Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Vacant Lots Theory

Abandonment & Alienation

An article (“The Other Side of “Broken Windows;” August 23, 2018), by Eric Klineberg, in The New Yorker examines the relationship between abandoned urban lots and crime, which tends to shed light on where the “tough on crime” approach, made famous by the “broken window” article (Wilson and Kelling; The Atlantic; 1982) and its follow-up policing approach failed to address root problems of poverty, especially among black families; Klineberg writes:
But what if the authors—and the policymakers who heeded them—had taken another tack? What if vacant property had received the attention that, for thirty years, was instead showered on petty criminals?
Afew years ago, John MacDonald, the Penn criminologist, and Charles Branas, the chair of epidemiology at Columbia University, began one of the most exciting research experiments in social science. Branas is a leading scholar of gun violence, having become interested in the subject while working as a paramedic. He met MacDonald in the aughts, when they were both working at the University of Pennsylvania, in a seminar on gun violence at the medical school’s trauma center. Both were frustrated by the science that linked crime to neighborhood disorder. “A lot of it, from ‘broken windows’ on, was just descriptive,” Branas told me. “You didn’t know exactly what counted as disorder. And it wasn’t actionable. Outside of policing, which was obviously complicated, there wasn’t much you could do about it.”
The two began meeting on campus. While they were brainstorming, Branas was invited to discuss his research at a conference in Philadelphia. During his presentation, he briefly mentioned his interest in running an experiment on the physical factors related to gun violence. “When I finished, someone from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society approached me,” Branas recalled. That person was convinced that vacant properties—Philadelphia had tens of thousands of empty lots—were driving up violent crime in poor neighborhoods. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, or P.H.S., had incredible data, and offered to help.
The tough-on-crime approach always seems like a good approach, often because it is a simple approach, and appeals to our instincts for justice. But what if the chief problem is poverty, injustice of another kind, and this is made apparent by thousands of vacant and abandoned buildings, overgrown by weeds and by garbage?

What if the city authorities decided to do something about these vacant properties, to beautify the poor areas? To persuade the property owners to take care of what they own, whether privately or publicly?  Wouldn't that be something? I bet that many cities will say that they do not have the public money for such a beautifying project.

Yet, I bet that they do. That the small amount of money necessary to do this can be found, but only if the will is there. Let's call it a coalition of the willing.

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