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Cleaning up Philadelphia, for the Betterment of Everyone

Branas_largeOn the list of poverty-stricken cities in the United States, Philadelphia consistently ranks near the top. At the end of last year, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that of the 10 biggest cities in the country, Philadelphia had the highest proportion of its population in so-called “deep poverty,” living on an income less than half of the designated federal poverty level, at 12.2 percent or approximately 185,000 people. Tens of thousands of vacant homes pepper Philadelphia streets.

Research released this summer by Penn Medicine researchers Charles Branas, MD, a professor of epidemiology at the Perelman School of Medicine, Michelle Kondo, PhD, a former research fellow at the Perelman School of Medicine now a scientist with the USDA Northern Research Station, and John MacDonald, PhD, a professor of criminology at Penn, show that fixing up the city’s vacant homes, even just superficially, can lead to significant drops in crime rates.

The most significant drop was seen in the rate of gun crimes, which went down by a whopping 39 percent in areas where owners of abandoned homes installed working doors and windows, and spruces up the façade, but researchers found that there were simply fewer crimes of any nature.

Branas told the Philadelphia Inquirer that his team had worked with individual Philadelphians in the past, with mixed results.

"We found them to be successful," he told the paper. “Sometimes minimally so. We wanted to think more about changing the environments that might be affecting poor health and violence."

Crime rates aside, urban blight has been shown to have real effects on health as well. Another Penn research team, led by Branas, found in 2011 that renovating vacant lots (you know, those litter magnets you hurry past while walking) was associated with less stress, more exercise and also a drop in gun crime. A similar study by Penn’s Eugenia South, MD, MHSP, a physician in the department of Emergency Medicine published this year (Branas and Kondo also served as authors) showed that people’s heart rates while walking past a nice, landscaped parcel of land were 5-15 beats per minute slower than while walking past lots which have been overgrown and forgotten.

City leaders have taken notice and doing what they can. In 2011, Philadelphia city staff began enforcing a “Doors and Windows Ordinance,” meaning will fine property owners $300 each day that their house lacks a functioning doors or windows.

A few years ago, the city also established a land bank the make it easier for future homeowners or investors to buy abandoned and tax-delinquent property which has fallen into disrepair. The land would then be back in the fold property tax-wise and, presumably, its new owner would keep it in better shape.

As I wrote in a previous blog post about South’s study, local leaders has tasked the Philadelphia Horticulture Society to tackle the lots throughout the city. The PHS’s LandCare program sends staff to pull all the trash out of a lot and pull the weeds before laying down a layer of healthy topsoil. Finally, they put up a fence around the perimeter. If there’s a lot in your neighborhood that could use some attention, the city suggests reporting it to 3-1-1.

Earlier this year, the Washington Post reported that Philadelphia is leading the pack of American cities in turning around urban blight. That’s thanks in large part to work that’s already been done, work that’s given researchers a chance to properly examine life before and after rejuvenation.

While there’s still much work to do in Philadelphia, the work done by Penn researchers provides a strong argument that it’s work worth doing.

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