A new study conducted in Flint, Michigan, US, has shown that maintaining the gardens of vacant properties and keeping them clean can help reduce crime.

Clean, maintained lots can decrease urban crime rate. Image credits: MSU.

Richard Sadler, an urban geographer and the study’s lead author, used data from a greening program where thousands or abandoned lots in different neighborhoods were regularly mowed and maintained, under the assumption that this would not only help with the appearance of the neighborhoods but also with the reduction of crime — like some kind of corollary to the (flawed) broken window theory.

He first assigned all lots a “greening score,” based on how well-kept they were. Then, using a method called “emerging hot spot analysis,” he overlaid the crime data to the greening score, finding that keeping lots clean does, in fact, reduce crime. This didn’t happen everywhere and it wasn’t a huge difference, but the trend was evident.

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“Generally speaking, I found that greening was more prevalent where violent crime, property crime and victimless crime were going down,” said Sadler, an assistant professor of public health in the College of Human Medicine.

Initially, the program didn’t start off with the idea of reducing crime, it was more of a noticed side effect. But while anecdotal evidence abounded, this is the first science to put the theory to the test. This is also the biggest study of this kind to date. There might be cultural differences to invalidate this in other parts of the world, but it seems reasonable to believe that cleaner, well-kept gardens somewhat reduce local crime.

“We’ve always had a sense that maintaining these properties helps reduce crime and the perception of crime,” said Christina Kelly, the land bank’s planning and neighborhood revitalization director. “So we weren’t surprised to see the research back it up.”

For Flint, this study might be even more important, considering that 42 percent of the properties are either publicly owned or otherwise vacant. Programs like this can not only make properties more attractive to potential buyers, but also raise the overall value of the area. Flint’s population dropped significantly as the auto industry pulled out of the area, leading to widespread poverty

Previous studies have also shown that gardening programs typically lead to less stress, depression, and hopelessness for residents. Something as simple as gardens in or around your home can improve your mental health and reduce crime, and Sadler says this is just a sign of a neighborhood that takes care of itself.

“It’s people looking out for their own neighborhoods,” he said. “If you know somebody’s watching, you’re not going to go out and vandalize something. It’s the overall change in perception created by cleaning up blighted property.”

Journal Reference: Richard Casey Sadlera, Jesenia Pizarrob, Brandon Turchanc, Stephen P. Gasteyerd, Edmund F. McGarrelle — Exploring the spatial-temporal relationships between a community greening program and neighborhood rates of crime.