A Plan to Spruce Up Vacant Lots to Reduce Gun Violence

An empty lot in on Chicago's west side. The city hopes that by making vacant lots places of community, gun violence will decrease.

An empty lot in on Chicago's west side. The city hopes that by making vacant lots places of community, gun violence will decrease. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

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A program in Chicago that beautifies abandoned properties is aimed at providing work and reducing crime. But some local residents say more needs to be done to involve people in the neighborhood.

Most urban areas have their fair share of blight—that is, empty, rundown buildings and lots overtaken by overgrown grass and trash. These abandoned properties are often associated with crime, and some cities, especially those with high rates of gun violence, are zeroing in on blight cleanup as a potential mitigant for crime. 

A new initiative in Chicago called Grounds for Peace is trying to plant seeds for safer communities—literally. The project, a joint collaboration between the city, Urban Growers Collective and the Heartland Alliance, hires men who’ve been impacted by gun violence to beautify 50 blighted lots in three neighborhoods with high rates of gun violence on the city’s southside: North Lawndale, Woodlawn, and Englewood. The work crews work on vacant lots five days a week, picking up trash, trimming overgrown shrubs, and planting grass seeds.

The men are part of the Rapid Employment and Development Initiative, or READI, a two year program that provides 18 months of subsidized employment and then six months of followup. All 515 men in the program start as part of a work crew, led by a manager from Urban Growers who teaches agricultural skills on the job. Jane Bodmer, the communication manager for Heartland Alliance, said that the program, which started in September 2017, has often collaborated with the city to find projects for the work crews. “It’s a chance to give back to the community, and the guys find that valuable,” she said. 

Brandon Whitmore, a member of a READI work crew in Woodlawn told the Chicago Reader that the work was more than he expected, but that it gives him a sense of accomplishment. “I think it will have a domino effect. Once the community sees us out here, hopefully, they’ll come together and change things for the better,” he said.

At the launch of the project, which is funded with an initial grant of $250,000, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said that greening blighted lots has been shown to reduce violence. “We have a lot of hard work to do to reclaim our neighborhoods from violence,” she said. “Ultimately, that responsibility lies with us. We all have to be in this together, and I’m grateful to see all this hard work.” 

The city is also partnering with organizations to evaluate the success of the pilot program. Max Kapustin, the senior research director at the UChicago Crime Lab, said that researchers will compare crime rates in areas adjacent to the beautified lots to those left untouched in other neighborhoods. But Kapustin said the evaluation won’t be as rigorous as they might have hoped because the city picked lots that are close together in the three neighborhoods, making comparisons to nearby blighted lots difficult because of spillover effects. “The city had a lot of urgency in getting this program going, which I understand, and ultimately, they chose the lots that were closest to public violence,” he said. 

Chicago isn’t the first city to experiment with beautifying vacant lots with the hope of reducing gun violence. Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston, New Orleans, and Atlanta have launched iterations of the same experiments in recent years. In Mobile, Alabama, the city created a Blight Task Force and used geotagged Instagram posts to create a comprehensive map of over 1,000 blighted properties in the city.

The focus on abandoned lots comes in part because several studies completed in recent years have shown a positive correlation between clearing blight and reducing crime. In one such experiment, researchers in Philadelphia divided blighted lots into three categories, with one set to be cleaned, seeded, fenced, and maintained, another set to be mowed only, and the final set left untouched. Areas around the lots with a complete intervention saw a significantly higher reduction in shootings than those with partial or no cleanup—and researchers found that the violence that would have happened around cleaned lots wasn’t pushed onto other blocks.

The Philadelphia researchers also found that the program was a “low-cost, high-return solution” to gun violence. “Other firearm violence prevention programs have either been unsuccessful or require more costly human resources to be active and ever-present for them to work. Blight remediation may outperform many of these other programs in terms of value and sustainability,” the authors concluded. 

But Asiaha Butler, the executive director of the Residents Association of Greater Englewood, was critical of the process for selecting the properties that would be involved, saying the program didn’t seek input from local neighborhood organizations. While Butler said that she respects the work of the groups involved in the project, she rejected the idea that they were doing anything innovative, as the city initially promised. 

“The announcement of this program said that this was innovative, but that really ignores the work of local residents over the past decades,” she said. “A lot of groups in the neighborhood have been working on land use, urban agriculture, and violence, and have struggled to be recognized.”

Butler pointed to programs like Grow Greater Englewood and the Englewood Village Farms, which have done similar projects in her neighborhood but are more focused on entrepreneurship. She also said community members have been fighting for years to acquire vacant spaces through a city program that lets residents buy empty lots on their block for a dollar, but the process is difficult to navigate. “We as community members have a really hard time getting access to our land, but the city will hand it over to outside organizations,” she said. “We have to be very careful about how we use the land here in Englewood, because we’re so vulnerable to development and outside influence.”

Because the city decided which lots to work in and what to do with them, Butler said the program took a “top-down approach,” and therefore the initiative is more akin to a social service than one that will empower the community. “I worry this mimics the practices of southern penitentiaries,” Butler said, because the men are laboring outside under supervision. 

Bodmer with READI said that the initiative is holistic, including cognitive behavioral therapy and professional development training, and is intended to set the participants up for jobs afterwards.

READI does not yet have data on how many men have transitioned to full-time employment after the program, though, because the first group is just now graduating, Bodmer said.

Butler said that it would have been more empowering to have the men serve as block leaders who get input from residents near a blighted lot, then decide together what to turn it into. “That would make it less of a bandaid to address land issues,” she said. “Then we’d be closer to addressing the real root of gun violence—the lack of opportunity in our communities.”

Felicia Slaton-Young, the executive director of the Greater Englewood Chamber of Commerce, agreed that she would like to see a more comprehensive effort. “Beautification is nice, but opportunities for jobs in the communities where people live and stronger gun laws are the long-term solutions,” she said. “My hope is that this program will be done in collaboration with Englewood organizations who are already doing great work in this space.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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