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Can greener grass, cleaner buildings, and more art curb crime? Denver neighbors (and research) say yes

Mural in Athmar Park neighborhood
Posted at 9:43 AM, Mar 17, 2024

DENVER — Kacie Warner was one of many neighbors who decided enough was enough.

“It was just a vacant wasteland. It was garbage,” Warner said, standing on what is today the Tennessee Trail in Denver’s Athmar Park neighborhood. “We had neighborhood clean-ups. We found needles, broken glass, dumped trash. It was just a real deficit to the neighborhood.”

For years, the Tennessee Trail wasn’t much of a trail at all. Largely vacant land beneath Xcel Energy power lines, Warner and her neighbors watched as it became filled with weeds and trash. Crime accompanied the eyesores, Warner said.

So, she spearheaded the Tennessee Trail clean-up project—taming the grass and weeds, picking up the large amounts of trash that had accumulated, and creating a new walking trail lined with public art and pages from children’s books. The vision, Warner said, was to create a safer and happier way for neighborhood kids to get to and from school.

“We’ve been planting trees, putting in perennial shrubs, planting bulbs,” Warner said. “These really small-scale improvements make a big difference.”

The fresh greenery and vibrant art certainly did make a big difference to the aesthetic of the Athmar Park neighborhood—a benefit that was hard-earned, but also expected by the neighbors behind the effort. But, the improved beauty also seemed to have a secondary effect that they were not expecting, but that has been even more meaningful. It made them feel safer in their neighborhood, too.

“An officer from Denver District 7 came out, stopped by, and said, ‘You know, this is just anecdotally but I used to get calls out to this space all of the time, and it’s been real quiet out here. Since you all put in this walking and biking trail, we barely get any calls out to this space now,’” Warner recalled.

As it turns out, the anecdotes reflect the data available from Denver Police. In 2020, Athmar Park had four murders. There were another four in 2021 and one in 2022. And in 2023, with the Tennessee Trail project complete, there were none. Property crime has fallen, too.

Can greener grass, cleaner buildings, and more art curb crime? Denver neighbors (and research) say yes

“It makes a difference when you just have community eyes on a place,” Warner said. “I just think that having that shared buy-in of the space makes people care about it more, and we don’t see the negative behaviors that we saw before.”

To be sure, correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. But, there has been a good deal of correlation across the country with beautified spaces becoming safer spaces—so much so, it’s grabbed the attention of researchers.

Dr. Charles Branas, a Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University, has dedicated much of his energy and career to searching for solutions to gun violence. He has spent a decade now working with other researchers to fund treatments of abandoned land and vacant buildings in cities across the country, and then monitor changes in gun violence.

“When you do green, vacant lots and you improve abandoned buildings and housing, gun violence goes down by a very significant amount,” Dr. Branas explained. “The return on those investments is immense. And we’ve actually been able to quantify that for every dollar you put in, you get hundreds of dollars back in gun violence prevention alone.”

Dr. Branas’s research affirmed what Kacie Warned noticed with her neighborhood, that as it became more beautiful her neighbors became more aware and engaged with its safety. That is a key explanation behind the correlation behind reductions in crime, Dr. Branas said. He also said unkept buildings and lots can become storage sites for illicit guns.

To this point, Dr. Brana’s research has looked into the treatment of vacant land and the fixing up of abandoned buildings. There is not yet, the same body of research behind public art installations and their effects on crime. Dr. Branas has a hunch, however, that future studies will find an amplifying effect when art is included in neighborhood projects.

“What they do is they bring community together,” Dr. Branas said. “I’m hoping that some next-generation scientist is going to step up and really put those to the test as well, and see if they do have the same impact on gun violence prevention.”

If there is someone who needs no convincing on that front, it’s Pat Milbery. You may not recognize Milbery passing by him on the street, but if you travel through the Denver area you have likely passed by many of his works. He’s been hired for several public projects, including the tribute to Robin Williams in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, the “Love the City” series, and the entire block in front of the Denver City and County building.

For the block in front of the City and County building, Milbery chose to invite the entire community to come out and participate.

“We had roughly 350 people come help us paint that entire city block, right in front on Bannock, to create a pedestrian space and to make it more approachable, bright, friendly,” Milbery said.

That connection, Milbery believes, is why bringing art and beauty to our neighborhood is so powerful. It’s why he and Dr. Branas, and Kacie Warner all hope our community leaders take notice.

“You’re involving people. You’re involving the voice. You’re holding the souls. You’re holding the hearts. You’re allowing people to feel a part of something bigger than themselves,” Milbery said. “When you’re able to generate that type of synergy between people, that’s called building community.”

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