So far, as of this filing, Philadelphia has already been rocked by a New Year homicide increase that is 125 percent more than what it experienced this same time in 2018. To date, City Hall remains weirdly quiet or business-as-usual about that increase.
Mayor Jim Kenney finally released his much hyped “100-day” recommendations that was due on January 5th this week; he told WURD’s Reality Check this week that it’s been submitted by various agencies but is “being reviewed.” City Council never released anything from their own “task force” and is content with more than a month’s vacation as it returns on January 24th (deep into the month) as if there is nothing to see here. And, the city’s vast and seemingly infinite web of nonprofits, community groups, religious institutions and activists are all disjointed and stunned into paralysis as violence grows.
But as we continue that urgent conversation on rising violence in the city, and how to fix it, we’re having two separate conversations that could be wrapped into one: the state of that violence and how Philly cleans up its notorious filthiness factor. What’s likely to remain absent from a comprehensive look into that violence problem is the problem Philly has with its local environment, including—but not limited to—its enduring, complex legacy with trash and a lack of beautified, green space in places that need it most.
It seems like a no-brainer.
The Link Between Trashy Environments and Crime
Violence and trash seem mutually exclusive. And, in terms of the public conversation on how to urgently reduce violent crime, the suggestion that a city should double efforts to solve its trash crisis can be easily laughed at as trivial. Even when Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale issued his own set of 12 recommendations for gun violence reduction, there was no reference to the environment or improving neighborhood air, water and street quality.
Yet, there are connections worth deeper examination. Mayor Kenney himself has described violence in Philadelphia as a “public health crisis.” All the more reason to consider multiple public health issues and priorities, such as the state of trash and the contribution that makes to deteriorating Philadelphia resident health. Because environmental conditions and consequences are public health issues, too.
What’s likely to remain absent from a comprehensive look into that violence problem is the problem Philly has with its local environment, including—but not limited to—its enduring, complex legacy with trash and a lack of beautified, green space in places that need it most.
The linkage between the two is, based on research, a bit more direct than perceived. Philadelphia is among the top five “dirtiest” cities in the United States, based on a list of 40, compiled from Environmental Protection Agency and Census Bureau data. Naturally, suffering under the grimy, anti-marketing moniker of ‘Filthadelphia,’ Philly itself became the first major city, last year, to allow a groundbreaking study on the impact of trash on public safety. Both Columbia University and Penn, in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the Philadelphia Division of Housing and Community Development, embarked on studies comparing completely cleaned and greened vacant lots in high crime neighborhoods to lots that received no treatment whatsoever. Researchers examining the study found it “innovating.” Those living through it might view it as fairly common sense.
Ultimately, “overall crime” dipped by 10 percent in the neighborhoods with the transformed lots—where trash was picked up, grass was mowed and spaces were thoroughly cleaned, along with some gardening—unlike the lots that weren’t transformed. Gun violence fell by 30 percent in neighborhoods living below the poverty line that got transformed lots. Other lighter crimes like burglary and loitering—gateway misdemeanors that can eventually lead to violent crime—fell from 20 percent to 30 percent. And the broader “sense of safety” among residents grew to over 60 percent.
NYU Professor Eric Klinenberg talked about this at The Citizen’s Ideas We Should Steal Festival in November. (It’s now one of the ideas for which The Citizen has put out a Request for Proposal for the $50,000 Jeremy Nowak Innovation Award.)
More Trees, Less Crime? Yeah, Really…
Philly, with its vast spread of Fairmount Park, bills itself as a very green city. Yet, its homicide crisis reveals that it’s probably not. Because if it truly was, it would be enthusiastically moving towards making distressed socio-economic areas in the city much greener and less characterized by cracking asphalt sidewalks, pot-holed streets and sprawling trash. Many of these areas are also either tree-less or close to tree-less.
These are all not just indicators of dirty ‘hoods. These are actually drivers—psychologically in terms of what they represent to potential perpetrators of crime and scientifically in terms of the proven connections. A 2018 Medical College of Wisconsin study, for example, titled Green Space, Violence, and Crime: A Systematic Review concluded that “ … more evidence supports the positive impact of green space on violence and crime, indicating great potential for green space to shape health-promoting environments.”
That’s bolstered by additional research on the benefit of trees. A study on Chicago public housing in 2001 found increased tree canopy or tree proliferation reducing crime found “residents living in ‘greener’ surroundings report lower levels of fear, fewer incivilities, and less aggressive and violent behavior.” Not sure where that housing project has ended up today given Chicago’s notorious reputation.
That level of inability to imagine creative, science-backed solutions is what holds Philly back from fixing itself—which is ass backward for a city as artistically, musically and scientifically as creative as Philly.
But, a later 2017 study reinforced the 2001 findings when the Chicago Region Tree Initiative teamed up with the Morton Arboretum and discovered the correlation between increased tree canopy and decreased crime. Simply put, more trees are a symbol of safer, saner neighborhoods: “Chicago’s richest and safest areas tend to have high canopy covers, up to 40 percent. Meanwhile, on the economically depressed South Side, canopy cover can be as low as 7 percent. The map seemed to show, time after time, that areas with rich canopies are safer, and the ones with high criminality are ‘tree deserts.’ You can apply the same rule to Philly.
