important, but also potentially polarizing, said co-author Hessam Sadatsafavi of the UVA School of Medicine.

“We are interested to see, as designers whose work is to shape the physical environment, if it’s possible for us to contribute to this conversation and to take some actions to see if we, personally, can contribute to reducing crime,” he said.

The researchers on the team said sound science is integral in helping achieve these goals and showing policy makers the importance of maintaining green space.

“Most people agree now that nature is therapeutic, but we’ve had to bring hard data to the table so that people will fund gardens for children, at hospitals, in cities and elsewhere. If you don’t have the science behind it, people won’t take it seriously,” said co-author Mardelle Shepley of Cornell. “This paper gives sound scientific evidence that green space is not only good for mental health, but for reducing violent crime and even reducing costs, since crime is expensive for cities.”

Sachs said the team hopes to identify specific guidelines for park and green space development in order to create a toolkit so they can tell cities, “‘This is what you have to have in order to reduce or prevent violence, these are the design interventions, and these are the types of activities that you should encourage in areas of green space.’ That helps identify policies and where funding should go.”

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