Could planting trees be the next crime control strategy?

Trees don't just beautify neighborhoods; they also reduce crime.

Downtown Baltimore, Md., from a pagoda in Patterson Park. (Phil Gold/Flickr)

"Ugliness is so grim," urban beautification advocate Lady Bird Johnson once said. "A little beauty, something that is lovely, I think, can help create harmony which will lessen tensions."

Though criticized for her efforts (some suggested her projects were merely "cosmetic"), Lady Bird Johnson may have been on to something after all. Trees, according to a new study published in Landscape and Urban Planning, don't just beautify neighborhoods; they also reduce crime.

The study, funded by the Forest Service and the National Science Foundation, compared crime data to tree cover in particular neighborhoods across Baltimore and Baltimore County, Md, between 2007 and 2010. The results, which could serve as a 21st century counterpart of the "Broken Windows" theory introduced in 1982 by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, demonstrate a striking correlation between criminal activity and the number of trees in a neighborhood.

"In the tree world, we call it the 'empty tree pit' theory," said J. Morgan Grove, one of the study's co-authors in an interview with the Baltimore Sun. "If you have trees in the pits ... they're symbols of the fact that the neighborhood is cared about. ... If they see you breaking into someone's car, they're going to call the cops."

Having that tree cover, and the neighborhood presence that comes along with it, can mean striking changes from one neighborhood to the next. In one area, for example, a 10 percent increase in the density tree canopy went hand in hand with a 12 percent drop in reported crime. These statistics are a far cry from comprehensive crime-control strategy. They do, however, deliver welcome support for advocates, like the late Lady Bird Johnson, who saw the compound interest that could be derived from "something that is lovely."

[Baltimore Sun]

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