Cleaning Up Vacant Lots Can Curb Urban Crime by John Macdonald, Charles Branas

Scholars who study urban problems are well aware of the powerful role that “place” has in shaping crime; they understand that the two are tightly coupled.[1] In the 19th century, André-Michel Guerry and Adolphe Quetelet found that crime in France was concentrated in the same places, and remained remarkably stable in those same areas, year after year. A century later, University of Chicago sociologists Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay noted that the crime was highly concentrated by place in Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Richmond, Virginia.[2] Even today, we continue to see a small number of particular locations in every major city generate the majority of serious crime.[3]
Hebrew University criminologist David Weisburd has referred to this empirical reality as the “law of crime concentration.”[4] In Philadelphia, for example, 5% of addresses where a crime was reported from January 2006 to December 2017 accounted for 50% of all crime in the city.[5] Given this reality, it makes sense to think about what changes we can make to curb these pockets of crime that exist in every major city.
The concentration of poverty, dilapidated homes, and vacant and abandoned spaces is endemic in urban pockets of crime.[6] Targeted community economic development would seem to be a natural solution. But there are few examples of policies that cities can enact in the short term to reduce poverty and decades of neglect in certain neighborhoods or communities, while at the same time protecting against sudden out-migration by long-term and multigenerational residents. In fact, the history of place-based economic development is not entirely encouraging. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser notes that state and federally funded urban economic development initiatives that target places have generally failed to generate benefits that exceed their costs.
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