Our Unhealthy Fear of Vacant Land

Abandoned buildings and broken windows are bad for our bodies, because they're bad for our minds.

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In their 2009 journal article "Alcohol consumption, alcohol outlets, and the risk of being assaulted with a gun," Dr. Charles Branas and colleagues at University of Pennsylvania found that, compared to people who don't drink, "Heavy drinkers were 2.67 times as likely to be shot in an assault." Part of that was because they spent more time around liquor stores. People grumble that it's not a good sign for a neighborhood when a liquor store opens, but this study said it's empirically beyond that. Simply being near a liquor store, at any given time, meant people were three times more likely to be shot. Regardless of their effect on drinking, the presence of liquor stores in a neighborhood is looked at as a health hazard.


Living next to vacant property and abandoned buildings, meanwhile, is more immediately concerning to most people. Research just published in the Journal of Urban Health from Branas, along with Dr. Eugenia Garvin and others at Penn Medical School, found that empty buildings are bad for our physical health in ways well beyond common concerns (collapse, fire, aggressive transients). According to the Penn team, it often comes down to a sense of loss of control that vacant properties impart. Loss of control is the root of fear. That fear leads to social isolation and loss of collective efficacy and social capital -- as well as reduced physical activity and more drug use -- which mean poor health.

Philadelphia residents interviewed in the study did note concern for the immediate physical dangers: "Attraction of rodents, possums, and other animals" ("Sometimes there are more cats on the block than there are people, and that scares me, because I don't like four legged animals"), children falling on hypodermic needles, larger things falling on children, etc. Beyond and independent of the physical, though, they reported anxiety, depression, and fear.

The Penn researchers are not at all the first to investigate how broken physical environments affect our health in the less-than-obvious ways. Studies like these usually do a good job controlling for poverty, education, health care access, and other things that seem like the logical associated factors at the root of poor health in run-down neighborhoods, and they still reliably find that the very presence of the empty structures affects our bodies negatively.

One study found a "robust correlation" between broken windows and gonorrhea. A "broken windows index," which included abandoned cars, graffiti, trash, and public school deterioration, correlated more strongly with rates of gonorrhea than did unemployment or level of education, regardless of poverty.

A study in the American Journal of Public Health looked beyond gonorrhea (but, also at gonorrhea) and found "boarded-up housing" remained a predictor of gonorrhea and premature death -- specifically due to cancer, diabetes, homicide, and suicide -- even after controlling for social factors and demographics.

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Many academic papers of this sort reference a 1982 Atlantic cover story, one of my favorites, in which criminologist George Kelling and sociologist James Wilson laid out the now-famous "broken windows theory" as a model invoked in explaining these health correlations in terms of loss of control.

"Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers, whereas others are populated by window-lovers," they note (perhaps to the chagrin of a niche community of window-lovers somewhere). Rather, chaos begetting chaos, broken windows lead to more broken windows. If no one fixes them, people take it as a sort of sign that breaking windows is tolerated. So they break more windows. Eventually, someone breaks a door, and then a person, and everything descends into bedlam.

Kelling and Wilson, in that article, also looked back:

Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist, reported in 1969 on some experiments testing the broken-window theory. He arranged to have an automobile without license plates parked with its hood up on a street in the Bronx and a comparable automobile on a street in Palo Alto, California. The car in the Bronx was attacked by "vandals" within ten minutes of its "abandonment." The first to arrive were a family -- father, mother, and young son -- who removed the radiator and battery. Within twenty-four hours, virtually everything of value had been removed. Then random destruction began -- windows were smashed, parts torn off, upholstery ripped. Children began to use the car as a playground. ... The car in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week. Then Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Soon, passersby were joining in. Within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed.

Pet tortoise, abandoned, forlorn [YazenHomsy/Reuters]

So it may be an understanding of entropy, or of the broken windows theory, that makes people report anxiety, fear, and depression related to abandoned and vacant land in their neighborhood. To quote the Penn study:

Vacant land evoked a wide range of negative emotions from participants, including sadness and depression, often stemming from the buildup of trash on vacant land. ... [One resident said,] "It just makes you question where you call home. You're like, 'Oh man I gotta come home around this crap again?' It's a downer." Others expressed anger and frustration over feeling powerless to change the physical condition of their neighborhood.

It's the powerlessness and loss of control that drives the less obvious health consequences. "Social isolation and fear are thought to impede the development of collective efficacy, or the 'linkage of mutual trust and shared expectations for intervening on behalf of the common good,' perpetuating a cycle of physical and social decline," the researchers note. That means isolation and "erosion of social relationships," which is proven to result in poor physical health.

What's to be done? Beyond policy and infrastructure and government investment, residents interviewed in the Penn study say they personally take measures to adopt properties, clear them of dangerous stuff, turn them into hanging gardens, etc. That does cost money, but it can engage the community and actually pull them together in those sorts of efforts, rather than isolating them.

As Kelling and Wilson noted, "Just as physicians now recognize the importance of fostering health rather than simply treating illness, so the police -- and the rest of us -- ought to recognize the importance of maintaining intact, communities without broken windows." That can mean monetary investment early on, which, as a stitch in time, is cost effective. The eyes are the window to the soul, and the broken windows are the windows to community health. Something like that.

Medical providers, local communities, and the public wellness movement
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