A Cost-Effective Way to Treat Depression: Greening Vacant Lots

Before: An empty lot in Philadelphia / JAMA Open Network
After: A Green lot in Philadelphia / JAMA Open Network

A tree, some grass, a low wooden fence, regular maintenance. With these basic elements, an unloved, vacant lot can be transformed from being a visual blight and drain on a community into a powerful booster of mental health.

According to a new study by five doctors at the University of Pennsylvania, residents of low-income communities in Philadelphia who saw their vacant lots greened by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society experienced “significant decreases” in feelings of depression and worthlessness. And this positive change happened for just $1,500 per lot.

For lead author Dr. Eugenia South and her co-authors, this is a clear indication that the physical environment impacts our mental health. And planning and design offers a cost-effective way to fight mental illness in light of the sky-rocketing costs of doctor and emergency room visits and drug prescriptions.

In many low-income communities, vacant and dilapidated spaces are “unavoidable conditions that residents encounter every day, making the very existence of these spaces a constant source of stress.” Furthermore, these neighborhoods with vacant lots, trash, and “lack of quality infrastructure such as sidewalks and parks, are associated with depression and are factors that that may explain the persistent prevalence of mental illness.”

Conversely, neighborhoods that feel cared for — that are well-maintained, free of trash and run-down lots, and offer access to green spaces — are associated with “improved mental health outcomes, including less depression, anxiety, and stress.”

This means that cleaning up empty lots in low-income communities can potentially buffer the negative mental impacts of living in a low-income neighborhood.

Some 541 vacant lots were studied in the trial. One third of these lots were greened; one third just had their trash cleaned up; and one third experienced no change. The researchers only included lots that were less than 5,500 square feet, had significant blight — “illegal dumping, abandoned cars, and/or unmanaged vegetation” — and been abandoned by their owners.

Lots in the study / JAMA Open Network

Each lot selected for greening underwent a “standard, reproducible process” that involved “removing trash and debris, grading the land, planting new grass and a small number of trees, installing a low wooden perimeter fence with openings, and performing regular maintenance.” Cleaned-up lots saw their their garbage removed; they were also mowed and given regular maintenance.

Some 342 people who lived in neighborhoods near these lots agreed to have their mental health assessed both before and after the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society intervened. After choosing an address closest to the lots, teams of researchers fanned out across Philly, selecting participants at random, who were given $25 to complete a survey that took 40 minutes on average.

“Participants were asked to indicated how often they felt nervous, hopeless, restless, depressed, that everything was an effort, and worthless using the following scale: all of the time, most of the time, more than half the time, less than half the time, some of the time, or no time.”

South and her co-authors contend that greening lots was associated with a “significant reduction in feeling depressed and worthless as well as a non-significant reduction in overall self-reported poor mental health.” The trash clean-up alone didn’t lead to any reduction in negative feelings.

In Philly, greening a lot cost just $1,500 and required around $180 in maintenance a year. In other cities and communities with significant amounts of blight, that amount would likely be a lot less.

Beyond the mental health gains, greening lots can increase “community cohesion, social capital, and collective efficacy.” Given the many associated benefits, greening lots in low-income communities is a no-brainer.

4 thoughts on “A Cost-Effective Way to Treat Depression: Greening Vacant Lots

  1. Beth Kelley 08/15/2018 / 4:35 pm

    Reblogged this on Mental Flowers and commented:
    This is yet another great example of how adding some intentional green can go a long way in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression in urban areas. From the article:
    “In many low-income communities, vacant and dilapidated spaces are “unavoidable conditions that residents encounter every day, making the very existence of these spaces a constant source of stress.” Furthermore, these neighborhoods with vacant lots, trash, and “lack of quality infrastructure such as sidewalks and parks, are associated with depression and are factors that that may explain the persistent prevalence of mental illness.”
    Conversely, neighborhoods that feel cared for — that are well-maintained, free of trash and run-down lots, and offer access to green spaces — are associated with “improved mental health outcomes, including less depression, anxiety, and stress.””
    Personally, I would love to see a study about the different effects and impacts of having community gardens or community involvement in the development of the green spaces vs. an independent team coming in to a space and cleaning it up. There is value in both approaches, for sure.

