What’s in a fence? More than you’d think. How about this where neighborhoods where as little as about $1,000 was spent transforming a vacant lot with some grass, a few trees, and a short wooden fence, people felt less depressed and less worthless. Dr. Eugenia C. South, is one of the authors on a new study that tracked hundreds of vacant lots across Philadelphia that finds the cost is relatively inexpensive compared to other types of interventions you might do for health. The impact was even more pronounced in participants living below the poverty line. Even at the scale of a vacant lot, simply seeing greenery can make us feel better, even reducing feelings of worthlessness by 50% and depression by 40%. How about that?
Note: The study, published in JAMA Network Open by a group of five doctors at the University of Pennsylvania including South, is the first to observe a cause and effect between access to “greened” vacant lots and improved mental health through a randomized controlled trial. Their research paints a vivid picture of how our neighborhoods impact our well-being and provides new evidence for why cities should be investing in low-cost but high-impact design interventions like lot greening in blighted neighborhoods.
What’s so fascinating about their research–beyond observing a direct link between mental health and green space–is that the “greening” itself was extremely limited. The Horticultural Society spends between $1,000 and $3,000 on each project and greens about 400 lots every year. The group clears away trash, razes the ground, plants some grass and maybe a couple trees, and then adds a low wooden fence, which seems to visually symbolize that the space as cared-for and invested-in. “Fences were originally installed to discourage short dumping of construction debris, a common occurrence on many blighted lots,” the group explains. “The wooden post-and-rail fence is not intended to keep people out of the lots, but rather to define the perimeter and signal that the lot is a well-maintained property and part of a citywide program. The fence has become the ‘brand’ of the Philadelphia LandCare program.” The group doesn’t install benches, paths, or swing sets, nor did the study didn’t look at whether people nearby used the green lots–just that they were exposed to them.
Other cities are working to create policy programs that leverage vacant land. Chicago, for instance, has a program called Large Lots that lets residents buy vacant lots near their homes for $1. The program has seen more than 1,200 lots sold since 2014, many to residents who say they were already caring for the vacant lots before they bought them and many of which serve as ad hoc parklands, gardens, or event spaces. Researchers from the University of Illinois are studying the impact the program is having on Chicago communities.