Fight City Gun Violence with Better Street Design
Courtney Duchene, The Philadelphia Citizen
One Portland neighborhood reduced gun violence 60 percent by changing traffic patterns and reviving a park. Philly could do that, right?
When Nadine Salama moved into a new apartment building across the street from her daughter’s favorite park in the Mt. Scott-Arleta neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, she was thrilled.
For years, Salama and her 9-year-old shared a home with Salama’s business, Green Tulip Peace & Nature School, a preschool and childcare facility. They were excited to have their own space when they moved in January of 2020. The apartment was only three minutes from Salama’s work.
Then, six months after they moved, there was a shooting across the street from their home.
Salama, who has lived and worked in Mt. Scott-Arleta for 12 years, found herself reassuring her neighbors that this kind of thing wasn’t common in the neighborhood.
But the shootings were becoming more and more common. By summer, Salama says the neighborhood saw five or six shootings each month. “It was something that we were dealing with everyday,” she says. What’s more, shootings that had previously taken place at 1am or midnight now began as early as 6pm.
The shootings were, and are, part of a broader increase in gun violence across the U.S. Last year, Portland experienced its highest number of homicides in three decades. Nationwide, gun violence increased by more than 30 percent during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Here in Philly, there were 562 homicides in 2021. And the city has already seen 632 nonfatal and 160 fatal shootings this year — a nine percent decrease compared to last year, but still nothing to brag about.
Salama noticed her neighborhood’s physical layout made it conducive to drive-by shootings. Mt. Scott Park is next to 72nd Avenue, a major thoroughfare that allows shooters to drive away quickly. Across the street from the park, a church parking lot with five entrances also made for quick escapes.
“[Shooters] would shoot from one side of the road, enter into the parking lot and speed off into our side streets,” she says.
What Salama did next helped reduce gun violence in the neighborhood by 60 percent, NPR reported. Could a similar solution help Philly tackle part of its gun violence problem?
How she did it
As an involved neighbor and preschool owner, Salama started local. She reached out to parents, youth organizations she’d worked with before, and the Mt. Scott-Arleta Neighborhood Association.
Everyone was willing. They decided to work first on reducing access to the church parking lot.
“We didn’t want to lose our community,” Salama says. “We figured the best way to address this would be to start to create obstacles and make it harder for the perpetrators of these acts to get away with them and be able to escape.”
Joel Sommer, pastor with Access Covenant Church, had been renting a small space from the church. Sommer put Salama in contact with the church’s leaders. “When they heard what Nadine was asking for, they immediately sealed off two of the exits” using simple chain barriers, he says.
“My daughter was in her room playing, and we heard, distinctly, gunfire at the end of the road, like towards the park. I didn’t feel safe for my daughter to walk down the stairs to our car by herself because there might be a stray bullet,” says Salama.
Salama then got in touch with Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who runs Portland’s Fire & Rescue, Bureau of Transportation, and Community & Civic Life departments, to see about adding streetlights to the park and implementing speed bumps to slow traffic.
Since 72nd Avenue is commonly used by ambulances and other emergency response vehicles, speed bumps were a nonstarter. Hardesty put Salama in touch with Dr. Jonathan Jay, a Boston University professor who studies how traffic patterns and tree coverage affect gun violence and came to town to meet with Hardesty. Jay met with Salama and Andre Miller, a community justice organizer for the City. Salama showed them around the park and pointed out where bullet casings were being found in the neighborhood.
The trio came up with a plan to convert a nearby slip lane — which allowed cars to turn left without entering the intersection, giving shooters a quick escape route — into a community space. (Residents are currently voting on proposed uses for the space.)
But Salama was looking for more immediate action. She recalls hearing gunshots while cooking dinner in her apartment in September 2021. After the shooting, a car crashed into a fire hydrant as the driver was trying to flee the scene.
“My daughter was in her room playing, and we heard, distinctly, gunfire at the end of the road, like towards the park,” she says. “I didn’t feel safe for my daughter to walk down the stairs to our car by herself because there might be a stray bullet.”
Salama gathered videos of the incident from her neighbors, and pushed Hardesty’s office to take action. The City installed orange traffic barrels printed with “Local access only” on residential streets within the six-block radius of the park, forcing cars to slow down. Within a week, the message had sunk in and they were able to take down the barrels.
