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Expert says data supports violence prevention through 'greening and cleaning'

A vacant lot at the corner of MacArthur and Jefferson in Peoria.
Collin Schopp
The Peoria City Council this month approved a $1.2 million plan to spend remaining American Rescue Plan Funds on violence prevention through environmental design.

The City of Peoria is putting to work the rest of American Rescue Plan Act funding awarded during COVID.

The city council hopes the broadly applicable funds meant to improve communities and infrastructure in the midst of the pandemic will help reduce violence in high-crime areas.

The program approved by the council last week focuses on environmental design as a means of violence prevention. The official request approved by the council dedicates a total $1.2 million to the project. City representatives said it’s still in very early stages, but the programs are mapped out over the next two years.

In 2024, and again in 2025, the city will provide porch and alley lighting to residents of “high crime areas” identified by the police department. In addition, city staff will clear dead brush, trim trees and generally beautify vacant lots around the city.

Michelle Kondo is a scientist with the USDA Forest Service. She researched the effectiveness of environmental design for violence prevention extensively in cities like Philadelphia and Flint.

The study in Philadelphia found a significant impact on gun violence in particular, with a decrease of as much as 29% in neighborhoods below the poverty line. The studies included comparing the neighborhood with interventions to a similar “control neighborhood” without them.

Kondo said ethnographers and cultural anthropologists on the ground gathered qualitative information to help explain why the measures were effective.

Michelle Kondo is a scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Her work includes research into the impact of "greening and cleaning" projects in high crime and low income neighborhoods in major American cities.
Michelle Kondo
Michelle Kondo is a scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Her work includes research into the impact of "greening and cleaning" projects in high crime and low income neighborhoods in major American cities.

“One of the things that they noticed was that people were storing guns, we suspected guns were being stored in the vacant lots,” she said. “But actually, we found guns were being stored in cars parked in front of vacant lots. So this cleaning and greening intervention sort of disrupted that pattern.”

Kondo said the vacant lots, in some cases, also served as storefronts for drug sales. Adding some greenery, and a regularly-visiting crew to care for the space, made them less desirable for that purpose.

“Greening and cleaning” programs were similarly successful in Flint, with the research team taking note of the activity surrounding more than 7,000 properties owned by the Genesee County Land Bank Authority over four years. When properly planted and maintained, Kondo’s team found similar improvements to their results in Philadelphia.

“We found greater decreases in firearm violence across the board,” she said. “As well as specifically with youth victims.”

Peoria council members like Andre Allen are excited about the program’s potential to reduce gun violence.

“When you address the environment that people live in, it ultimately impacts their overall quality of life and health outcomes,” he said. “So, I didn’t need to be sold this dream, we see the evidence there.”

Allen said the program also appeals to his second role as the chief officer of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Peoria County. He said an “accelerator plan” his office has been working on shares a lot of similarities with the environmental approach favored for the ARPA funds.

Other council members, like Mike Vespa, were initially skeptical of the measures, favoring "direct human intervention" programs. However, the recommendation did pass with unanimous council support.

Vespa said, in the time since, he’s been reading up on environmental design and found similar results to what Kondo describes. He also is encouraged by a considerable remainder of funds the city plans to assign to further violence prevention efforts.

“There's still a lot of money outstanding, that is going to go to direct human intervention,” Vespa said. “This is a multi- prong multifaceted effort. It's complimentary, it's concurrent. And I am optimistic about it.”

When Vespa talks about direct human intervention, he means programs like counseling, truancy officers and door-to-door surveys.

Both council members said they’d like to see the designated areas for the programs involved with the process of implementing them.

“I think we should reach out to them,” Vespa said. “Let them know that this money is now here for this purpose. Same with clearing bushes and dead trees. Certainly, this needs to go mostly to the hot spot areas. A lot of it is lower income areas, too. But, yeah, this money is there for them.”

Allen said the program offering porch and alleyway light installation to low-income Peoria homes is particularly exciting to him, calling a lack of lighting in some neighborhoods a “kitchen table issue.”

Kondo said the specific science on lighting’s effect on violence is still developing, adding a few randomized control trials are ongoing.

“ I think that there is a need for more research there,” Kondo said. “But the small amount of research that does exist is promising.”

Allen also acknowledged the programs’ effectiveness will rely on how well they’re maintained. It’s still very early in the city’s planning process for the programs, but he would like to see a plan for sustainability before they start in earnest.

The Tioga Hope Garden is one of a number of green spaces in Philadelphia that advocates believe contribu
Philadelphia Horticultural Society
The Tioga Hope Garden is one of a number of green spaces in Philadelphia that advocates believe contribute to fighting gun violence and improving the mental health of residents.

“Because the last thing we want to do is invest in these programs and start seeing results and then we pull the rug back,” Allen said. “I think that, as a council, we have to be very intentional, because over the next couple of years, some of the soft dollars will start drying up.”

Kondo said studies she was involved with found success employing individuals from the neighborhoods with new green spaces. This had the added effect of addressing some resident concerns.

“In Philadelphia, we found some discomfort, or maybe even hostility towards the cleaning and greening intervention in neighborhoods, especially those where residents felt under threat of gentrification or displacement,” she said. “They worried that the improvements were not meant for them, the existing residents of the neighborhood, but were being done to invite new homeowners to build wealth in those neighborhoods.”

She said providing the jobs maintaining the new green spaces over time created a whole new industry to be developed. Philadelphia, she said, even used some of its own ARPA dollars to create workforce development programs in fields like urban forestry and neighborhood improvement.

Between multiple rounds of funding for local nonprofits, and this new initiative, the City of Peoria has funded a wide variety of programs.

“I’m optimistic, like I said” Vespa said. “I think we have a bunch of programs that are going to bear fruit.”

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.