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Study looks at relationship between crime/environmental factors

Written by Kim Furlow, communications manager for the Institute for Public Health


Is there a relationship between vacancy and violent crime in the City of St. Louis? Yes, according to one study conducted by the Public Health Data and Training Center at the Institute for Public Health and the St. Louis Area Violence Prevention Commission. The study is currently featured in the journal, Criminal Justice Review.

The team recently looked into areas with high vacancy within the City of St. Louis and their relationship to violent crime compared to other environmental factors. Investigator Branson Fox says, “Considering violence as a public health issue, rather than just a criminal offense, offers a new intervention strategy. It’s less about policing people and more about understanding and revitalizing neighborhoods where violence occurs.”

Photo: Dan Meyers on Unsplash

The study explored “the relationship of the environment—particularly vacancy—to homicide and aggravated assault.” Fox says the team used “risk terrain modeling”, a respected method for comparing environmental factors to concentration of crime. According to the study, “vacancy of buildings and lots stood out as the largest and most consistent risk factor for homicide and aggravated assault. Areas near vacant lots in North St. Louis had a 10 times higher rate of homicide.” The study also looked at vacant areas in South St. Louis City. Being in close proximity to public housing carries the greatest risk for homicide, the study found, followed by vacant buildings, ATMs and vacant lots.

What outcomes did the study hope to achieve? According to Fox, “We hope to emphasize the high social costs and burden of vacancy and to begin targeting vacancy remediation tactics to reduce violence.” The study cited remediation interventions tested in Philadelphia that led to a significant decrease in violent crime. These interventions including greening of vacant lots, and lot maintenance (weeding, mowing, keeping structures like fences and benches operational,) which could be effective in St. Louis, and should be tested.

The City of St. Louis should also consider this evidence when making decisions about ongoing demolitions, which are often touted as a violence prevention strategy. The team put together this research brief to include specific recommendations for policy makers. According to Fox: “Given that vacant lots explain a greater proportion of risk in the north, it is likely that lot intervention may offer greater benefit. In contrast, a greater proportion of violent crime was explained by vacant housing in the south, suggesting the effectiveness of demolition efforts over lot remediation.”

Read the research brief entitled, “Assessing the Differential Impact of Vacancy on Criminal Violence in the City of St. Louis, MO”, authored by Branson Fox, Anne Trolard, Mason Simmons, Jessica E. Meyers, and Matt Vogel.