On a sunny midafternoon this week, Hillside Park’s heavy tree canopy offered a welcome respite from the day’s rising temperatures.

Largely owing to gentrification and a housing inventory shortage, the traditionally Black community is becoming increasingly diversified. An older white woman walked her two small dogs around a sidewalk that encircles the park’s baseball field.

Meanwhile, a shirtless Black man napping in the outfield let loose with a loud yawn.

Three Black teens puffed on a blunt underneath the park’s picnic shelter.

It’s all good in the neighborhood at the moment, but Hillside Park, which sits in the southern shadow of Durham’s downtown district, has been the scene of at least two violent fatal crimes in recent years.

In late May 2019, police charged 18-year-old Antonio Stanback with murder following the shooting death of Darren Dixon, a 22-year-old man who was found dead in the gazebo at the park in the 1300 block of South Roxboro Street.

The year before, police charged Michael Anthony Person, 55, with the stabbing death of Alicia Elder, 50, at the park.

Elder and Dixon were the sole victims of fatal violent crimes at the park since 2010.

That’s two fatalities too many, but it’s also revealing.

Last month, a team of scholars found that urban green spaces like Hillside Park were linked to a lower crime risk in hundreds of major cities across the United States, including Charlotte, Raleigh, and Durham.

Urban green spaces are “loosely defined as any type of plant-covered environment (public or private) located within a city,” according to the authors of the study, “Urban Green Space Linked to Lower Crime Risk across 301 Major U.S. Cities,” which was published August 24 in CITIES: The International Journal of Urban Policy and Planning.

The 12-page study was authored by a team of researchers that include L.R. Larson, an associate professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management at NC State University.

“We found these results to be very compelling,” Larson says in an email he wrote to the INDY this week. “It’s pretty remarkable that, while controlling for many other factors that have been linked to crime in previous studies, urban greenspace displays such a strong and consistent inverse relationship with both violent and property crime risk in nearly 300 cities across the United States.”

The scholars made their findings public after collecting data from more than 62,000 census blocks in cities across the nation with populations of over 100,000 and the respective cities’ overall crime rates.

The researchers also considered median household income along with “diversity” and “disadvantage” indexes.

Larson says the diversity index directly accounted for race and was based on the proportion of the population in each of the 14 racial and ethnic groups recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Higher diversity scores meant a great variety of races were present in an area,” he explains in the email.

The disadvantage index takes into account four variables; the percentage of residents and families within a census block—or neighborhood—who are unemployed, living below the poverty level, have less than a high school education, or are in homes where women are the head of the household with children under the age of 18.

“We didn’t explore links between greenspace, diversity, and social disadvantage in this study, but other research has shown that communities of color and low-income communities typically contain lower quality parks and reduced access to greenspace,” Larson writes.

Still, the researchers concluded that green spaces lower crime risks because in an overwhelming majority of neighborhoods in close proximity to the ecosystems, residents reported an improved overall quality of life, increased physical activity, improved mental health, and a greater sense of community.

On the other side of the coin, the researchers also suggest that while urban green spaces can deter crime, the areas can also generate criminal activity by limiting “visibility” and “reducing sightlines” that can “provide cover for criminals and illicit behavior in public spaces.”

Moreover, the study suggests that poorly maintained green spaces that are riddled with “overgrown vegetation and litter, can communicate a lack of oversight and attract criminal activities.”

Maybe the dearth of green space and tree coverings can help to explain why the highly racially segregated McDougald Terrace public housing complex is consistently ranked as the most violence-prone community in the Bull City.

A small park on Sima Avenue that’s across from the apartment complex is dotted with a scattering of trees, along with a picnic shelter and brightly colored playground equipment, but save for a ring of trees that encircles the complex, there is no tree covering to offer shade from an unrelenting sun for folks sitting outside on their porches. The sun’s heat bounces off concrete, brick, and asphalt surfaces and settles into the McDougald residents’ reality like an unwelcome guest.

A McDougald Terrace resident who lives across the street from the park spoke with the INDY this week. She was not optimistic about the study’s findings and doubted whether more green space in the community could deter crime.

