More Trees. Less Domestic Violence

Susan E. Williams
Aug 7 · 3 min read

“Any planning approach without a social justice framework can contribute to reproducing inequalities and result in sustainable urban revitalization that burdens low-wage earners and the least educated, especially immigrants and marginalized people of color,” says Dr. Malo Andre Hutson

  • We’ve known that the nature of a town or city’s urban planning and architecture impacts everything from general safety and privacy to its economy and health of its residents.
  • An emerging body of research suggests that our physical surroundings might influence incidents of domestic and sexual violence.
  • Greening urban spaces even slightly is increasingly being proven as an effective strategy to reduce violence and improve the sense of wellbeing within a community. However, with beautification often comes neighborhood erasure and gentrification (see green gentrification.)

Into the Weeds

There is a direct correlation between greening or cleaning vacant lots of land and resident’s emotional states. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open analyzed vacant lots of land in Philadelphia. The study looked at 541 vacant lots in Philadelphia. Some had grass and trees planted in them, in others the trash was removed. The remainder were untouched.

The results showed rather overwhelmingly that greening urban spaces produces happier people.

Over the three years of clean up resulted in a 40 percent reduction of feelings of depression amongst residents whose areas were cleaned. That number increased to 70 percent in those neighborhoods below poverty line. Additionally, researchers also found reductions in feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and overall poor mental health. Those residents whose areas remained unchanged had unchanged levels of depression.

Another study focused on adolescents to analyze the connection of greenspace and aggressive behaviors. In both short (1–6 months) and long (1–3 years) term exposures to greenspace, researchers observed a reduction in aggressive behaviors. What’s more, socio-demographic factors did not effect the results.

However, planting trees and cleaning urban areas cannot be done simply.

The Prevention Institute, in its paper, “Healthy Development without Displacement: Realizing the Vision of Healthy Communities for All,” provides resources for ensuring well-intended efforts like greening or cleaning of urban places maintains as central local inhabitant interests. Nicer areas might attract more investment, bigger buildings, and then more investments, which in turn drives costs up and local residents out.

This is especially so for those low and middle income people and people of color. Rather than benefitting from the new developments, they are priced out. Not surprisingly, stable, safe, affordable housing promotes health. Cost of housing directly impacts food, education, medical care, education, and being able to save money. Higher rates of emergency department visits for asthma and mental health issues, as well as hypertension have been found amongst people who pay over 30 percent of their income to rent.

There are no easy strategies meant to solve challenges to greening and displacement. The Prevention Institute established The Spectrum of Prevention over two decades ago in an effort to support public health strategy building initiatives. They established six levels of interrelated actions across education, policy, and community engagement and practices as a framework.

Of course it is a hefty load to pull — and push — and one that requires at a fundamental level a shift in mindset on how complex problems are solved over time from various stakeholders.

But as famous author of Thinking in Systems Donella Meadows writes:

Let’s face it, the universe is messy. It is nonlinear, turbulent, and chaotic. It is dynamic. It spends its time in transient behavior on its way to somewhere else, not in mathematically neat equilibria. It self-organizes and evolves. It creates diversity, not uniformity. That’s what makes the world interesting, that’s what makes it beautiful, and that’s what makes it work.

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Patchwise Labs

Stories and analysis of emerging innovations to address the social determinants of health (SDOH)

Susan E. Williams

Written by

Anthropologist working in health, tech, and design. Founder of @agencyother @columbia @nyuniversity

Patchwise Labs

Stories and analysis of emerging innovations to address the social determinants of health (SDOH)

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