Busy Streets Theory in Action: Building Safe and Empowered Neighborhoods in Flint’s University Avenue Corridor

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In a recently published article, Laney Rupp, a researcher with MI-YVPC, explored the development of “busy streets” in Flint, MI. We sat down with her and asked about the underlying theory and her conclusions.

Can you describe what busy streets theory is? Why does it matter for preventing crime and violence?

Many people are familiar with broken windows theory, which was popularized in the 1980s and 90s . That’s the idea that litter, graffiti and other signs of physical deterioration signal a neighborhood where few people are invested or looking out for one another. This opens the door to further negative activity and neighborhood decline.

The central idea of busy streets theory is that improving the physical environment […] alongside your neighbors not only promotes physical safety but inspires psychological empowerment, including a sense of investment in your neighborhood and connection to neighbors.

Imagine you live on a block where every day you walk by trash, vacant buildings, and graffiti. People around you are frustrated with crime and decay and may even pick up and move. When your neighbor moves, you lose that connection, you lose that person who is looking out for you. Then the vacant house next door starts to attract crime and you begin to feel afraid. You might start to think about moving as well. You can see how the deterioration of the physical environment can lead to disinvestment that starts a chain reaction of neighborhood decline.

Busy streets theory offers an opposing perspective by highlighting how neighborhoods can become safer and empowered, even in the context of neighborhood disadvantage. The central idea is the opposite of broken windows. Let’s say this time you are walking down the street and instead of overgrown shrubs, trash and a vacant lot, you see that the lot has been converted into a park that is being maintained by a neighborhood group.

Instead of feeling like your neighborhood is going down the drain, you start to feel less alone. Maybe you go outside to the park to eat your lunch. Maybe you start to talk with neighbors and have an opportunity to get to know them. And once you know your neighbors, maybe you are more likely to care about them and let them know if you see that something is amiss on their street. That’s the upward spiral of busy streets.

The central idea of busy streets theory is that improving the physical environment (e.g. by painting a mural, installing a garden or mowing the lot next-door) alongside your neighbors not only promotes physical safety but inspires psychological empowerment, including a sense of investment in your neighborhood and connection to neighbors.

So, busy streets is a theory that focuses on more positive ideas, but what does it look like in practice?

To me, busy streets theory is exciting because up to this point we have only had theories about how neighborhoods deteriorate and decline. We haven’t had ways to think about how residents and organizations can be agents of change who have a meaningful role in improving neighborhoods.

We have a growing body of evidence that supports the idea that mowing, landscaping and revitalizing physical spaces in neighborhoods can reduce violence, assault, and drug-related activity and improve neighborhood safety . One thing that has been less studied is one of the main predictions of busy streets theory that engaging residents in activities to improve physical conditions in their neighborhoods can promote psychological empowerment–things like a feeling of connection or belonging to your neighborhood, a sense of hope that neighborhood conditions can get better, or that you can do something to improve your neighborhood.

I started to think about this more when I was working with our team at MI-YVPC to evaluate a Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) intervention that was being implemented in Flint as part of an Innovations in Community-Based Crime Reduction grant (formerly known as Byrne Grant).

CPTED is a series of strategies to modify the physical environment in ways that signal positive community ownership of a space and improve neighborhood safety. Our team was documenting many examples of CPTED strategies from regular mowing, to installing lighting, or upgrading playgrounds. But what I was struck by is how people were reacting to the CPTED changes. It wasn’t just about the physical environment. People were telling me that the changes were giving them a sense of hope and making them feel like they wanted to stay in their neighborhood. Community partners shared that they were seeing residents outside that never would have felt safe to do so before. It was a light bulb moment for me–something more was going on here and it made me want to test if what I was seeing was actually the theory of busy streets in action.

Where did the study take place?

We conducted this study in Flint’s University Avenue Corridor (UAC)–this is a central corridor that is adjacent to downtown Flint, where several universities, hospitals, police, and other organizational partners have joined together with residents in a coalition called the University Avenue Corridor Coalition (UACC) to improve their neighborhoods.

Flint has the highest residential vacancies in the nation . This inevitably leads to problems with physical deterioration, crime, and disruption of social connections. But in the corridor area, organizations and residents came together to forge a coalition with the idea that they could make a change. They decided to focus on improving the physical environment using the CPTED methodology with the idea that a safe physical environment is foundational before economic and social vitality can take root.

What did you study and what was your central research question?

For this study, I interviewed residents and organizational partners in three neighborhoods across the corridor about their experience working with the coalition to improve the physical environment using CPTED strategies. I asked them what their neighborhood was like before they started implementing CPTED, what changes they made, and how CPTED affected their neighborhood. The neighborhoods were somewhat different in terms of the level of resident engagement in the process. In some neighborhoods, residents were really leading the CPTED changes with the support of organizational partners with the coalition, whereas in another neighborhood, coalition leaders had more of a prominent role and drove more of the decision making and residents were less involved in planning and implementing the changes.

The main research question I had was if improving the physical environment alongside neighbors could help to promote psychological empowerment, and if this relationship was more pronounced if residents took a leadership role in planning and implementing these changes alongside neighbors.

Many reported that these physical improvements meant the difference between staying and leaving their neighborhood.

What are the important findings of your article?

