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Sat Dec 15, 2012, 07:27 AM

Our Unhealthy Fear of Vacant Land


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.

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Reply Our Unhealthy Fear of Vacant Land (Original post)
xchrom Dec 2012 OP
marmar Dec 2012 #1
xchrom Dec 2012 #2
bemildred Dec 2012 #3

Response to marmar (Reply #1)

Sat Dec 15, 2012, 08:08 AM

2. i thought so.

i'm interested in the idea of letting Public Health analysis drive more conversations.

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Response to xchrom (Original post)

Sat Dec 15, 2012, 09:12 AM

3. Hmm, interesting. A few thoughts:

1.) Drunks get rolled because they are easy targets, and even if they have no money, you can still beat them up, humiliate them, and take their booze. Plus, you know where to look for them.

2.) Booze certainly is a health hazard, but we all know what happens when you try to prohibit things. Booze is the classic example of that too: Prohibition. Which points out the very important fact that there are limits to our ability to shape the world, our societies, and ourselves to suit our wishes. "Loss of control" indeed.

3.) Which leads to my final point that, when considering pernicious thing like drugs, booze, diseases, and bad behavior of all sorts, one must first be very sure what sort of thing it really is before deciding how best to mitigate, tolerate, or eliminate it, it all depends. Knee-jerk reactions can make things worse.

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