Community

40,000 vacant lots: How Philadelphia’s lack of greenspace worsens gun violence

Parks and tree cover offer health benefits and reduce crime incidents, but access to greenspace is vastly unequal across the city.

Estelle Vaughn remembers the homes, barber shops and other businesses that once filled her Nicetown-Tioga neighborhood. As employers left the area throughout her life, she sought to fill the remaining voids with a garden to enrich her community.

“I looked out the window and my mother always gardened and so I said we should have a garden,” said Vaughn, a resident who lives on Tioga Street near 20th, a place she’s called home her entire life.

Vaughn, 59, helps manage the Tioga-Hope Garden with the help of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, an organization that uses horticulture to promote social and environmental change. Once the garden opened in 2012, she noticed social and mental improvements in the well-being of her neighborhood that intersect with her work as a registered nurse at Temple University Hospital.

Public greenspace, like parks and tree cover, reduces residents’ stress, improves their physical health and reduces incidents of crime, said Abby Dolan, a project manager at the Urban Health Lab, a community health research group at the University of Pennsylvania. Investing in greenspace projects is associated with lower rates of gun violence and people feeling safer, but many Philadelphia neighborhoods are without sufficient access to safe and attractive greenspaces.  

Sunflower Philly, a community-based, nonprofit organization focused on providing access to art, music & sustainable resources, holds events at their venue at 5th Street near Cecil B. Moore Avenue. | NOEL CHACKO / THE TEMPLE NEWS

There are approximately 40,000 vacant, undeveloped lots in Philadelphia, according to the City of Philadelphia. These lots are often overgrown and covered in trash, making people living near them feel their neighborhood is neglected. 

While organizations like the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and Sunflower Philly support the creation and maintenance of greenspaces, the prevalence of vacant lots citywide are the result of failed government policy and fragmented community engagement.

LACK OF INVESTMENT

The lack of investment in greenspace is tied to Philadelphia’s history of redlining, when lenders characterized low-income neighborhoods with high minority populations as “financial risks,” and denied mortgages, credit and loans to residents in those areas. 

When suburban neighborhoods near Philadelphia began to expand in the middle of the 19th century, and as white homeowners moved away from the city to areas with more land and greenspace, they took the majority of investments into parks and public infrastructure with them.

The lack of investment in cities created a cycle of increasing poverty that particularly impacted people of color, said Michelle Kondo, a research social scientist at the United States Forest Service, Philadelphia Field Station.

“We associated poverty with having dark skin and with being left in the city, and basically pulled all the resources out of the city,” Kondo said.

White neighborhoods have approximately 44 percent more parks than neighborhoods of color, and higher-income neighborhoods have 42 percent more park space per person compared to lower-income neighborhoods, according to a 2021 report from the Trust for Public Land. 

With less greenspace to absorb heat, low-income minority neighborhoods can be up to 22 degrees hotter during summer months than other parts of the city, suffer worse air pollution and have less opportunities for socializing that encourages positive interactions within the community.

While increasing greenspace introduces a variety of health and social benefits for communities, creating parks often increases property values and taxes in an area, gentrifying neighborhoods, raising the cost of living and potentially displacing longtime residents.

Reinvesting the revenue made from soaring property values and increased taxes back into low-income communities and hiring local residents throughout the planning and development of parks can help mitigate some negative financial effects of development. 

It’s important to keep community needs at the forefront of greenspace initiatives so that local residents benefit from these spaces, said Emily Seeburger, a data analyst at the Urban Health Lab.

EFFECTS OF VACANT LOTS

Vacant lots are typically only about the size of a rowhome, but they pose major risks to residents who live near them. They are hotspots for illegal waste dumping, known as short dumping in Philadelphia, and unkempt weeds that grow tall in summer months, providing places for weapons, people and illegal substances, Kondo said.

Residents living near vacant lots worry about robberies, prostitution and drug sales near the area, and it is a known risk that people store guns in cars parked outside of vacant lots, Kondo said. 

Prior to the creation of the Uber Street Garden, located at Uber Street near Norris, North Central residents like sisters Willamae McCullough and Agnes Domocase recall the vacant lot on the 1900 block of Uber Street being a dump site that was also a location for frequent drug sales. 

Community members and students at the Uber Street Garden cleanup on Sept. 19, 2021. | NOEL CHACKO / THE TEMPLE NEWS

“It was barren land,” said McCullough, 62. “There was no trees, there was no food.”

Unmaintained and polluted areas send the message that no one is watching the lot, which can invite crime and increase negative feelings that result in negative behaviors, like violence, Kondo said. 