  2. William Sullivan 08/16/2018 / 7:06 am

    Once again, lovely article, Jared. This is a powerful new study that uses an impressive research design to demonstrate another positive impact of what landscape architects do every day. What’s so interesting here is that these positive impacts came at very little expense and without any sophisticated design. Nice work!

  3. Allyce Hargrove, ASLA 08/23/2018 / 12:07 pm

    As a professor of landscape architecture who teaches about the benefits of biophilic design and urban nature, and who regularly works with students in low-income, vulnerable neighborhoods, I find nearly everything about this article extraordinarily depressing. As seen in this article, the narrow thinking about what constitutes ‘green’ space and what ‘nature’ is only perpetuates a much bigger problem. I am in absolute agreement with the principles, intent, and conclusion of this study; that green space is beneficial to health and well-being, that low income and vulnerable communities desperately need green space, and that vacant lots pose a tremendous opportunity to integrate green space and nature into the city. But the way in which this was done in Philadelphia makes me want to cry.

    In an age when urban resilience, urban nature, ecosystem services, and equity should be at the forefront of our thought and action, the “solution” to greening low-income neighborhoods should have evolved far beyond this: turf, single tree, fence. Does anybody really believe that this is green? Imagine the amount of biodiversity and habitat (before photo) that was destroyed to make way for the so-called improvement, as shown in the after photo. Just read the work of Joan Nassauer, Richard Louv, and Michael Pollan, or watch Emma Marris’ TED Talk on the need for nature in the city and you will understand why this approach is all wrong…it is overly simplistic and narrowly focused on a single benefit. The captions on the before and after photo say it all.

    Before: An empty lot in Philadelphia.
    –Empty? It was full of countless things we will never understand because now it is gone.

    After: A green lot in Philadelphia.
    –What?? The only thing green about it is the color.

    If someone had taken a moment to understand and appreciate the biological diversity and richness of that vacant lot before it was bladed to make way for a monoculture of turf, I’m certain they would have found an enormous resource and opportunity, rather than seeing it as simply blight. I believe the enormity of the opportunity that was missed cannot be overstated. Sure, there was trash, sure it was wild, sure it was unkempt. But how could that lot (and the 177 others like it) have been transformed instead into a nature parklet, a pollinator garden, a tranquil, truly green space that would have been just as therapeutic and beneficial to mental health and well-being, without destroying what was beautiful, magical, joyful, and wild about the place. What could have been achieved with that $1500 per lot that enhanced the nature of the city rather than destroying it?

    This doesn’t even begin to express the lost opportunity to provide low-income city children access to nature, which they have very little (if any) access to. The lack of nature spaces for exploration and unstructured play for city kids is an enormous challenge that everyone working to improve the human and ecological condition in cities should be thinking about.

    That The Dirt should celebrate this effort as a success without critically challenging the method is truly disheartening. I question whether a landscape architect was even involved in this effort. Through the reporting of this project, The Dirt has not only perpetuated misconceptions about what is green, but it has also celebrated a project that, in all likelihood, did not even involve a landscape architect. Because I have to believe that if a landscape architect had been involved, or even consulted, the approach would have been much different.

    Shouldn’t we be working to develop models that benefit people without destroying the existing ecology? Shouldn’t we promote green space that is functional, produces edibles, preserves habitat for birds and pollinators, manages stormwater, mitigates urban heat, and that is part of a broader social and ecological solution? Shouldn’t we be concerned with developing spaces that go beyond the decorative? I don’t know any landscape architect who would answer ‘no’ to these questions. In a time when the world needs landscape architects more than ever to solve complex social, technical, and ecological problems, we should be doing a much better job of promoting the critical importance of our profession, and helping the world see us as valid, relevant, and essential to the kinds of efforts like this study in Philadelphia. We can do a lot better than this.

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