Chronic exposure to neighborhood violence, crime, and incivilities can profoundly affect health and quality of life. There is evidence that fear of crime has more powerful effects on quality of life than actual crime experiences; fear of crime is associated with heightened stress, anxiety, and depression. Since the 1980’s, Flint, MI has been burdened with unemployment, poverty, vacant land, and crime rates that exceed national and statewide averages. Community gardens and beautification projects are one way in which Flint residents have reclaimed abandoned land to produce food, create places of beauty, and act as catalysts for community participation. In the early 2000’s, a mixed-method participatory research study was conducted in Flint on the effects of neighborhood community gardening and beautification projects. Qualitative interviews were conducted with 52 key informants in four case study neighborhoods with neighborhood organizations participating in community gardening. Interview transcripts, observation notes and photographs were coded with a standardized codebook and analyzed using comparative case study methods. In addition, 1,916 residents participated in a neighborhood survey. Pathways between community gardening and fear of crime were analyzed using multi-level structural equation modeling controlling for individual and block group demographics, and average neighborhood perceptions of crime and physical environment.
Results and Conclusions
Analysis of interviews, observation notes, and photographs revealed characteristics of the case study community gardens that fit the definition of defensible spaces, including symbolic barriers and surveillance features. Gardeners and neighbors displayed evidence of territorial appropriation of and informal social control in the garden sites and other places in the neighborhoods such as parks, vacant lots and unoccupied houses. Beautification and gardening activities created noticeable changes not only on the garden lots but throughout the neighborhoods. Participants in the community gardens described increased social support. Gardeners linked the gardens with reduced aggression in the neighborhood and felt that gardens were “peaceful” and “soul-soothing” places. Survey analysis revealed that participating in community gardening and beautification was significantly associated with reduced fear of crime (OR:0.77; p=0.03). The structural equation modeling demonstrated that fear of crime was fully mediated through social support (OR:0.72; p=0.00) and informal social control (OR:0.83; p=0.03). Participation in community gardening was also strongly associated with feeling responsible for neighborhood upkeep (OR:1.99; p=0.00). In conclusion, we found that participation in community gardening and beautification projects transformed abandoned vacant property into green defensible spaces, facilitated the development of territorial appropriation and social ties, and resulted in lowering participants’ fear of crime.