“When we see that a place is cared for, we see signs that someone is taking care of a place and using space, we tend to respect that space more,” Kondo said. “As opposed to when we see a space that has been trashed and neglected, that no one cares about it. It feels like well, why don’t I trash it too?” 

Public greenspaces offer opportunities to socialize and relax outdoors, which leads to lower rates of depression, improves heart health and lowers risks of heat death, all of which contribute to reductions in gun assaults, particularly in neighborhoods that are below the poverty line, Dolan said. 

The Uber Street Garden has provided both Temple students and residents a place to work and relax while being able to maintain a safe distance during the COVID-19 pandemic, Domocase said.

Uber Street Garden sits on Uber Street near Norris on April 28. | NOEL CHACKO / THE TEMPLE NEWS

She enjoys the togetherness that the garden fosters and how people from different backgrounds are able to enjoy the benefits of the public greenspace by having a place to work, relax and play.

“We’re having all of these racial problems in the world but when we get in the garden there’s white people, Puerto Rican, Black, and all of us work together,” Domocase said. 

CLEANING AND GREENING

When vacant lots were “cleaned and greened,” positive social interactions increased by 75 percent and crime overall decreased with a 29 percent decrease in gun violence specifically, according to a 2018 study in the National Library of Medicine.

Philadelphia’s budget for creating parks has declined in recent decades. Funding for parks faced huge cuts during the 2008 recession and have yet to fully recover, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported

In the 2021 fiscal year, the Parks and Recreation budget was slashed by 20 percent, and the following year the budget increased only about 14 percent. The proposed budget for 2023 allocates another $2.7 million to the city’s parks, only a 4.3 percent increase from last year.

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has sought to fill the gap in the lack of green spaces by using their Philadelphia LandCare program to work with residents to transform vacant lots in their neighborhoods into community gardens.

The organization currently manages 12,000 parcels of the more than 40,000 vacant lots in Philadelphia and develops roughly between 400 and 500 lots each year.

Experts and policymakers often don’t view greenspace as a solution to improving neighborhoods, said Keith Green, senior director of landscape and workforce development at PHS. 

However, he believes the benefits of adding greenspace are gradual over the length of a few seasons as residents adjust to having a new space to use in their neighborhood.

“So the first season people are getting used to being there and the second season you start to see people really start to use it,” Green said. “Walking their dogs, kids playing on our properties, people walking through it, some people creating some type of community garden.” 

Vaughn also feels that the benefits of greenspace are overlooked when city leaders consider how to develop vacant land.

“Not that a garden is going to save the ills of the world, but a garden is certainly going to help,” she said. “We need the support of city hall, city council and then if they can just be good enough to help us do something good for ourselves.” 

ENCROACHING DEVELOPMENT

Greenspace is not beneficial if it drives up property values and economically displaces residents, is not properly maintained and doesn’t serve the community’s expressed needs. 

When exploring parks projects, it’s critical that the community is involved in each phase of development so that people’s needs and wants for their neighborhoods are not being assumed, but rather honored and accounted for, Seeburger said. 

This includes having conversations that are centered around community input during planning, providing economic opportunities to local residents during development and ensuring the space is well maintained after the initial project is completed, so that vegetation doesn’t die off and trash doesn’t accumulate. 

“It can be difficult to make meaningful relationships with individuals in the community, who trust you and trust that you’re going to take their input into consideration,” Seeburger said. “It’s an ongoing process.”

Vaughn recalls the meetings that often occurred with members of her community as they tried to visualize what greenspace could look like in their community. Residents often doubted whether they were worthy of a clean public space as well as whether it would actually come to fruition.

“They don’t believe that anybody believes they deserve a nice green space,” Vaughn said. “They believe that we’re in the inner city and it’s supposed to be something there and it can’t be a good thing. 

When the Tioga-Hope Garden opened in 2012, Vaughn saw her neighbors walk around the garden rather than through it, almost as if they assumed the lot belonged to someone else, she said. 

“There’s this feeling that you feel that ‘Oh we’re not supposed to have that’ and then my feeling is that we are supposed to have that,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn is frustrated by the housing developments that typically are built near her neighborhood that create concerns about overpopulation and don’t address the needs of existing residents. 

“I kind of divide people into green people and concrete people,” Vaughn said. “Some people just leave and then somebody comes in and buys the house and splits it up and makes it into apartments or they’ll knock it down and then build apartments.

To avoid the risk of gentrification that typically emerges when new public spaces are introduced to an area that may make it more attractive for development, PHS makes concerted efforts to create green spaces in neighborhoods that aren’t experiencing current development. This allows community members to enjoy the benefits of the garden without the fear of losing it.

