A report by Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan and Massachusetts’ Harvard University says there was an 11-percent drop in homicides and serious injuries caused by firearms in the areas of Detroit where more than a few blight demolitions took place. The study did not find that such incidents went up in nearby neighborhoods.
The analysis was led by Jonathan Jay, a scholar with the Firearm Safety Among Children and Teens coalition, which is based at U-M. He and colleagues combined data from law enforcement on serious assaults and homicides committed with firearms in the areas where demolitions occurred as well as data from the Detroit Demolition Program.
“Firearm assaults in Detroit were already declining during the time of this study, but they went down faster in areas where six or more buildings were demolished,” says Jay. “This is good evidence, and the first we know of, that demolitions are associated with reduced gun violence.”
The clearest decrease in firearm deaths and injuries occurred in areas where six-12 abandoned buildings were demolished in the first 18 months of the program. Areas where fewer buildings were demolished had smaller drops.
Marc Zimmerman of the U-M School of Public Health, who worked on the research and is director of the Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center and co-director of the coalition, says demolitions are part of a cleanup process that show people care and pay attention, leading to increased feelings of safety among residents and increased likelihood of being outside and interacting with neighbors.
“The process of cleaning up neighborhoods can be infectious for creating optimistic feelings and perceptions about the neighborhood, which is a vital first step in making a street busy with positive social interactions,” he says.
However, the effect was not spread evenly across the city. Neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of non-Hispanic white residents were most likely to have the rate of demolition associated with the steepest drop in firearm deaths and injuries.
“This says something about access to political power or other resources, and is problematic,” says Jay.
Also, areas where more than 12 buildings were torn down didn’t see a greater reduction in firearm violence. The researchers don’t have a clear explanation for the phenomenon, but the challenges of physical upkeep in these properties could play a part, says Jay.
Gun violence did not appear to shift from neighborhoods where demolitions took place to nearby areas.
“We often hear that place-based prevention programs simply move the crime elsewhere, but this study and others we have done indicate consistently that such declines do not translate into increases elsewhere,” says Zimmerman. “Place-based change helps reduce opportunities for crime and for negative social interactions and begins to rebuild neighborhoods to be places where people are not afraid to be outside and talk to one another.”
The team hopes the research can inform demolition efforts in other cities.
“Abandoned buildings and vacant overgrown lots are places where violence is more likely to occur and where firearms can be stored,” says Jay. “While demolition removes abandoned buildings, it also creates a vacant lot, so it had not been clear whether demolition would affect neighborhood-level gun violence rates.”
While starting demolitions in areas of higher gun violence may seem the most effective, it will also be important to study how demolitions in cities with higher population densities, rather than Detroit’s predominance of single-family homes, correlate with gun violence rates.
“It appears from our analysis that the largest effect might come from dispersing the demolition effort throughout the city, rather than concentrating the effort on removing all abandoned structures in a few areas, given limited resources,” says Jay. “It’s also important to look at alternatives to demolition for houses and other structures that might be salvageable, especially in cities with large homeless populations or housing affordability problems.”
The study was published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine. Other researchers include David Hemenway of Harvard, Luke Miratrix of Harvard, and Charles Branas of the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.