Our core research focuses on studying the effects of improving vacant properties on violence, property crimes and intentional injuries in three U.S. cities: Flint, MI, Camden, New Jersey and Youngstown, Ohio.
Since 2010, we have been working collaboratively with community partners in Flint, Michigan to reduce violence and create a supportive and healthy environment for youth ages 10-24. In 2015, we received funding to expand our work beyond Flint to help us explore our community approaches and strategies and apply what we have learned to other cities around the nation.
Camden and Youngstown are similar to Flint in many ways, yet each community has its own unique identity. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, the cities of Flint, Youngstown and Camden and surrounding counties were prosperous metropolitan areas due to many high paying industrial and manufacturing jobs. The departure of industries (Flint- automotive, Youngstown- steel, Camden- appliances, shipbuilding) led to decreased availability of work and subsequent population loss.
Since 1990 the populations of all three cities have declined: Youngstown by 30%, Flint by 27% and Camden by 12%. In each of the three cities the median income is less than $26,500, more than half of families with children under 18 live in poverty, and more than 18% of the individuals over 25 have not completed high school. The percentage of dwellings that are owner occupied is far below the national rate for all three cities, and nearly one in five homes is vacant.
Violent crime is also a persistent problem in all three cities.
At the same time, there are multiple community resources and many individuals working to prevent further violence and create safe and healthy communities. Mobilizing these community assets is vital to creating a sustainable model for youth violence prevention.
Our work builds upon previous research that indicates that caring for vacant properties can have beneficial effects on the health and safety of residents. Our partner communities have established programs that engage youth and adult residents to care for and repurpose vacant lots.
In Flint, the lead community organization for the core research is the Genesee County Land Bank. Since its inception in 2002, the Genesee County Land Bank has played an active role in stabilizing neighborhoods and revitalizing the City of Flint. The Land Bank encourages re-use of more than 4,000 residential, commercial and industrial properties that it has acquired through the tax foreclosure process. This is accomplished through partnerships with public, private and non-profit partners as well as with the proceeds from the tax foreclosure process, proceeds from Land Bank sales and rental programs, grants, loans, and bonds.
The Land Bank has engaged residents, youth and community-based organizations (CBOs) in taking responsibility for the maintenance of vacant property parcels under its care. The Land Bank Clean and Green program, initiated in 2004, supports innovative community groups and organizations in cleaning, maintaining and beautifying vacant properties. Clean and Green currently involves over 50 community organizations that maintained over 1,800 vacant lots in 2014. Over 200 youth participated in the program during the 2014 season. Groups interested in participating in Clean and Green are chosen on the basis of their previous experience with community work, inclusion of youth, plan for the identified space, and ability to leverage resources. Each group is required to mow 25 lots every three weeks. Some groups develop gardening projects (called Signature lots) in addition to their mowing commitment. Many of the Land Bank’s vacant properties are mowed by Land Bank professional crews.
Other partners in Flint include: the Genesee County Health Department, which seeks to improve the health status of Genesee County residents, with particular attention to eliminating racial, social and economic inequities and using prevention and intervention strategies that target underlying causes; the Flint Police Department, which has provided crime data to the MI-YVPC since 2004; Hurley Medical Center, the only Level 1 Trauma Center in Genesee County, Church Without Walls, a faith-based organization with longstanding involvement in violence prevention and community revitalization; and Congressman Dan Kildee.
In Youngstown, the lead organization is the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC). YNDC is a citywide, multifaceted 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization launched in 2009 to catalyze strategic investment in neighborhoods throughout the City of Youngstown following the completion of the Youngstown 2010 planning process, which included the goal of transforming Youngstown into a smaller, greener, and more vibrant city.
The mission of the organization is to improve the quality of life in Youngstown by building and encouraging neighborhoods of choice for all. YNDC aims to accomplish this mission through a dual approach that includes strategic investments to rebuild market confidence in neighborhoods with strong assets, broader partnership-based strategies to strengthen the community development capacity of Youngstown, and citywide infrastructure supporting neighborhood revitalization. Since it was established YNDC has repurposed nearly 300 vacant lots for gardens, side lots, native plantings, and green space through both targeted land reuse programs and citywide competitions. Lots of Green, the YNDC’s vacant land reuse program, focuses on transforming the physical environment of strategic neighborhoods. Community organizations convert lots into community gardens, native planting sites, pocket parks, or small community orchards. These strategies for vacant land reuse improve the quality of life for residents and demonstrate best practices for neighborhood projects across the city. Community organizations apply to take part in the program and many organizations involve youth in their work in some capacity. The YNDC also cleans and maintains lots using its own crews. They have more vacant properties then they can handle in any one year. This will allow us to contrast unmaintained properties, those professionally maintained, and those cared for by community organizations.
Other partners include: the Youngstown City Health District, committed to enable all of the citizens of Youngstown and vicinity to engage in healthful behaviors, the Mahoning County District Board of Health, which served the county surrounding Youngstown; the Youngstown Police Department, which partners with community organizations and citizen groups in identifying and resolving problems facing the City’s neighborhoods; St. Elizabeth Health Center, a tertiary care hospital that is the only Level 1 Trauma Center in the Mahoning and Shenango Valleys; the Mahoning County Land Bank, which acquires vacant, abandoned, tax-delinquent properties and makes them productive again; and Mayor John McNally.
Camden, New Jersey
For the Camden implementation study, the lead organization is Cooper’s Ferry Partnership. The Cooper’s Ferry Partnership brings together public and private organizations to effect sustainable economic revitalization and promote Camden as a place in which to live, to work, to visit and to invest. Formed in 2011, from the merger of the Cooper’s Ferry Development Association and the Greater Camden Partnership, the CFP promotes redevelopment of Camden’s downtown, clean and safe streets, vibrant commercial corridors, stable neighborhoods, a vacant-lot greening and maintenance initiative, vibrant arts and culture, and human capital programming that builds capacity among Camden’s residents.
Other partners include: Camden County Department of Health and Human Services, which promotes healthy communities by preventing communicable and non-communicable diseases, and remediating environmental hazards; Camden County Police Department, which seeks to improve the quality of public safety in a cost effective manner; Cooper University Hospital, southern New Jersey’s only Level 1 Trauma Center; New Jersey Tree Foundation, a state-wide non-profit organization dedicated to planting trees in NJ’s most under-served neighborhoods; and Camden Municipal Utilities, a clean water utility working to green abandoned lots in Camden to reduce flooding; and Mayor Dana Redd.
We are also working with the Center for Community Progress and the National Association County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) to conduct a study of state and local policies that facilitate or hinder greening and youth involvement and to help disseminate our results nation wide.