“We make sure that we research,” Green said. “We know that [if] there’s development that’s going to occur in one to two years, we won’t install a treatment there.”

Despite efforts to prioritize community needs when rehabilitating vacant land, development still risks encroaching on spaces used by residents. 

Residents fought to preserve the Uber Street Garden after nearby developers sought to acquire the lot from residents who pushed to gain ownership from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.

McCullough and Domocase, both exhausted by the various steps needed to gain ownership of the garden, are now working with the Philadelphia Land Bank to secure the site’s future.

“I’ve been the block captain for over 20 years and I incorporated the garden in like 2011 and I thought I was to only need that but now there’s a whole lot of process that we’ve got to go through,” said Domocase, 64. “We sent our application in for ownership and now we’re waiting.”   

Melvin Powell, executive director of Sunflower Philly, an organization that supports green spaces like the Uber Street Garden, has seen firsthand how such spaces can potentially fall victim to development when they aren’t being advocated for as well as the broader key roles those spaces play.

“American society as a whole has become so individualistic that people lose that direct connection to their environment,” Powell said. “Gun violence is just one of the many negative results of a lack of connection to community and the environment as a whole.”

Melvin Powell, executive director of Sunflower Philly, at a cleanup of the Uber Street Garden on Uber Street near Norris on Sept. 19, 2021. | GRACIE HEIM / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Last year, the organization launched its Green Space Advocacy Campaign that supported gardens like the Uber Street Garden and Caesar Iglesias Garden located on Arlington Street near Lawrence by providing financial support through fundraising efforts.

However, help from outside organizations only goes so far when local governments don’t prioritize implementing and preserving green spaces. 

Philadelphia City Council operates using councilmanic prerogative, meaning that nearly all decisions about land use initiatives are determined individually by the city’s 10 city council members as opposed to the legislative process that requires the mayor’s approval. The de facto policy allows council members to approve projects favorable to their districts that include housing or commercial development.

“These are shopping centers, mixed-use buildings, large lofts or large redevelopment projects,” Powell said. “They can also generate revenue for their district and for the city as a whole by selling land to other developers, land that could be allocated for public use.”

Of the nearly 7,000 publicly-owned city vacant lots for sale in 2014, more than 2,500 were off the market for reasons including councilmanic holds, where the unwritten rule of councilmanic prerogative may apply, according to a 2015 report from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

As of 2018, Councilmembers Darrell Clarke of District 5 and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez of District 7 — both areas encompassing Temple University’s Main Campus and the surrounding North Central neighborhood — each represent districts with the largest number of property vacancies, with both areas accounting for 29 percent and 16 percent respectively, according to a 2019 report from the Philadelphia Land Bank.

“[Greenspace] is not a focal point for them,” Powell said. “It doesn’t generate revenue, it doesn’t address affordable housing, so it’s not a priority.”

Both districts also rank first and second citywide in shooting victims, highlighting how underinvestment in public spaces can be a factor in increased gun violence.

IMPLEMENTING EFFECTIVE GREENSPACE

Greening a community can take many forms, like planting more trees, cleaning lots or installing potted plants and window boxes. All of these options help create calmer, happier neighborhoods where people feel more connected to nature and go outside more often, Kondo said. 

These projects are crucial to public health and safety, and need to be invested in as much as other infrastructure projects, with everyone having equal access to them, Kondo added. 

Though people might think of nature as only large parks or forest areas, natural areas located within the city have vast potential for making people feel safer and more comfortable in their homes.

It’s also important to take steps that mitigate perceived risk of violence, even if there may not be actual risk present, Kondo said. For example, studies have shown that women can sometimes feel less safe after a lot is greened because they worry that groups of men will gather there and be a potential safety threat. 

“The impact might be, and I hope not, that women stay home,” Kondo said. “Everybody needs to be able to get out and move around.”

Incorporating the unique lived experiences of community members into greenspace initiatives maximizes the ability of these projects to make neighborhoods feel safer and see reductions in crime, Dolan said. 

For example, while research might recommend that a bench would be a beneficial addition to an urban park, listening to community members suggests that it could deter them from using that space, which would undermine the goal of creating parks.

“We want to think about sustainable change,” Dolan said. “We want to think about interventions that are making a lasting impact.”

Until Vaughn and her neighbors gain site control, she wants residents to continue forming connections with the greenspaces around them.

“This space has almost become our little sacred space,” Vaughn said.

The Temple News is a student affiliate of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic mobility. This story is part of the series The Toll: The Roots and Costs of Gun Violence in Philadelphia.

read more: