Place-Based Interventions as Root Cause Violence Mitigation

I recently Tweeted for help finding some articles for my Sociology of Guns seminar. Among those who Tweeted back was Ted Alcorn, the founding Director of Research at Everytown for Gun Safety who currently teaches a course called “Gun Violence in the United States: Evidence and Action” at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. He provided a link to his fall 2020 syllabus, which I mined for sources.

Although it is not my area of scholarly expertise, like many I am concerned about high levels of violence in the United States, especially the most lethal and injurious forms. As I have previously written on this blog, I find myself returning repeatedly to an important truth: Everyday criminal violence in the United States is concentrated in places and among people that are most affected by economic and racial inequality. As the Rocket Armory t-shirt says, “Guns don’t kill people, systemic inequality does.”

One module in Alcorn’s class takes this issue of PLACE far more seriously than I had thought to myself.

Figure from “Citywide cluster randomized trial to restore blighted vacant land and its effects on violence, crime, and fear” in PNAS (2018)

Unbeknownst to me, there is a scholarly literature on the positive role played by “place-based interventions” in preventing/reducing criminal violence. Alcorn covers this in his Session 12, reproduced below.

Charles Branas, chair of the department of epidemiology at Columbia’s Mailman School, appears to be playing a leading role in this research. Consider two recent articles on which Branas was the first author:

SOURCE: Branas, Charles C., Eugenia South, Michelle C. Kondo, Bernadette C. Hohl, Philippe Bourgois, Douglas J. Wiebe, and John M. MacDonald. 2018. “Citywide Cluster Randomized Trial to Restore Blighted Vacant Land and Its Effects on Violence, Crime, and Fear.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115(12):2946–51. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1718503115.

ABSTRACT: Vacant and blighted urban land is a widespread and potentially risky environmental condition encountered by millions of people on a daily basis. About 15% of the land in US cities is deemed vacant or abandoned, an area roughly the size of Switzerland. In a citywide cluster randomized controlled trial, we investigated the effects of standardized, reproducible interventions that restore vacant land on the commission of violence, crime, and the perceptions of fear and safety. Quantitative and ethnographic analyses were included in a mixed-methods approach to more fully test and explicate our findings. A total of 541 randomly sampled vacant lots were randomly assigned into treatment and control study arms; outcomes from police and 445 randomly sampled participants were analyzed over a 38-month study period. Participants living near treated vacant lots reported significantly reduced perceptions of crime (−36.8%, P < 0.05), vandalism (−39.3%, P < 0.05), and safety concerns when going outside their homes (−57.8%, P < 0.05), as well as significantly increased use of outside spaces for relaxing and socializing (75.7%, P < 0.01). Significant reductions in crime overall (−13.3%, P < 0.01), gun violence (−29.1%, P < 0.001), burglary (−21.9%, P < 0.001), and nuisances (−30.3%, P < 0.05) were also found after the treatment of vacant lots in neighborhoods below the poverty line. Blighted and vacant urban land affects people’s perceptions of safety, and their actual, physical safety. Restoration of this land can be an effective and scalable infrastructure intervention for gun violence, crime, and fear in urban neighborhoods.

SOURCE: Branas, Charles C., Michelle C. Kondo, Sean M. Murphy, Eugenia C. South, Daniel Polsky, and John M. MacDonald. 2016. “Urban Blight Remediation as a Cost-Beneficial Solution to Firearm Violence.” American Journal of Public Health 106(12):2158–64. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2016.303434.


Objectives. To determine if blight remediation of abandoned buildings and vacant lots can be a cost-beneficial solution to firearm violence in US cities.

Methods. We performed quasi-experimental analyses of the impacts and economic returns on investment of urban blight remediation programs involving 5112 abandoned buildings and vacant lots on the occurrence of firearm and nonfirearm violence in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from 1999 to 2013. We adjusted before–after percent changes and returns on investment in treated versus control groups for sociodemographic factors.

Results. Abandoned building remediation significantly reduced firearm violence −39% (95% confidence interval [CI] = −28%, −50%; P < .05) as did vacant lot remediation (−4.6%; 95% CI = −4.2%, −5.0%; P < .001). Neither program significantly affected nonfirearm violence. Respectively, taxpayer and societal returns on investment for the prevention of firearm violence were $5 and $79 for every dollar spent on abandoned building remediation and $26 and $333 for every dollar spent on vacant lot remediation.

Conclusions. Abandoned buildings and vacant lots are blighted structures seen daily by urban residents that may create physical opportunities for violence by sheltering illegal activity and illegal firearms. Urban blight remediation programs can be cost-beneficial strategies that significantly and sustainably reduce firearm violence.

Of course, not everyone is down with this sort of investment in the country’s infrastructure, but for those who are looking for ways to reduce criminal violence that don’t involve either (1) further criminalizing people (for the liberals) or (2) targeting guns in general (for the pro-gun side), this approach to place-based root cause mitigation has some great potential.

4 thoughts on “Place-Based Interventions as Root Cause Violence Mitigation

    • I’d be interested to see how broadly “non-firearm violence” was applied. Did they include aggravated versus simple assaults, for instance?

      Ah, they did not:

      “These data included the dates and address locations of six outcomes: gun assaults, burglaries, robberies and thefts, narcotics possession, sales and trafficking, and nuisances.”

      Which means that their conclusion, “Neither program significantly affected non-firearm violence.” isn’t actually born out by their data, as they didn’t actually measure “non-firearm” violence outside of Robbery.

      Though I’d bet that dropped as well, probably more so given the ration between firearm and other assaults. But still, why not compare apples to apples?

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I see the photos of vacant land reclamation, and I see how that can be beneficial, both from increasing the appearance of order and removing some concealment opportunities. What steps did they take with buildings? Short of adding tenants abandoned buildings will remain abandoned and be used for all sorts of nefarious purposes.

    Liked by 1 person

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