Crime-Fighting Trees Transform Philly

Greening neighborhoods is proving to be a good way to reduce crime

A small park at the corner of North 5th and Berks Streets has had a ripple effect on its surrounding community.

“About 20 years ago, there were drug dealers on both sides of the street,” said longtime resident Georgia Richardson. “They make you not want to sit outside.” 

Richardson has lived in her home the past 43 years and has seen the community change -- from neighbors moving in and out to drug dealers coming and going.

“It’s peaceful and calmer, but we want it to go further,” exclaimed her husband Earl Richardson. 

“Combating crime is much better than it used to be. This is what we need to bring the city back up to snuff. That park is a small step. For many years, it was nothing but a garbage dump.”

The North 5th and Berks Streets corner park was designed years ago and it spawned a partnership with community organization Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha for Everyone (APM) and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS).

Through that partnership and with the community's support, a second park was built across the street. Using funds from the Home Depot Foundation, the new park has a stage and even attracts skateboarders.

“Everybody threw trash there. Now, every week they come and clean it up. It’s nice for our neighborhood, nice for the kids,” said Wigberto Rosado, who lives nearby in the 400 block of Hewson Street.

The City of Philadelphia has partnered with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to clean up nuisance lots and make Philadelphia more beautiful under the PHS Philadelphia LandCare Program.

“We can see the impact on crime, anecdotally. Drug dealers would move when we built the parks, clean and maintain them,” said PHS director Bob Grossmann. 

“Lots that are clean attract attention, there’s significant decrease in crime.”

For the past 13 years, the PHS Philadelphia LandCare program has transformed vacant lots into pocket parks, or mini-parks, available for public use.

The PHS manages 10 million square feet of land in the city at a price tag of about $2 million per year. The program began following Mayor John Street’s initiative to knock down vacant houses, according to Grossmann. 

After the blighted houses were razed, the lots oftentimes became scenes for crime. So the city turned to beautification to change the game.

“If you have vacant lots, you can throw guns in overgrown weeds," Philadelphia Police spokesman Lt. John Stanford said. "It (beautification) reduces the area for conditions for crime."

Studies conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University concluded trees fight crime. 

Charles Branas Ph.D. is an associate professor of epidemiology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Branas conducted a study comparing crime statistics at vacant lots and improved lots over a decade. 

Over 50,000 vacant lots from 1999-2008 were put into a database. The vacant lot database was separated into locations that were greened by the Horticultural Society and those not greened. Crime data from Philadelphia Police was studied in relation to the lot database.

Branas concluded greening was linked to reductions in gun assaults across most of Philadelphia.

“Generally speaking, beautify programs bring back a sense of pride to neighborhoods. A lot of times it can filter over to help prevent crime. When you get rid of lots, there are no longer places for people to hang around,” said Stanford.

A second study by Temple University student Mary Wolfe had similar results. Wolfe set out to answer the question -- does vegetation encourage or suppress crime?

After studying Landsat satellite images and comparing the images to Philadelphia Police crime statistics, Wolfe and her Urban Studies professor Jeremy Mennis found that areas with abundant vegetation did suppress crime. The study was made possibly by a Temple University Creative Arts, Research and Scholarship (CARAS) grant.

Realizing the potential of green neighborhoods, Mayor Michael Nutter started a program called Greenworks when he was elected, aiming to make Philadelphia the greenest city in the United States. He also initiated the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability to carry out the goal of making Philadelphia more sustainable.

“A lot of synergy is happening because we have a good plan. The mayor is a champion of the parks and rec system. A lot of good things are happening and it’s not by accident,” said Patrick Morgan of the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department.

One of the primary staples of a LandCare park is the paddock fencing -- three feet high with two horizontal rails. 

“The fencing defines the park’s perimeter, but is not meant to keep people out,” said Grossmann. 

PHS maintains thousands of lots and works with neighboring community organizations to improve the area's visual impact and to change the dynamics of the neighborhood.

“It’s worked like the broken window theory. If you clean up a neighborhood, there’s less crime. It’s really true,” said PHS' Alan Jaffe.

Smaller organizations are spreading ‘tree-love’ too and aiming to build community in smaller doses.

The Philadelphia Orchard Project has been planting trees all over the city since 2007. The organization has one staff member and is supported through grants, volunteers and fundraisers. 

“We do a lot on a limited budget,” said founder Phil Forsyth. To date, the small non-profit has planted 34 orchards, 518 trees and 1,019 shrubs around Philly.

“We haven’t been involved in studies in crime but we build up common spaces that bring people together such as community festivals and the city-wide Philadelphia Orchard Day,” said Forsyth.

“Certainly, we can see neighbors gathering around the spaces. It’s positive.”

The city is pushing to green up what’s in the parks and recreation inventory and get people excited about street trees. The program TreePhilly distributed 4,000 free yard trees last year.

Having people to the mix also helps deter crime. Morgan says the design elements help, but having people engaged and using the park is equally important.

“There really is impact planting trees. This investment is on the economy, safety and health -- all positively impacts the community,” Grossmann said.

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