One of the most stubborn obstacles to building new trails,
particularly in big cities where crime and public safety are often dominating
concerns, is the perception that such pathways encourage or increase incidents
of vandalism, assault, vagrancy and theft in nearby neighborhoods.
From our many years facilitating both urban and rural trails
in communities of all shapes and sizes, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) staff
understand that, in fact, the opposite is true. Time and time again we see new
multi-use trails bring human activity and a level of ownership and care to
areas once abandoned and neglected. It's the basic premise of all "neighborhood
watch" programs: the constant surveillance of residents and businesses is often
the most efficient deterrent to antisocial behavior.
While RTC has compiled substantial evidence
of experience regarding crime and urban trails, which has been documented
and presented through our Urban
Pathways Initiative (UPI), until now we have lacked hard scientific data to
support that anecdotal library.
Which is why a groundbreaking study on the effects of
urban greening in Philadelphia,
recently published in the American
Journal of Epidemiology, has drawn so much attention from urban planners,
community groups and sociologists alike.
The study puts solid data behind what we have long known:
that bringing human traffic, community activity and opportunities for
recreation to once neglected, defaced areas brightens unlit spaces, making them
safer and increasing their 'value' - whether measured in terms of real estate
indices or appeal to the community.
The authors of the study conducted a decade-long comparative
analysis of the impact of Community LandCare, a vacant lot greening program in Philadelphia. In the
treated lots, local resident volunteers and neighborhood groups improved
abandoned lots with topsoil, trees and fencing, and conducted regular
maintenance. The treated lots were compared with vacant lots that were eligible
for greening but did not receive treatment.
The results demonstrated that vacant lot greening was
associated with consistent reductions in gun assaults across all four sections
of the city, and consistent reductions in vandalism in one section of the city.
There were also a number of stress and wellness benefits for local residents
associated with transforming the neglected sections.
"Economic downturns, deindustrialization, and population
outmigration have made the abandonment of land a challenge for many US cities,"
the authors write in the introduction to the study, A Difference-in-Differences Analysis of Health, Safety, and Greening
Vacant Urban Space. "These vacant lot treatments often produce immediately
noticeable, visually dramatic results; are straightforward to implement; cost
little, relative to other urban health and safety programs; and are responsive to
"With respect to safety, the 'broken windows' theory
suggests that vacant lots offer refuge to criminal and other illegal activity
and visibly symbolize that a neighborhood has deteriorated, that no one is in
control, and that unsafe or criminal behavior is welcome to proceed with little
if any supervision. A related theory, the 'incivilities' theory, suggests that
physical incivilities, such as abandoned vacant lots, promote weak social ties
among residents and encourage crimes, ranging from harassment to homicide. Central
to both theories is that criminals are thought to feel emboldened in areas with
greater physical disorder while, at the same time, residents are driven toward
greater anonymity and are less willing or able to step in and prevent crime. We
can speculate that violent crime may have simply been discouraged in the presence
of greened and tended vacant lots which signaled that someone in the community
cared and was potentially watching over the space in question."
The Department of Health and Human Services will host a
free webinar this week to discuss the release of the report and its impact
on violence and injury prevention.
Urban trails generate precisely the same community activity
and ownership, making the study an important resource for trail proponents. The
results have particular bearing on RTC's Urban Pathways Initiative. Though most
municipalities have long come to accept that creating commuter and recreational
pathways is good for the neighborhoods they pass through, from time to time
fears of increasing crime and vandalism are raised to oppose the development of
a new trail. Unfortunately, these fears, though countered by years of evidence,
are sometimes still enough to derail a project.
At a recent meeting of the Woodside Civic Association in Silver Spring, Md.,
residents opposed plans to extend the Capital Crescent Trail, asserting that it
would bring crime to the neighborhood. Despite hearing the testimony of Darien
Manley, chief of Montgomery County Park Police, who stated that trails do not
bring crime to neighborhoods, the fear of increased crime and vandalism is
still the basis of opposition to extending this enormously popular used
commuter and recreation trail.
According to local blog, Silver Spring Trails, Chief
Manley stated that some crime does occur everywhere, and there will be some crime
on trails, but typically there is less crime on a trail than in the
neighborhood that the trail passes through. Manley stated that studies by the
National Park Service and others show that the nationwide experience is similar
to what he has experienced in Montgomery
County: that crime is
generally low on trails.
Chief Manley told the gathering that criminals like secluded
areas where with generally fewer potential witnesses. Trails, especially busy trails
like the Capital Crescent Trail, bring in people who are using the area
lawfully, and these lawful users put eyes on the trail that drive crime away.
Similar fears recently impeded construction of a
missing section of the Old Plank Road Trail through Chicago Heights, Ill.,
and continue to threaten widely supported plans for an elevated
greenway through Queens, N.Y.
This month, RTC unveiled a short documentary, Is It Safe? Crime and Perceptions of Safety
on Urban Pathways, which related the experience of communities in Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Ohio, and Richmond, Calif.,
before and after trails were opened in their neighborhoods. Murals replaced
graffiti, and kept it away; trailside gardens and parks replaced smashed
windows and broken fencing; and local children walk and bike to school where
before they had feared to tread.
Despite some remnants of opposition, more and more
homeowners and local officials are experiencing firsthand the transformative
effect that urban trails have on neighborhoods. Not only have they become much
sought-after transportation amenities that have a measurable effect on home
values and health indicators, they are rallying points for the community, the
catalyst in many instances for a renewed sense of caring for a common space.
Photos, from top:
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day volunteer cleanup on the Richmond Greenway, Calif., by RTC.
Community garden beside the Midtown Greenway, Minn., courtesy of Payton Chung.
Local residents promote a 5k event on the Compton Creek Bike Path, Calif., courtesy of Hub City Teen
DC Prep students take activities on the Met Branch Trail, DC, by RTC