Urban geographer Richard Sadler looked at this concept in his hometown of Flint. Sadler authored a study looking at the relationship between community greening and crime rates.
“Places that had been greened more consistently over time saw decreases in crime over time,” Sadler said.
Sadler, an adjunct assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences, observed areas of Flint from 2005 to 2014 and found not only that there was an inverse relationship between greening efforts and crime rates, but that over time the impact became stronger.
Sadler has acted upon his findings, as he personally participates in a lawn mowing service in a neighborhood that is important to him. He said he has experienced a ripple effect where people see him taking care of lawns and then other people take care of their neighborhood.
“I think it’s that first step. If you live in a neighborhood and it’s been going downhill and you’re busy with work and life and kids, it’s like, ‘Why would I go out of my way to mow these extra lawns,’” Sadler said. “Once people see, ‘Oh, other people are doing this, I can do a little bit too.’ It’s like you don’t feel alone in the effort. You’re not just the one chump going around mowing lawns on a weekend.”
Sadler’s study, “Exploring the spatial-temporal relationships between a community greening program and neighborhood rates of crime,” cites the “broken windows theory,” for this correlation.
Broken Windows Theory is the idea that visible signs of disorder like litter, vandalism, vacant lots and broken windows can lead to a cycle of crime. The disorder in an area leaves would-be offenders with the impression that criminal activity will go unnoticed and unreported.
There is little empirical evidence proving that community greening efforts make an impact on crime rates, Scott Wolfe, an associate professor in the MSU School of Criminal Justice, said. What matters for community revitalization is creating investment within a community, a willingness to look out for crime and call the police.
“In revitalization efforts, to have an impact on crime, you have to get that community to be involved in that process, so along the way they become more invested in their own neighborhood,” Wolfe said.
The Garden Project, based in Lansing, has a network of more than 100 community gardens that help to feed more than 8,000 people, according to the organization’s website. The project is run through the Greater Lansing Food Bank, which works to fight hunger in seven counties in mid-Michigan.
Garden Project Manager Julie Lehman said building community gardens around the state has helped individuals improve their diets and decrease the cost of groceries.
Because there is no income requirement to participate in the gardens, Lehman said people of all walks of life can participate.
“The gardens really do provide a unique space where people of different socio-economic levels might be interacting with each other in that garden,” Lehman said. “They may not have a chance to engage as much and form those relationships otherwise.”
The project provides free seeds and resources to learn about gardening and develop a green thumb. Lehman said from dawn to dusk individuals can engage with others in the garden no matter how much experience they have.
“When you are in the gardens, you might be surrounded by people who have been doing it for years,” Lehman said. “Even people who have been gardening for years are able to learn from others. That is one kind of unique thing about gardening: Even if you’ve been doing it 40 years, you’ve only had 40 springs to try something. You’re constantly learning.”
Garden Project participant Michele Taylor tends to a 625 square foot plot in Lansing as a part of South Lansing Ministry. She has met many people working in different plots in the garden, including individuals where she faced a language barrier.
“I didn’t speak their language, but we kind of communicated about the vegetables. They would grow something different and I had no idea what it was,” Taylor said.
On one occasion someone had grown potatoes and she had not seen them grown in the ground before.
“I learned and they learned.”
Taylor said last year her ministry’s garden produced 260 pounds of fresh produce that went to a food pantry for those in need.
Though Sadler said social science can be sticky and other factors are also at play, the people of Flint have shown a tangible effort in recent years to promote neighborhood guardianship.
The study says Flint has some of the highest unemployment rates of any urban metropolitan areas and below average police presence per capita. Where government has fallen short of needs, Flint residents have created for themselves a sense of control in what happens next.
When attempting to increase order in a community by beautifying it, it’s important to go about greening efforts in such a way that a neighborhood does not become gentrified, Sadler said. From an urban planning standpoint, integrated communities promote better public health and contribute to social equity.
“Nice neighborhoods are often outbid to the highest bidder, but when we deliberately plan communities that include affordable housing and smaller units and townhomes instead of pushing all of the poor housing to one part of town, everybody benefits,” Sadler said. “People with fewer resources share the resources of the people who have more. They go to the same libraries, the same schools, they get the same education.”
Forces at play
Though Sadler’s study concluded that there is a clear and growing correlation over time between greening efforts and crime rates in Flint, simply making an area prettier may not be the driving force behind reducing crime.
“It’s not so much making the space nicer and greener looking, it’s to get the community invested into the neighborhood that matters,” Wolfe said. “The most beneficial in terms of reductions in crime rates is greater investment of the community and willingness of the community to care about their neighborhood.”
Whether or not it’s the mowed lawns or rose bushes, there are forces at play here, Sadler said. It could be the feeling that somebody may be watching or that neighbors will stand up for each other, but something seems to happen when people plant flowers.
“It may be less that it looks nice than the fact that people perceive that others care about the neighborhood, so they become less likely to commit crimes in that neighborhood because there’s a sense that they’re being watched or that people are looking out for one another,” Sadler said.
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