Penn Medicine News Blog

March 25, 2015 // By Paul Foster // Comments

‘Greening’ Vacant Lots, a Tactic for Improved Neighborhood Health

Philadelphia has long been known as the City of Brotherly Love, but a much less flattering nickname is thrown around by critics from time to time: “Filthadelphia.” While we’d all just like to forget about it, the name is a comment on the city’s struggle to keep the streets clean of litter and other examples of urban blight. 

Much has been written about that uphill struggle, including just a couple of days ago in the Philadelphia Inquirer, but there is momentum. According to Philadelphia Magazine, Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown recently proposed a plan which aims to cut down on litter by providing more trash cans to the public. There are also programs to help Philadelphians ensure the vacant lots (of which there are about 40,000) in their neighborhoods are properly cared for and, in some instances, converted into much more appealing green space.

According to a new study published online in the American Journal of Public Health by lead author Eugenia C. South, MD, MHSP, a physician in the department of Emergency Medicine at Penn Medicine, those green spaces do more than improve the city’s reputation and boost property values. They can actually lower the heart rate of their neighbors which may indicate lower stress levels for those who walk past. 

Dr. South and her colleagues used a heart rate monitor with GPS abilities to keep track of the vital statistics of people walking through two neighborhoods in Philadelphia, one which had vacant lots converted to green space and one in which the lots were untouched. In one analysis, the volunteers who walked past the renovated lots, the ones with trash cleared out and greenery planted, saw their heart rates drop by more than 15 bpm (beats per minute) while their counterparts walking by the untreated, control lots saw their rates stay steady. 

The study, connected with her previous work which showed that renovated lots made neighbors feel safer, suggests that “greening” vacant lots could be effective in improving health. Dr. South told WHYY’s Newsworks this tactic could provide the improvement without needing anything from the residents. 

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