We know that abandoned lots dampen a neighborhood’s economic attractiveness, scaring away prospective tenants and investors. But what about their impact on our health? Is that affected as well?
It might be. Research finds that poorly-kept areas can raise our stress levels and lead to other adverse effects, offering further reasons to invest in inner-city turnarounds. “There is increasing evidence to show that our environments do affect our health,” says Gina South, a physician in the school of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “Urban planners really need to consider that as we intervene in places. Cities like Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia all have high rates of vacant land and that really impacts the health of people living in those neighborhoods.”
South led a recent study looking at two run-down parts of Philadelphia. One group of lots received a “greening treatment” from the Philadelphia Horticulture Society, which includes clearing away trash, planting grass and trees, and putting up a wooden rail fence. The other, control, group was left as it is.
Volunteers were strapped with chest-strap heart rate monitors and wrist GPS devices, so their reactions could be tied to location. The researchers found that heart rates changed little as participants passed control lots, but decreased by between five and 15 beats per minute (depending on the measurement method) as they passed the greened lots.
“The reduction in heart rate suggests a biological link between vacant lot greening and reduction in acute stress,” says a paper discussing the findings.
The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, was small-scale: only 12 people completed the walks, seven past the greened site, five at the control. But South is confident in the experiment and thinks it the results will be replicated in a much larger study that she and her colleagues are conducting in the same city.
“If that turns out the way we think it will, vacant lot greening really will be [proven to be a] low cost intervention cities can take to impact health and safety for a lot of residents,” she says.
More broadly, South’s work shows how we can use technology to map living spaces for their impact, not just for their physical characteristics. That surely will become a bigger feature of design and planning in the future, as we’ll want to know how places make us feel, not simply what they can do for us functionally.