How Investing in Social Infrastructure can Actually Reduce Crime and Increase Life Expectancy
Think about your neighborhood. Are there sidewalks? How about any coffee shops, diners, or public libraries to visit? Do you recall interacting with your neighbors more than twice a week when out and about on your daily routine? You can tell a lot about a neighborhood solely by looking at its accessible places for people to congregate or bump into one another. Spaces like these are crucial for the wellbeing of community members, especially in urban and low-income areas.
Places to gather in your neighborhood matter, and there are a myriad of beneficial effects of creating green spaces out of vacant lots, or having a public library downtown. Parks, schools, libraries, and even sidewalks are all examples of social infrastructure, places that tie communities together and inevitably drive social relationships.
Social infrastructure sustains healthy communities as well as create ones. Sociologist and NYU Professor, Eric Klinenberg, writes in his recently published book, Palaces for the People, about the 1995 Chicago heat wave. Not only did lower income communities of color disproportionately suffer severe health issues, but among those communities, those lacking viable social infrastructure suffered the worst with—33 out of every 100,000 deaths due to heat related illnesses compared to socioeconomically similar communities with a rate of only 3 deaths per 100,000 people. Klinenberg concluded that communities where neighbors saw each other frequently, whether getting a coffee, sitting at a nearby park, or walking down a busy street with shops, were likely to check in on one another during the heatwave and look after people who lived alone—ultimately saving people’s lives.
The 1980s saw a rise in urban decay, as law enforcement cracked down on petty crime and left communities broken. The “Broken Windows” tactic, popularized during that time, incentivized police officers to give out summonses and citations for minor offenses, as a means of preventing more serious crime. The policy was counterproductive in improving neighborhoods because it only served to worsen them. This oppressive and unscrupulous practice continues to burden impoverished people as well as feed tension between community members and the police.
Instead of this negative and consequential use of energy, cities and neighborhoods should just fix the broken window. Transforming a once forgotten and abandoned lot can significantly decrease persistent crime. In a study conducted by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, researchers found that by clearing trash and debris from an abandoned lot, planting new grass, and growing a garden can decrease crime by up to 29 percent.
In addition to public spaces lowering crime rates, the new gardens were even good for passerbys’ mental health. In a study published by JAMA Network Open in July 2018, researchers found that the green spaces eased community members depression and they reported feeling safer in their neighborhood.
Low income neighborhoods have a disproportionate amount of underfunded infrastructure, and old corner spots where people can hang out run out of business, with cities abandoning them as just another empty lot. This fails people living in these communities, and when a low-budget project like creating a public garden can have exponential health benefits for community members, it makes sense to invest in social spaces. The fixed window method offers opportunities and viability that saves lives.
Social infrastructure is vital for a healthy community. It’s time the state and federal government start putting money into underfunded neighborhoods so that there is an emphasis on the benefits of interpersonal relationships and human connection through our shared spaces.
Jessica Dresch is a sophomore Culture and Communication major who loves finding a shady spot at the park for picnics.