“I think we were all shocked as to how quickly it made a huge difference,” Salama says. “Vehicles couldn’t just turn on a whim and speed down any road.”
The next step was reclaiming Mt. Scott Park and the nearby church property as community spaces. Salama worked with neighbors and organizers to plan events in the park. The idea was to have people gather, play music, and bring their children to re-instill a sense of neighborhood pride.
“We had just had a lot of members of the community come out and just occupied the park in a positive way. Fill it with music and joy and happiness,” she says. She soon organized another event in the church parking lot.
Enacting place-based interventions would give neighbors resources to advocate for City interventions — and reclaim their communities …
After these changes, the neighborhood went 57 days without a shooting. More impressive, gun violence decreased by 60 percent — and stayed that way, even as other neighborhoods in Portland have seen an uptick in shootings.
More trees, less trash
It’s not just changing roadways that can have an effect on neighborhood crime and violence.
Research has long noted correlations between gun violence and environmental factors, including the physical condition of neighborhoods. One such researcher: the University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Eugenia South, part of the university’s Urban Health Lab. South and fellow Penn professors Dr. Charles Branas and Dr. John MacDonald worked with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) to randomly select hundreds of vacant lots in Philly to remove trash, plant trees, install post-and-rail fences, and receive regular maintenance.
The study found a significant reduction in gun violence in the neighborhoods whose lots received these interventions, compared to lots where no maintenance was performed. One neighborhood saw a 29 percent drop in crime. Residents living near the cleaned-up lots reported feeling safer and less depressed — and began socializing outside more frequently. PHS has continued to clean and maintain vacant lots through their Philadelphia LandCare program, which now oversees 12,000 lots in the city.
“When I interviewed residents of a neighborhood with significant vacant land, they told me those vacant spaces on their street made them feel neglected. Those spaces overshadowed all the positive things happening on their block, and made it hard to connect with neighbors,” South says in an email.
“This is layered on top of many other structural issues faced by people in neighborhoods with lots of vacant and dilapidated land — concentrated poverty, lack of economic opportunity, police surveillance, failing public schools. All of these combine to create an environment where violence can thrive.”
In another study, South, MacDonald and Dr. Vincent Reina, another Penn researcher, examined the relationship between crime statistics and Philadelphia’s Basic Systems Repair Program (BSRP).
BSRP provides grants of up to $20,000 to eligible low-income homeowners to fund structural repairs, including updates to roofing and electrical, plumbing and heating systems. The study found that home repairs funded by BSRP were associated with a 21.9 percent reduction in neighborhood crime. The more homes that had completed repairs through BSRP, the more profound the reduction.
The Urban Health Lab is now studying whether repairs to abandoned homes can have a similar effect. Though the results aren’t published yet, South says the findings have been promising so far.
When Terrill “Ya Fav Trashman” Haigler first encountered South’s research in 2021, he immediately compared the list of 14 zip codes where the majority of gun violence in Philly occurs with those that rank high on the city’s 2019 litter index. There was a lot of overlap.
“If you live in a cluttered, dirty environment, you start to feel cluttered and dirty,” says the sanitation activist and Generation Change Philly fellow. “If everybody had resources, what would be the need for crime? … There’s no demand for gun violence when everybody has resources. When you live in an environment that’s clean and upbeat, there’s community, there’s chatting. Igniting that sense of pride … goes a long way with shifting behavior and the mindset in the city when it comes to gun violence.”
Now could be the perfect opportunity for Philly to launch a coordinated program to reduce gun violence by improving the environment. City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart and Councilmember Jamie Gauthier have called on Mayor Kenney to address the gun violence crisis with a number of place-based strategies, including increasing Parks & Rec programming in specific zip codes, developing workforces and organizing communities, in addition to more traditional anti-violence tactics. And Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson recently introduced a bill to increase Philly’s tree canopy and create a Philly tree fund.
Cleaning up our neighborhoods, reducing blight and addressing other environmental design factors that contribute to gun violence won’t, on their own, fix the problem. But they could be part of a holistic approach that tackles poverty, mental health issues, educational disparities, and other factors.
Enacting place-based interventions would give neighbors resources to advocate for City interventions — and reclaim their communities, in much the same way Salama did in Mt. Scott-Arleta.
“It’s so important that we approach gun violence and crime through a holistic approach,” Salama says. “And I think environmental design and community involvement have been proven to be quite impactful.”