Greening vacant city lots could improve residents' health

Turning vacant city lots into green spaces may improve urban dwellers' health, a study finds, by reducing stress and increasing exercise.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania looked at the effect greened vacant lots had on the health of the surrounding community. They compared about 4,400 vacant lots in Philadelphia that had been improved to about 26,000 matched lots that had been left vacant. Upgrading the lots was a project spearheaded by the Philadelphia Horticultural Society in 1999 and involved cleaning and grading the land, planting trees and grass to make the lots look more park-like, putting in low wooden fences to discourage dumping and show that the land was being cared for, and providing regular maintenance.

Improving the lots was linked with fewer gun assaults in four sections of the city, and lower rates of vandalism and criminal mischief in one section. Having greened lots was also linked in some sections with residents saying they felt less stressed and were exercising more.

However, researchers also noticed an upturn in acts of disorderly conduct. This, they said, could be a result of people using the greened spaces as a gathering place, possibly inviting crowds and rowdy behavior.

"Improving the places where people live, work and play holds great promise for changing health and safety," said senior author Charles Branas in a news release. "Greening vacant lots is a low-cost, high-value approach, which may prevent certain crimes and encourage healthy activity for more people and for longer periods of time than many other approaches."

The study was published recently online in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

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