It was the repeat customers who really got to Eugenia South. The kids who’d come into her emergency room at HUP after having been shot not once, but for a second and third time. “We take such good care of physical injuries,” she says wryly. “We bring people back from the brink of death — but we do little to address the upstream factors that cause the violence.” And seeing children return to her for patching-up again and again — “I couldn’t not try to do something. To try to come up with a solution.”
President Biden’s latest plan to curb gun violence focuses on the people most likely to commit it and be affected by it. South’s work — decades, so far, of research and advocacy — doesn’t. Instead of people, she says, we should be looking at places. And she has evidence to back that up. In study after study, South has shown that simple investments in the environment — renovating dilapidated houses, clearing trash-strewn lots, planting shrubs and trees — lower gun violence in the surrounding blocks by as much as 29 percent.
Why? One reason’s prosaic: Clearing lots and sealing houses eliminates places where those with guns can stash weaponry. But others are less tangible, albeit reproducible. South ticks them off: “When you turn a space from blight to well-maintained, it’s evidence that care is happening. Vacant buildings make people feel neglected.” Replace the boarded-up windows, plant some flowers and a rosebush or two, and you change how people relate. “It helps them connect more with each other,” South explains. “There’s more socialization. People feel less depressed. You enhance the social fabric.” One of South’s studies found less gun violence in areas with tree canopy; in another, residents wore GPS heart-rate monitors before and after cleaning and greening. “Their heart rates went down by as much as 15 beats per minute,” South reports. “Heartbeat is a marker of stress. The body changes in response to the environment.” She’s careful to utilize randomized control trials, “So we can say we found causation, not just association. And that’s very rare.”Read more at Philly Mag.