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Tip of the Week: More trees = less crime?

Recent Sustainable Orillia articles and “Tips of the Week” have examined, on the one hand, the relationship between student achievement and the presence of mature trees on school grounds and, on the other, the relationship between human health and the presence of trees in community neighbourhoods. One article described the goal of Orillia’s Environmental Advisory Committee to encourage an increase in the tree canopy in Orillia to 40%–the percentage usually determined to have a cooling effect on a community, a factor being seriously considered worldwide as climate change leads to increasingly hot temperatures.  The importance of this cooling aspect is revealed in the news that the recent “heat dome” in B.C.’s lower mainland led to increased deaths from heat-related causes over a period of only a single week:

B.C.’s chief coroner [Lisa Lapointe} has confirmed the majority of people who died suddenly during the week of June’s record-breaking heat wave lost their lives as a direct result of the extreme temperatures. . . . 570 of the 815 sudden deaths recorded over that time period — 70 per cent — have now been deemed “heat related.” “[If not] for the extreme heat, they would not have died at that time,” Lapointe said. According to Lapointe, 79 per cent of those who died were 65 or older.

 

Research in the U.S. has also indicated that the presence of trees and other greenery in urban spaces can also lead to a reduction in some forms of crime—in particular, burglary and assault. Admittedly, these studies focus on inner city crime in some of America’s largest cities; the connection to Orillia, a much smaller and very different community, may be tenuous at best. Nevertheless, some of the explanations behind the impact of greenery on crime reduction should again give pause to anyone who might want to disregard the findings.

First of all, however, the findings are significant.  The Vibrantcitieslab.com website reports:

  • In New Haven, Connecticut a 10% increase in tree canopy was associated with a 14% decrease in property crimes and a 15% decrease in violent crime. 
  • Similar results were found in Baltimore, with a 12% drop in all outdoor crimes for each 10% increase in the canopy. 
  • A public housing development in Chicago had 48% fewer property crimes and 56% fewer violent crimes in or around buildings with more greenspace.

Perhaps as significant as the correlations between trees and reduced crime are some of the explanations behind the statistics. A 1995 study by S. Kaplan proposed that “exposure to nature reduces mental fatigue.” Kaplan noted that 

. . . many settings, stimuli, and tasks in modern life draw on the capacity to deliberately direct attention or pay attention. The information-processing demands of everyday life—traffic, phones, conversations, problems at work, and complex decisions—all take their toll, resulting in mental fatigue, a state characterized by inattentiveness, irritability, and impulsivity. In contrast, natural settings and stimuli such as landscapes and animals seem to effortlessly engage our attention, allowing us to attend without paying attention. For this and a number of other reasons, Kaplan suggested, contact with nature provides a respite from deliberately directing one’s attention. 

Elsewhere, trees have likewise been shown to improve mental health and reduce aggression, thereby lessening the chance that someone will commit a crime. In addition to reducing crime on the streets, the reduction in aggression and violence likely also affects the rate of domestic violence against women and children within homes. Given the difficulty of reducing domestic violence in all our communities, the discovery that green spaces can do so—to some degree—is well worth noting by those in charge of our community’s wellbeing.

Finally, as noted in one report, “Well cared for green space also shows potential criminals that 

the residents or businesses in an area care for and respect the community. When a community cares about its space, they are more likely to be active in the outdoor aspects of it.”

Researcher Rachel Kaplan (1985) has suggested that cities should be designed with “nature at every doorstep.” Again, food for thought for city planners, including those in Orillia and the communities in our area.

1.Kaplan, S. 1995. The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology 15:169–82.

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