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Environmental Strategies for Disease, Injury and Violence Prevention

Michelle Kondo, Ph.D. | Research Social Scientist, USDA Forest Service

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In her keynote address, “Environmental Strategies for Disease, Violence, and Injury Prevention in Urban Areas,” USDA Forest Service research social scientist Dr. Michelle C. Kondo shared her research on the relationship between nature and human health and the benefits of vacant lot greening.

“I take my responsibility as a federal scientist very seriously. My research has to be applied. It has to be applicable to the everyday lives of the people that we represent. And that everyday reality, very commonly in this region, is characterized by vacancy.” Vacant properties can attract trash dumping, rodents, pathogens, illicit activity and feelings such as fear, anxiety, stress and depression. In one study conducted in Ohio, researchers implemented both contractor-greened and community-greened lots in the city and found that the contractor clean-and-green lots led to significant reductions in property crimes. “Around the community reuse lots we found most significant reductions in violent crimes, which made us think, ‘is there some role that engagement and ownership in this process might play in the social dynamics that are occurring around these places?’”

Another trial, this time done in the City of Philadelphia, attempted to further discover the effects vacant properties have on violence, crime, and fear. “We took 600 vacant lots in Philadelphia and….randomly assigned them to either get treatment and/or to be a control. We had a 38 month study period and we looked at pre/post-treatment control differences.” The results of this study were remarkable. “We found at the treatment lots, significant reductions in crime overall, but specifically in gun violence, burglary and nuisance crimes, especially in neighborhoods below the poverty line.” Additionally, researchers saw a reduction in perceptions of crime and vandalism, a decrease in feelings of depression and worthlessness for residents, and a significant increase in the reported use of outdoor spaces for relaxing and socializing.

But Dr. Kondo cautions that we need to account for negative outcomes as well. “Are there any unintended consequences that we’re not measuring, that we may be seeing?” Gentrification is one possible consequence of transforming these spaces. Additional challenges may be a lack of resources and engagement, as well as difficulties creating sustainable programs in which communities can create culturally and socioeconomically relevant programs. Dr. Kondo encourages the creation of spaces that community members can take ownership of.  

“In general I think the idea is that this type of intervention can disrupt this iterative cycle of physical disorder, which causes people to be fearful and withdraw from public spaces, which can lead to weak social control and less positive connections between neighbors, which can lead to more serious crime. And this cycle goes on.” By implementing changes in our cities and implementing more green spaces, we can create quality places in which all people, Dr. Kondo says, can feel a sense of pride and attachment.

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Speaker Bios and Abstracts

About the Speaker

Dr. Kondo is a research social scientist with the USDA Forest Service. She holds academic degrees in civil engineering and urban planning and obtained postdoctoral training in environmental health and epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research examines environmental strategies, including place-based, nature-based and clinical interventions, for disease, violence and injury prevention with a focus on low-resource urban communities.