I’m not sure why I’m attracted to stories of turning blighted urban areas into areas designed to help the residents more self sufficient but I am a sucker for them.
Mother Jones has a photo essay about efforts in Chicago to turn abandoned properties into various agricultural pursuits. There’s been a great deal of talk about the need to address the issue of ‘food deserts’ but the authors argue for urban farming for other reasons: building a sense of community and dignity within the neighborhood and crime reduction.
In 2000, Philadelphia had 54,000 vacant lots, and so the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society reclaimed 4,400 of them, mowing lands, providing upkeep, planting trees and gardens, and erecting three-foot-high fences that served no purpose other than as a kind of statement that this land now belonged to someone…Over the course of 10 years, it reduced shootings in the areas surrounding these renewed lots.
Calls from neighbors complaining of nuisance crimes—acts like loitering or public urination or excessive noise—went up significantly in the immediate vicinity of the newly greened land. At first, Branas worried the land had attracted ne’er-do-wells, but what he came to realize is that it had emboldened neighbors to call the police for minor disturbances, something they hadn’t done in the past.
And this is where I see commonalities between COIN and crime reduction. Call it social exclusion or a lack of legitimacy or not having ‘skin in the game’ but it doesn’t really matter if we’re talking about a village in Afghanistan or the projects in Chicago. People who have some ownership, stability and predictability in their environment and future will work to preserve/improve it. Those who don’t will (at ‘best’) disengage and, at worst, work to spread the decay and rot.
Sudhir Venkatesh described in his most excellent book ‘Gang Leader for a Day‘ which I recommend highly. It seems this is what the Philadelphia Horticultural Society tapped into.
And on that note, David Kilcullen seems to be looking at similar issues through his new company Caerus Associates.
“We can say to open developers and to communities, in the next 20 years, with a very high degree of confidence, this is where the supermarkets need to go, this is where the population’s going to be, this is where the roads need to go. There’s actually an ability to understand what’s coming down the track.” Beyond the commercial benefits of anticipating where to build businesses and infrastructure, handing local populations the tools to map their own lands also carries importance from a social justice perspective. Kilcullen says this empowers civilians to stand up to governments and international corporations that collude to grab land rightfully belonging to the community.
Sounds like a project worth keeping an eye on.