Chicago’s Grounds for Peace initiative is the direct result of an innovative push to reduce violence, fight gun crime, and manage the public areas that contribute to some of the problems. The city’s leaders have increased spending on the management of streets, vacant properties, and public transport, placing Chicago at the forefront of an emerging movement which takes advantage of neighbourhood beautification initiatives to combat the violence which has plagued day-to-day life in the city. This year alone, Chicago has spent 7.4 million dollars on workforce development programmes. The programmes place high-risk individuals in jobs tending green zones and neighbourhoods with high crime rates.
Chicago’s new programme intends to turn 50 vacant lots in the south and west of the city into gardens this year.
The programme is backed up by academic studies which suggest that violence and criminality often go hand-in-hand. The scientists believe that one of the reasons why residents no longer make use of open-air spaces is because those spaces have been neglected and abandoned. The result is that, given the fact they believe no one is likely to intervene, criminals then regard those spaces as favourable locations for conducting illicit activities. The more these areas fall into the hands of criminals, the more residents stay away. The more residents keep their distance, the more the criminals become empowered, and the crime rate goes up.
Similar movements for improvement have emerged in hundreds of towns and cities across the country, contributing to what an expert described as “the most important vacant-lot strategy” to come out of the last decade. Meanwhile, local governments have been failing to find a positive use for properties that were abandoned in the Great Recession or closed down during the financial crisis. Typically, these programmes have been justified as a means of boosting economic growth, improving quality of life for residents, and addressing general public-safety issues.
In an experiment carried out in Philadelphia, vacant lots in the most deprived areas were cleaned, organised, or in some way dealt with by public-private collaboration. Researchers demonstrated that a year and a half later, gun violence in those areas had fallen by 29%. The authors of the study concluded that if the same treatment could be applied to empty lots all over the city, Philadelphia could expect to record 350 fewer gunshots each year.
This data concurs with that of another study published in August, in which scientists found that efforts to demolish empty, abandoned buildings in Detroit was related to an 11% reduction in armed assaults.
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It’s important to point out that neither of the studies found evidence that the violence moved to other neighbourhoods.
Allan Mallach, a member of the Centre for Community Progress who has written extensively on the rise of vacant properties in the United States, stated that the beautification of the lots should be accompanied by social services and community programmes to increase community commitment and raise the socio-economic level of residents.
According to experts, residents who feel their communities have been neglected by local government sometimes view improvement programmes with suspicion. As a result, they can be reluctant to get involved. This problem was recently encountered in Detroit when the city instigated a citywide mass tree-planting scheme. However, some residents pushed back against it because they had not been consulted at the initial planning stage.