“I don’t think nothing is going to change unless God himself comes out here,” said the woman, who declined to give her name. “It’s a good idea though. We need more lights. They come and bust the lights out,” she added about lawbreakers in the neighborhood.

The research, although compelling, is not surprising. Durham’s elected leaders, activists, and scholars in recent years have pointed to the benefits of more verdant green spaces throughout the city, particularly trees.

Trees, they say, are good for cities and their residents. They reduce air pollution, mitigate stormwater runoff, cool homes naturally, and generally improve the health of the ecosystem. Studies have found that trees reduce stress and brain fatigue and have been linked to lower levels of obesity and higher property values.

Indeed, the absence of tree canopies in low-income communities leads to higher temperatures that fuel high utility costs and a higher incidence of health-related issues, as the INDY has previously reported.

The study published last month also offers a series of caveats. For starters, the researchers find that the “strongest positive predictor of violent crime within block groups was social disadvantage.” Moreover, although urban green spaces are linked to a near-across-the-board decrease in crime risks, the study determines that is not the case in Chicago, Detroit, and Newark.

“In these three cities, greater urban greenspace was related to increased violent crime risk within neighborhoods,” the study authors state. And while Detroit had the highest mean violent crime risk and lowest median income of all cities, “Chicago and Newark did not rank as extreme on the median income spectrum.”

Larson says the research team was more surprised that green space had such a strong and consistent influence on crime risk reduction in every other city in the country.

“We aren’t sure why that relationship didn’t hold in these cities, but all three are notorious for their high crime rates that seem to be impervious to many interventions,” he states in the email. “It’s quite likely that other social and environmental factors that we didn’t account for in our analysis, might have a disproportionately larger influence in these cities.”

The researchers suggest that the three cities are outliers owing to “other social, economic and cultural factors not accounted for in their study, including neighborhood disinvestment and abandonment,” along with suffering from “greater amounts of vacant land” that communicate “a lack of care” while “offering settings for criminal activity.”

The researchers also surmise that the three cities’ “high degree of racial segregation might also lead to concentrations of violent crime.”

Racial segregation, Larson says, “often fuels social disadvantage, which is typically linked to crime.”

The study, which relied on spatial views of urban communities across the United States, also considers the impact of climate, noting that “further research is needed on the role climate may play in the crime and greenspace dynamic beyond mean temperatures, considering especially the increased number of extreme heat events predicted in the future.”

So how big of a role will climate change play in future criminal activity?

“The short answer is, we don’t know,” Larson says. “Some studies suggest that climate change will lead to increased heat waves and more stress on resources and people that fuel higher levels of crime, warfare, and other types of violence. For example, crime rates are always higher in the summer months. By helping to mitigate temperature (i.e., urban heat islands) and effects of climate change in cities, greenspace might provide additional crime-reducing benefits under these scenarios.”

Larson adds that “some of our research also seems to indicate that, by reducing temperatures and fostering more conducive spaces for outdoor activities during really hot weather, greenspaces might create environments that are actually more conducive for potential criminals who would be less mobile and active under extreme heat conditions.”

The study concludes by suggesting that crime in America’s urban green spaces, particularly in public parks, could be mitigated by applying the principles of law prevention through the elements of environmental design.

“Our work does not support the idea that vegetation in general is a cause of crime,” the study authors state. “Though such aspects as concealment or impaired visibility in specific urban locations might present unique challenges. They add later that the integration of urban green-space planning in urban crime prevention strategies “offers many potential advantages.”

In addition to a more positive and less controversial approach than more aggressive law enforcement models, the researchers say crime prevention strategies that utilize urban green spaces are preferable attempts to curb crime instead of increasing the number of arrests for low-level offenses.

“Proactive, urban greenspace-based approaches may be even more important following the COVID-19 pandemic, which has produced unprecedented challenges to mental health and social stability on a global scale,” the study authors state.

“In fact,” Larson adds, “in our analysis we found that greenspace was a stronger correlate of reduced crime risk than per capita police force in a city.” 

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.