Community Engagement & Revitalization

Principal InvestigatorProject Manager
Project Dates
  • 2015-2020
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The MI-YVPC studied the effects of vacant property improvements on violence, property crimes, and intentional injuries in three U.S. cities: Flint, Michigan, Youngstown, Ohio, and Camden, New Jersey.

We focused on supporting work that engaged residents, particularly youth, in caring for properties in their neighborhoods by mowing, planting gardens, or doing other “greening” activities.

We assessed whether involving community youth and adults in greening reduced violence to a greater degree than either professional greening or no maintenance. This work built upon and supported programs developed by local land-use organizations and previous research that indicated that caring for vacant properties had beneficial effects on the health and safety of residents.

The goals of the research were to:

  • Evaluate and support the implementation of community-level strategies to improve vacant properties and analyze the relationship of changes in the physical environment to youth violence
  • Test the effects of alternative approaches to greening on police incidents, youth intentional injuries, conditions of nearby properties, and residents' perceptions of their neighborhoods
  • Document the process of community readiness and capacity needed to implement community-engaged greening programs; and
  • Identify lessons learned that supported community and youth engaged greening programs, and share the results with local, state, and national audiences through a wide variety of methods, including a freely available implementation guide

This research was the core research project of the Center and was a collaboration between the University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers University, Genesee County Land Bank in Flint, MI, Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, Cooper’s Ferry Partnership in Camden, NJ,  the Center for Community Progress,  as well as economic development organizations, health departments, hospitals, police departments and community-based organizations in each city.

MI-YVPC is funded by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (U01CE002698).

Project Fact Sheet

Our Communities

Our core research focused 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.

In 2010, we began 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 were similar to Flint in many ways, yet each community had its own unique identity. During the 1950s and 1960s, 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 declined: Youngstown by 30%, Flint by 27%, and Camden by 12%. In each of the three cities, the median income was 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 were owner-occupied was far below the national rate for all three cities, and nearly one in five homes were vacant.

Violent crime was also a persistent problem in all three cities.

At the same time,  there were multiple community resources and many individuals working to prevent further violence and create safe and healthy communities. Mobilizing these community assets was vital to creating a sustainable model for youth violence prevention.

Our work built upon previous research that indicated that caring for vacant properties had beneficial effects on the health and safety of residents. Our partner communities established programs that engaged youth and adult residents to care for and repurpose vacant lots.

 A photo of the Flint Vehicle City Arch (wide aspect)

Flint, Michigan

In Flint, the lead community organization for the core research was the Genesee County Land Bank. Since its inception in 2002, the Genesee County Land Bank played an active role in stabilizing neighborhoods and revitalizing the City of Flint. The Land Bank encourages the re-use of more than 4,000 residential, commercial and industrial properties that it 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 engages 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 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, the 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 included: 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.

A photo of the Youngstown, OH skyline.

Youngstown, Ohio

In Youngstown, the lead organization was 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 over 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 than 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 included: the Youngstown City Health District, committed to enabling all of the citizens of Youngstown and its 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.

A photo of the Greetings from Camden, New Jersey promotional image

Camden, New Jersey

For the Camden implementation study, the lead organization was 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, work, visit, and invest. Formed in 2011, from the merger of the Cooper’s Ferry Development Association and the Greater Camden Partnership, the CFP promotes the 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 included: 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.

National Partners

We also worked with the Center for Community Progress and the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) to conduct a study of state and local policies that facilitated or hindered greening and youth involvement and helped disseminate our results nationwide.

Partner organizations

University of Michigan
School of Public Health
School of Medicine
School of Nursing

University of Pennsylvania
Penn Injury Science Center
Urban Health Lab
Cartographic Modeling Lab

Rutgers University
School of Public Health
School of Criminal Justice

Flint, Michigan
Genesee County Land Bank (Lead Organization)
Genesee County Health Department
Flint Police Department
Hurley Medical Center

Youngstown, Ohio
Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. (Lead Organization)
Mahoning County District Board of Health
Youngstown Police Department
St. Elizabeth Medical Center
Mahoning County Land Bank

Camden, New Jersey
Coopers Ferry Partnership (Lead Organization)
City of Camden
Camden County Department of Health and Human Services
Camden County Police Department
Camden Special Services District
Cooper University Hospital
New Jersey Tree Foundation

U. S. Forest Service

Center for Community Progress

National Association of County and City Health Officials

Related Stories