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Sow the earth

Crime decreases when ecologists plant wildflowers in vacant lots.

Three million hectares of land within cities in North America sit abandoned, vacant. To call a place vacant implies a sense of hollowness, a negative emptying that resigns it to the indifferent deterioration of time. Such liminal spaces often do not – as we would like to believe – form a bland buffer zone between the rough seams of urban blight and the triumphal glass of downtown hotspots. Rather, the malformations of human character often rise up in sharpest relief when pushed out to these zones of apparent nothingness. The physical abandonment correlates to a much more devastating sociological one – the erosion of hope.  

Vacant lots remind us, bluntly, of what happens when humans transform landscapes and then neglect them. In ecological terms, these environments have undergone significant long-term disturbance: forests razed, prairies plowed up, wetlands drained to make smooth canvases for industrial and urban activity. Once industry leaves, cities depopulate or factories close, the buildings that replaced the trees face their own moments of destruction, but the ground remains. The soil might contain remnants of toxic chemicals and heavy metals, suffer compaction from machinery, and lack organic matter. These contribute to water runoff in severe storms and potential flooding. 

This deadened crust of ground also serves as the perfect substrate for invasive species like crabgrass to colonize, choking out any hope of return by native plants. As a final aesthetic affront, vacant lots seem to serve as magnets for the detritus we all too easily disassociate from in our everyday trash disposal: snagged shopping bags flapping in plastic ghost hands, crumpled cigarette boxes, marooned birthday balloons and discarded take-out boxes.

Grass, trees and low fences
The most immediate reaction to such “eyesores” – when those who do not have to face such sores on a daily basis finally notice the itch – is to reclaim these fragments in the name of “revitalization.” This usually translates, in practice, to expensive showcase projects that satisfy our cravings for fairy tale transformation. However, as reported in Science magazine by Roni Dengler, a recent study headed by Charles Branas, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, suggests a stunningly simple alternative to this stale and sorry gentrification saga. 

Branas and co-researchers assigned a random sample of more than 500 vacant lots in Philadelphia to two treatments: some were unchanged, but at some lots, local landscape contractors spent two months removing trash, replanting grass and trees, and constructing low fences around the areas. According to police records collected over the next three years, the lowest income neighborhoods that created such miniature parks experienced a nearly 30 percent drop in gun violence. Residents also reported a greater sense of safety (an increase of 58 percent) and leisure use of the lot space (up by 76 percent). 

While contractors in Philadelphia used generalized grass mix to reseed, Chris Swan, an ecologist at the University of Maryland, takes a different approach. His multi-year project utilizes combinations of native seed plants (selected for their poor-soil tolerance) to restore some biodiversity to Baltimore’s 14,000 vacant lots. When neighbours complained about the “weeds,” Swan decided to use only shorter plants to avoid an “unkempt” look.

Practiced resurrection
Regardless of which neighborhood one lives in, a crucial aspect of ecological restoration is letting go. When we categorize native flowers as “weeds” and uproot them with the same ferocity as crabgrass, we devoid ecosystems of their essential complexity. Once liberated from stifling micromanagement – and aided by biologically informed reseeding protocols – previously “dead” land can, once again, be a foundation for life. One supporter of Swan’s project, Joy Ross, noted, “I’m a country girl, so it’s cool to see Echinacea [coneflowers]. There’s a swallowtail! There’s lightning bugs! You didn’t see that before.” 

Vacancy is not a neutral state of existence. A vacant lot can be a neglected eyesore, a crew-cut concrete-smooth slab of mono-cultured grass, or a writhing, flowered slice of experimental “urban renewal.” This very same dead ground is the stuff from which we are formed, into which God breathes, which he calls us to restore. Rather than violent shadows and shame, this work would bear the fruit of practiced resurrection: the ethereal unfurling of petals, the phosphorescent winks of fireflies, and the gossamer wind of butterfly wings.  

Read More About Crime-Fighting Gardens:
CityLab, February 7, 2018: bit.ly/2uUMiqS

  • Jennie has a degree in animal biology, loves learning unfamiliar words, and is extremely fond of God’s gift of chocolate. She lives in Zeeland, MI.

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