Peaceful Environments

Promising Futures by Design

By teaching children how to grow their own food and giving them a safe and nurturing space to learn and play, Brother Tommy Joshua Caison is empowering them to take control of their environment and their futures. Through his work, he is not only reducing gun violence, but also creating a sense of community and promoting sustainability in urban areas.

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Team Leader for Video
Jahmeelah Ries

Environmental Design with a Deep Impact

Gun violence is a daily tragedy that has an impact on people's lives all around the world. Every day, gun violence in the United States claims the lives of more than 500 people. Gun violence can harm anyone, but in some circumstances, it disproportionately affects women, communities of color, and other vulnerable groups in society.  

Young African American Semaj Alexander was born in Philadelphia and raised in the Brickyard / East Germantown neighborhood of the city. He has been exposed to gun violence since he was 12-years-old. Semaj lost two of his closest friends to gun violence.  

“When we were young, kids had no idea what to do, making it simple for them to obtain access to firearms. Most of these kids come from unstable families with violent parents, kids who are picked on, or kids who might lose fights and seek retribution or friends who were killed and seek retribution,” Alexander said. “All these factors contribute to kids having access to guns.” 

He continues, “The violence cannot be stopped because it began when we were children and because life is cyclical. For instance, if something were to happen to me, my brother would get retribution, and I would be gone forever.” 

Despite what Semaj says about being unable to disrupt the cycle of violence, there are programs that are proven to make a difference. One such approach is Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). CPTED programs change how places are organized and how they look. They operate on the premise that altering a space's design can impact how people behave there. The intention is to make life better while lowering crime and terror. Environmental design features include fencing, lights, windows, and landscaping (which includes rose bushes), all of which can lessen criminal activity in cost-effective ways. 

Circular Philly has adopted the CPTED philosophy by cultivating relationships with businesses and community organizations to temporarily use vacant sites in Philadelphia to establish and grow their businesses.  The vacant lots in the city are seen by Circular Philadelphia as an opportunity to improve circularity while creating enterprises. 

“We aim to give the neighborhood a sense of ownership over the area. Philadelphia has potential, and there are opportunities for us to build more assets for the community there by using the vacant lots and abandoned properties that are already there,” Melvin Powell, chair of the Vacant Land Committee within Circular Philadelphia, said.  

“If a building is vacant and has a broken window, people will shatter the other windows as well. However, if they notice that there are people living there, they will not demolish the building. The same is true of vacant lots, which [are] predominant in Black communities,” Powell said.

Circular Philadelphia's responsibilities include developing policy proposals for the temporary use of vacant land, matching the needs of circular businesses with vacant parcels, working with the City Council and land holding agencies to create land use agreements, and making sure the community is involved in project development so they can benefit. 

The results are overwhelmingly positive.

Shootings that result in serious injury or death are considerably decreased by remediating unoccupied land with affordable, scalable techniques, such as greening or minimum mowing and rubbish cleanup. In U.S. cities, vacant and abandoned land is frequently clustered in the same areas where gun violence is most likely to occur.

According to a 2016 research study by the University of Pennsylvania's Urban Health Lab, repairing vacant lots and installing working windows and doors in abandoned homes as opposed to boarded-up ones lowered local gun violence by 5 and 39 percent, respectively. 

“More funding-generating programs need to be offered by the city. Sometimes a grant program will run for a year or two before ceasing to exist. I had to discover that certain initiatives required more money due to a lack of funding from public sources, such as the city's general lack of funding education,” Powell said. 

Over the years, a study on the consequences of fixing homes and greening barren lots in Philadelphia has shown a variety of conclusions about the advantages of such programs. These neighborhood-level initiatives have been associated with a decrease in violent crime, a decrease in unlawful dumping, and a decrease in residents’ depression rates.

Residents who live close to treated vacant properties reported less impressions of crime, vandalism, and safety issues in the community. Crime perceptions decreased by 37 percent, vandalism decreased by 39 percent, and safety concerns decreased by 58 percent. 


Team Leader for Text
Melissa Menkeng

Community blight decreases community engagement and increases violence. Crime prevention through environmental design, CPTED, aims to address community blight that contributes to gun violence. The North Philadelphia Peace Park is an example of a CPTED program. It provides a safe, flourishing environment, that cultivates bonds between neighbors and uses community outreach to deter violent crime. 

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Team Leader for Audio
Lauren Giannone