It was exciting to find that CPTED interventions were associated with features of busy streets, including positive street activity and psychological empowerment in all three neighborhoods. The most obvious change was in how people perceived their neighborhood. Respondents in all three neighborhoods reported a greater sense of hopefulness and belonging when they saw the CPTED changes being implemented. Many reported that these physical improvements meant the difference between staying and leaving their neighborhood.

Some of the more nuanced findings were that in the neighborhoods where residents worked alongside each other and took a leadership role in planning and implementing CPTED strategies, we also saw additional expanded aspects of psychological empowerment including more social capital–residents who suddenly felt that they had supportive people in their neighborhood who could provide tools or help to remove overgrown brush from their yard. We also saw that respondents in neighborhoods where residents assumed more of a leadership role reported that they felt more hopeful and had a greater sense of belief that they could improve their community. These residents actually stepped up to take further action to improve their environment in a contagious effect.

What are some of the practical implications of your article for revitalizing neighborhoods?

The first takeaway is that positive neighborhood change is possible even in the context of structural disadvantage. Involving residents in physically improving their neighborhoods can be a potent tool for changing and transforming both physical safety and also promoting psychological empowerment. Safety and empowerment are two of the main ingredients of thriving neighborhoods and busy streets.

The second take-away is that residents can’t do it alone. Many residents are struggling with few resources and the seemingly insurmountable problem of vacancy and blight, and then on top of that the water crisis hits–it’s all too much. It’s demoralizing, not realistic, and not sustainable for residents to feel like they need to save the neighborhood all by themselves. That’s where partnerships with supportive organizations come in.

We saw the most empowered outcomes in the neighborhoods where more resourced organizations from the coalition partnered with residents in an equitable way to identify problems, plan strategies and implement solutions. Even the simple act of supporting residents with tools and supplies went a long way in terms of building a sense of solidarity, shared ownership, and mutual investment in problem-solving. This shared ownership seemed to wipe away some of the divisions and resentments which were present when either the residents were expected to solve problems on their own, or when more resourced partner organizations took too much control over revitalization efforts.

What was the role of police in this project, if any?

We did not explicitly study how police involvement in CPTED might affect police-resident relationships or promote the effectiveness of CPTED for reducing crime, but I think both of these questions are important directions for future study.

Overall, we found that police support was foundational to these efforts to physically revitalize neighborhoods and promote busy streets. Especially in neighborhoods that were experiencing drug deals and violent crime, an active police presence was important to control crime before residents would even feel willing to participate in cleanups or other CPTED projects. Police played an important role in securing buildings before clean-ups and making people feel secure to participate. I was somewhat surprised to find that many residents wished they had more police support and appreciated when police were involved in positive, collaborative ways, such as participating in events and clean-ups.

Progress can be fragile, and partnership from police and other more resourced organizations who can support and protect residents as they work to improve their neighborhood is a critical factor to […] long-term success […]

Any cautions or caveats about your findings and how they are applied?

One thing that was hard to see was that some of the progress that was made in the neighborhoods started to backslide when funding diminished. Some neighbors that participated in improving their community received some negative reactions from others in the neighborhood who possibly weren’t happy about more eyes on the street and pressure to step up their property maintenance. It comes back to that ongoing commitment from institutions and more resourced organizations to partner with residents in a sustained way. Progress can be fragile, and partnership from police and other more resourced organizations who can support and protect residents as they work to improve their neighborhood is a critical factor to the long-term success of these initiatives and to greater safety, hope, and vitality in Flint.

It’s also important to remember that while community-engaged revitalization can have positive effects for building busy streets–it’s also a lot to ask residents to care for vacant and deteriorated properties on top of their other responsibilities. We can’t forget about the more long-term policy and structural solutions that are needed to fund and support the systematic care of vacant properties in Flint and similar communities across the U.S.

Finally, these findings are from a relatively small sample of 19 interviews, and just provide initial support for busy streets theory. This study is a great launching point for future studies with larger, more random samples that could look at the relationship between resident engagement in CPTED and psychological empowerment.

Where can I read the full findings?

It is available at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ajcp.12358.

You can also contact Laney Rupp at laneyr@umich.edu to request a full-text copy.

The full citation is:
Rupp, L. A., Zimmerman, M. A., Sly, K. W., Reischl, T. M., Thulin, E. J., Wyatt, T. A., & Stock, J. J. P. (2019). Community-Engaged Neighborhood Revitalization and Empowerment: Busy Streets Theory in Action. American Journal of Community Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12358

Anything else you want to add?

I want to give a big thank you to Marc Zimmerman, Tom Reischl, Katy Sly, and Elyse Thulin who helped write, edit, give perspective, re-frame and keep up the momentum on this paper.

Most of all, I want to express my gratitude to the people in Flint who worked with me on this project and who led the revitalization efforts under study. Particularly our community partners and co-authors Tom Wyatt, Jack Stock, without whom this project would never have happened. I also want to express my appreciation to Joy Alston, Dallas Gatlin, Ray Hall and other partners in Flint who helped with this project. These people are tremendous forces for good in Flint and inspire me deeply. I hope that our research efforts together can help to showcase the value of community-engaged revitalization and will light a path for others to apply these strategies in other communities that stand to benefit.