Baltimore, just two hours away, was also the subject of this close relationship with a University of Vermont research team discovering “a 10 percent increase in tree canopy was associated with a roughly 12 percent decrease in crime”—and that was considered a “conservative” estimate. And a 2010 U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest and Southern research station study showed pretty much the same thing: More trees “signal” to those about to commit a crime that, well, maybe they shouldn’t. A greener neighborhood suggests residents are much more “conscientious” and protective of that neighborhood. (It also increases property values in the neighborhood.)
And, yet, in a city faced with a rising violence crisis, tree canopy covers only 20 percent of all land in Philadelphia—with a separate “… additional 49 percent (42,451 acres) of the city [that] could be theoretically modified to accommodate tree canopy,” according to a 2011 analysis of Philadelphia tree canopy by the Forest Service. Its mapping of existing Philly tree canopy also found the same thing: The most distressed, vulnerable and diverse (mostly Black) areas of Philly with high crime are the ones with fewer trees.
Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s “Tree Tenders” program is attempting to accelerate the process of increasing tree canopy throughout Philly. Yet, it’s not moving fast enough. Between 1) city leaders’ failure to make the instant connection between augmented green and clean space and reduced crime; and 2) the mindset of many residents who just can’t visualize the connection or believe this correlation is a weird and unnecessary conversation (“we’ve got better things to care about” mentality), it’s hard getting the city mobilized behind an easy and relatively inexpensive crime-fighting lift: plant a tree.
Short Dumping And Junkyards
Some good news is that both Mayor and City Council do seem headed in the correct direction as far as neighborhood cleaning and enhancement goes. We saw this in Council’s passage of a law to dramatically reduce illegal dumping through the establishment of more than several dozen “Litter Enforcement Corridors” throughout the city. As part of that effort, the Streets Department announced the installation of surveillance cameras in 15 of the areas hardest hit by excessive littering, including construction debris (wonder where that’s coming from?)
The Mayor is also set to embark on a pilot street sweeping program targeting trash-strewn hoods based on accumulated data. That launches in March—just in time for what could be a contentious Democratic Party Mayoral primary for his seat as he seeks re-election. Street sweeping, after all, is something Kenney promised the first time he ran for Mayor in Philadelphia.
Overlaying the map of most littered and fast-deteriorating corridors in Philly against the map of where rising homicide and violence rates occur provides us with practical insights and low-hanging fruit solutions to the latter problem. There’s not much mystery there that both trash problem and violence problem are complimenting each other, growing almost in simultaneous patterns. A 2017 San Jose State University study said as much: “Illegal dumping has the potential to serve as a visual representation of social disorganization and crime within communities.”
City leaders should consider street cleaning, greening and beautification efforts intertwined with crime and homicide reduction efforts. They don’t.
It’s almost the same with Philly’s junkyard problem, which was covered extensively in ecoWURD. The map of deadliest or most dangerous neighborhoods in Philly is nearly identical to the piling up of trash and other factors disintegrating quality of life.
There are “…Forty-three actively-licensed auto wrecking and junk yards” over 160 acres peppered throughout the city, according to the Philadelphia Planning Commission’s 2018 report. According to the report, “…many are concentrated in areas that also include vulnerable populations, high levels of industrial activity, and significant environmental challenges.”
Interestingly enough (and not so surprising once we consider the life and environmental quality conditions in Philly), the place of the largest junkyard fire in Philadelphia history, Kensington, is also one of the top 3 deadliest neighborhoods in the city.
The Mindset Problem
If the Mayor prioritized linkage of the trash and illegal dumping in Philly to its violence problem, wouldn’t that push the needle fast towards fixing all of the above?
Much of it, really, is mindset. Reducing homicides throughout the city is a tough, very complex and multi-dimensional problem. But we also know that mitigating it is not just a matter of more police on the beat or a higher clearance rate. So, why not reach for low-cost solutions with nominal—if any—negative side-effects?
City leaders should consider street cleaning, greening and beautification efforts intertwined with crime and homicide reduction efforts. They don’t. One reason is that we sometimes overthink these issues and, simply, just can’t believe there are uncomplicated or easy fixes. And to start pushing hard on a citywide greening/beautification effort as part of Philly’s crime-fighting strategy may resurrect concerns due to the tricky and uncomfortable civil rights imbalance brought on by “broken windows” and “stop and frisk” game theory unleashed years ago in places like New York City. But consider how much safer the Big Apple is now compared to the City of Brotherly Love.
The environmental connection is still very hard for many Philadelphians to grasp. When Reality Check showcased PHS programs for a few hours, including Tree Tenders and the crime-busting benefits, during a live broadcast in October, a few listeners called in the next day blasting me, the host, for “wasting our time talking about stuff like tree canopies. We got more things to worry about.”
But I disagree: Philly could use more ideas that could help alleviate all those things we worry about. That level of inability to imagine creative, science-backed solutions is what holds Philly back from fixing itself—which is ass backward for a city as artistically, musically and scientifically as creative as Philly. Still, that’s not surprising given the void of creative political and policy leadership. Without anyone in City Hall connecting the dots, it’s hard getting everyone else on board.
Charles D. Ellison is Executive Producer and Host of “Reality Check,” which airs Monday-Thursday, 4-7 pm on WURD Radio (96.1FM/900AM). Check out The Citizen’s weekly segment on his show every Tuesday at 6 pm Ellison is also Principal of B|E Strategy, and the Washington Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune. Catch him if you can @ellisonreport on Twitter.
Clarification: Mayor Kenney released his anti-violence public health plan a few hours after this story originally ran. The story has been changed to reflect that.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons