Vast stretches of North Philadelphia’s Sharswood community bear the scars: Vacant lots strewn with tires and trash; abandoned houses whose broken windows stare out like empty eyes; entire blocks where few houses remain standing. Decades of population loss, business disinvestment, and government neglect have left this and other Philadelphia communities suffering the debilitating affects of abandonment.

And while there are fledgling signs of development in Sharswood and neighborhoods like it, the truth is that these neighborhoods have fallen so far that it will take years to bring them back.

An abandoned property at 2305 Sharswood St. (Photo by Solomon Jones)

An abandoned property at 2305 Sharswood St. (Photo by Solomon Jones)

As I laid out in AxisPhilly’s Abandoned series, which illustrated Sharswood’s decades-long fall from a place of beauty, the abandonment problem is multi-faceted. Philadelphia’s estimated 40,000 vacant parcels are not only blighted properties.  They are places where criminals hide guns and drugs. They are places where brothels and drug dens arise. And where abandonment is concentrated, as shown in this AxisPhilly Vacancy Map, poverty rates are higher, and communities fail.

In a city that already has the highest rate of deep poverty of any large city in the country, we have abandoned much more than houses. We have abandoned schools– 23 of them have been shuttered in the last year alone. We have abandoned commerce–167,000 manufacturing jobs left the city between 1967 and 1987. We have, in many cases abandoned hope. In order to stem the tide of abandonment, we must embrace solutions that are less expensive and more effective than what we’ve done in the past, and we must begin the process now. Philadelphia has tried to address vacancy through labor intensive and expensive government programs.

The Street Administration’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI) made a $295 million investment in tearing down dilapidated buildings and cleared blight in many neighborhoods including Sharswood. But the new development that was supposed to come in its wake was inconsistent.

The Nutter administration’s Vacant Property Strategy, which was launched in 2011, leans on hauling property owners into court. Thus far, the city has collected $834,000 in permit, license or property certification fees, and the courts have assessed $786,000 in fines and judgments.

Despite these efforts, large parts of communities like Sharswood resemble war zones.   There is a better way to address vacancy. It requires only minimal public investment compared to larger programs carried out by city agencies. It has proven to be effective, as a study by the University of Pennsylvania illustrates. Best of all, it’s simple.

The program is called Philadelphia LandCare , and it’s run by an unlikely entity—the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Famous mostly for its annual Flower Show, the society has been a force in greening Philadelphia neighborhoods for more than 50 years.

Since its inception as a citywide program in 2003, the LandCare program has cleaned and greened 8,600 vacant lots at an average cost of $1 to $1.25 per square foot. It maintains the lots at a cost of two cents-per-square-foot each year. Its annual budget averages about $2.5 million—money that is largely provided by the Office of Housing and Community Development.

I’ve seen the organization’s work in neighborhoods like Sharswood: Green lots with leafy trees and simple wood fencing; meticulously maintained areas that are litter and graffiti free. The overall effect is, in a word, transformative. That transformation needs to be implemented citywide, and from a budget perspective, it’s not a farfetched idea.

A lot at 23rd and Jefferson St. in Sharswood after work by Philadelphia LandCare (Photo by Solomon Jones)

A lot at 23rd and Jefferson St. in Sharswood after work by Philadelphia LandCare (Photo by Solomon Jones)

“The cost of transforming 20,000 more vacant lots would be $32 million, with another $4 million devoted to annual maintenance,” said Philadelphia Horticultural Society Director Bob Grossmann. “For 30,000 landscape installations the total cost would be $48 million with another $5.5 million devoted to annual maintenance.”

In neighborhoods like Sharswood, where longtime residents have watched houses die as surely as the owners who once lived there, that cost is a pittance compared to the price of abandonment and the crime that it breeds. That’s part of the reason that the Brewerytown Sharswood Community Civic Association has worked in collaboration with the Philadelphia LandCare program. Cleaning and greening lots like the one at 23rd and Jefferson Streets reduces the places where crime can hide. It’s a fact borne out by statistics.

In an analysis published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2011, Charles C. Branas, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology and director of the Penn Cartographic Modeling Lab, established a correlation between the program’s greening of lots and reductions in crime. In lots that had been greened, gun related crimes were down seven-to-eight percent. The reasons were many, and they were rooted in common sense. A vacant lot that is cleared of trash, weeds and debris is a more difficult place to hide a gun. Criminals are less comfortable carrying out their activities in open space. But there is one thing more. Neighbors feel a sense of ownership, and they become more invested in maintaining the space.

This is by design, Philadelphia LandCare Project Manager Keith Green said in an interview at the offices of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

“When this program first started I was under the impression that you had to fence off everything to keep people out because that’s what we had done for years,” Green said. “This program actually invites people in and by inviting people in they kind of take some form of ownership and then they won’t let people destroy it. In the past when you had like a community garden, only the people on the block wanted to watch over it, whereas on these sites, not only do the people on the block walk through them or use them. Everybody in the neighborhood uses them. So then it becomes like a neighborhood investment. So to me that kind of empowers the neighborhood.”

A city where vacancy is rampant can benefit greatly from that kind of empowerment. When communities feel that they have a stake in the land around them, people behave differently. Crime is reduced.  In a community like Sharswood, which is in the midst of the 22nd Police District—the second most violent district in the city—greening lots is about much more than beautification. It’s about saving lives.

Still, the LandCare program is not a cure all for communities with overwhelming abandonment, said PHS Director Bob Grossmann. “It’s part of the answer. This program is funded through OHCD and it’s seen as a community development tool to work in conjunction with other community development tools. So we work with community partners, CDCs, neighborhood organizations, to supplement other kinds of work and other kinds of investment that are happening in neighborhoods. So it has great impact when it’s taken in collaboration with other kinds of investment.”

The investment must start somewhere, and there is no better place to begin than with the abandoned lots that have turned huge portions of communities like Sharswood into wastelands.

We can do better than that.

And since we now know there is a correlation between the presence of vacant lots and the proliferation of violent crime, we must do better than that. So here is the challenge: Philadelphia LandCare has targeted 10 of the city’s most blighted neighborhoods over the next two years. Their ability to transform the vacant lots in those communities will require an estimated $8 million in funding. We need to find that money.

Doing so could be the first step in ending Philadelphia’s decades long cycle of abandonment, poverty and crime. It’s a step that’s well worth taking.