Affairs and New Nontraditional Programs-Alabama Cooperative Extension
System, (UANNP-ACES) and the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences
at Auburn University were awarded an $80K grant to study the impact
of urban forestry on domestic violence in Triana, Alabama. Mrs.
Marilyn Simpson-Johnson, LMSW and Dr. Brenda Allen are spearheading
the project. Specifically, the grant will focus on:
This research will help to further study in
the area of domestic violence and urban forestry.
(Forerunners in this area of research are Dr.
William Sullivan and Dr. Frances Kuo, professors in the Department
of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University
of Illinois-Champaign. A copy of their preliminary study appears
In the mid-90s, Dr. William Sullivan and
Dr. Frances Kuo, directors of the Human Environment Research Laboratory,
University of Illinois-Champaign, conducted one of the most influential
studies on trees and their effect on domestic violence at a housing
project in Chicago. The study provided firsthand observations,
interviews, and crime analyses over a two-year period. Following
is a reprint of their article, "Do
Trees Strengthen Urban Communities, Reduce Domestic Violence,"
as it appeared in the Forestry Report R8-FR 56 - January
1996, a joint publication of the USDA Forest Service, Northeastern
Area State and Private Forestry and Southern Region Urban Forestry
Technical Service Center.
(This is an article reprinted with permission
from the USDA Forestry Service, Southern Region and Southern Research
Cities are characterized by a whole host of
social ills--from anonymity, to incivility, to outright violence--that
are strikingly less prevalent in rural areas. Why is this? The
physical environment a person lives in has profound effects on
their social behavior. Social psychologists have shown that people
in cities behave differently from people in rural areas in part
because they live in crowded, noisy places, or in places that
lack open space. But cities differ from rural areas in another
important way as well--rural areas have something that's often
lacking in urban areas--nature. Can part of the unsociableness
of city dwellers be traced to the lack of plants in their everyday
With support from the National Urban Community
Forestry Advisory Council, we set out to answer these questions
in one of the grimmest of urban settings--public housing in a
As these pictures show, the number of trees
immediately outside each of the 28 buildings at Robert Taylor
Homes in Chicago vary considerably. Some buildings are surrounded
only by concrete and asphalt, while others have trees, grass,
and even flowers. Using aerial photographs and on-site analyses
we chose 10 buildings with trees and 8 buildings without trees.
We then interviewed 75 African-American women living in those
buildings about their social behavior and compared the answers
from women living in different buildings.
While the amount of plant life varies from
building to building, very little else does. The buildings are
architecturally identical. There are no systematic differences
in the groups of people living in one building or another, perhaps
because residents have very little choice in the specific apartment
they are assigned. This gives us some confidence that differences
we find in social behavior of people living in buildings with
and without trees are really due to the trees--not differences
in crowding, noise levels, or availability of open space, not
differences in race, economic status, or even nature preferences
in the people living there.
Do people who live in buildings with trees
get along and treat each other better than people living in buildings
without trees? The results of these interviews are not only interesting;
they also provide new arguments in support of urban forest programs.
Let's look at some of the highlights.
DO TREES STRENGTHEN URBAN COMMUNITIES?
For some time there have been stories about
community gardens revitalizing inner city urban neighborhoods
(Francis, Cashdan & Paxson 1984; Lewis 1972, 1979). Until
now, however, no one has systematically examined the effect of
trees on relations among neighbors.
We are finding signs of stronger communities
where there are trees. In buildings with trees, people report
significantly better relations with their neighbors. In buildings
without trees, people report having fewer visitors and knowing
fewer people in the building. In buildings with trees, people
report a stronger feeling of unity and cohesion with their neighbors;
they like where they are living more and they feel safer than
residents who have few trees around them.
Why might trees contribute to better relations
among neighbors? In 100 observations of outdoor common spaces
in two public housing developments, we are finding that outdoor
spaces with trees are used significantly more often than identical
spaces without trees. We suspect that in urban areas, trees create
outdoor spaces that attract people. When people are drawn to spaces
with trees, they are more likely to see and interact with their
neighbors, more likely to get to know each other and become friends.
Stronger ties among neighbors may be a good
thing, but it becomes an even more convincing reason to support
urban forests when you consider what neighborhood ties mean for
residents' functioning. There is evidence that people with strong
neighborhood ties are more physically healthy (Cassel 1976; Cobb
1976), more mentally healthy (Gottlieb 1983), less likely to neglect
or abuse their children (Garbarino & Sherman 1980), and less
likely to rely on costly social services in times of need (Biegel
1994; Gottlieb 1983; Collins & Pancoast 1976). In other words,
these findings suggest that by investing in urban forests, a city
might reap such dividends as a lowered incidence of child abuse,
and decreased demand on social services.
DO TREES REDUCE VIOLENCE?
Two studies have shown a connection between
trees and lower levels of violence (Mooney & Nicell 1992;
Rice & Remy, in press). But these studies involved prison
inmates, and Alzheimer patients living in nursing homes. What
about people who are not living in institutional settings?
We are finding less violence in urban public
housing where there are trees. Residents from buildings with trees
report using more constructive, less violent ways of dealing with
conflict in their homes. They report using reasoning more often
in conflicts with their children, and they report significantly
less use of severe violence. And in conflicts with their partners,
they report less use of physical violence than do residents living
in buildings without trees.
Why might trees contribute to less violence
in the home? Imagine feeling irritated, impulsive, about ready
to snap due to the difficulties of living in severe poverty. Having
neighbors who you can call on for support means you have an alternative
way of dealing with your frustrations other than striking out
against someone. Places with nature and trees may provide settings
in which relationships grow stronger and violence is reduced.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR URBAN FORESTRY?
In times of tight budgets, public officials
look to reduce costs, and in doing so it is reasonable that they
eliminate amenities. Trees have often been considered amenities.
But what if urban foresters could report to city officials that
trees help lower social service budgets, decrease police calls
for domestic violence, strengthen urban communities, and decrease
the incidence of child abuse in a city? Would the urban forest
be considered an amenity then?
In this study, we are finding that urban forests
help build stronger communities, and in doing so, they contribute
to lower levels of domestic violence. Although no strong conclusions
can be made from a single study, these findings are encouraging
and exciting. At a time when the nation's attention is focused
on issues such as crime prevention, health care, and the plight
of single mothers, these findings suggest that trees can help
address some of the most important problems in society today.
We believe that urban forests are not mere amenities--that they
are a basic part of the infrastructure of any city, as necessary
as streets, sewers, and electricity.
Fitzsimmons, Vicke R. (1999). Taking charge
of your money: Evaluation of AARP's women's financial information
program. Proceedings of the Association for Financial Counseling
and Planning Education, pg. 9. University of Illinois-Urbana.
Manju Tanwar. (1999). Financial preparation
for widowhood: Evidence from the 1995 survey of consumer finances.
Proceedings of Association for Financial Counseling and Planning
Education, pp. 17-18. University of Georgia and Charles B. Hatcher.
United States Census Bureau (1995-1998). United
U.S. National Center for Health Statistics
(1993). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.