Tearing Down Abandoned Buildings May Help Lower Gun Violence, Detroit Study Shows

The demolition of thousands of abandoned buildings in Detroit has been linked to a drop in gun violence, according to researchers. In the three years following 2014, over 10,000 buildings were torn down in Michigan's largest city in a program costing around $130 million.

The authors of the paper published in the Journal of Behavioural Medicine wanted to uncover whether the demolitions would affect the rates of violence and drug-related crimes in the city where deindustrialization has caused extreme economic decline. Between 1950 to 2016, the population fell from 1.8 million to 700,000 leaving behind 78,000 blighted structures.

Jonathan Jay of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and colleagues examined U.S. census data on 879 block groups, as well as demolition records, and crime data released by the Detroit Police Department between 2009 to 2016.

Destroying five buildings in a block group was found to cut the levels of firearms assaults in the next 14 months by 11 percent. The researchers believe removing the buildings could change perceptions of safety and conditions in a neighborhood, making it appear cared for.

Areas where a moderate number of buildings were demolished, defined as between six to 12 by the authors, had a bigger reduction in assaults related to firearms, when compared with locations with 13 or more. That might be because this level of destruction leaves behind rubble that needs to be cleared, simply replacing the derelict building with another type of disorder.

Tearing down the buildings didn't appear to cause gun violence to move from a demolished area to one kept intact. Ripping away the buildings also didn't change rates of drug violations.

abandoned factory, building, derelict, stock, image
A stock image of an abandoned factory. Researchers believe demolishing buildings could help tackle gun violence. Getty

The authors highlighted gun violence in urban areas is the biggest cause of firearm-related injuries among young people, and disproportionately affects African American children who are ten times more likely to be killed by a gun than their white counterparts.

Derelict buildings are often symptomatic of de-industrialized, disinvested, and underserved neighborhoods, where firearm violence is "endemic," said the researchers. Industrial Northern cities which suffered population losses in the second half of the last century in particular are dotted with such buildings.

Being surrounded by abandoned buildings can give off an impression that there is a lack of social control in a neighborhood, which can in turn lead to violence. And such structures can provide a secretive space to engage in illegal activities involving drugs and guns, according to the researchers.

And while changing the environment shouldn't be used as a sticking plaster to fix underlying problems, the authors said, fixing up areas has been linked to positive social outcomes. However, more research is needed, including to confirm that demolitions change whether people report crimes, which could skew the results.

Jay told Newsweek: "This study highlights our ability to prevent gun violence by improving neighborhood conditions in straightforward ways. While gun violence is immensely complex, our findings confirm that independent of other factors, severely run-down buildings make neighborhoods more likely to experience firearm assaults and shootings.

"These physical conditions reflect decades of discriminatory government policies, disinvestment, and White flight, helping to explain the racial disparities in violent victimization in our cities. This study, and others like it, show us that local governments and their partners can help prevent gun violence by ensuring that every child grows up in a neighborhood that is clean and safe."

Andrew Wheeler, assistant professor of Criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas who did not work on the research, argued to Newsweek there may be other factors which explain the drop in violence, for instance buildings could be more likely to be razed in up-and-coming neighborhoods.

Eugenia South, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, highlighted a similar concern. "Perhaps the areas that received demolitions has stronger city council advocacy, which would mean they likely had other benefits and services that could be responsible for violence reduction, not the demolitions themselves," she said.

"There is no way to get around this without doing a randomized controlled trial, which was not possible in this situation. The authors address this the best they can by performing matching and balancing in analysis."

However, Justin Heinze, assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health who did not work on the study, praised the researchers for accounting for factors that could have skewed the results, including other programs in the area also aimed at reducing firearm violence, or the fact crimes are more likely to happen in warmer seasons.

He said the study represents a "broad, community-driven intervention that reduces firearm violence without getting into the murky area of individual firearm ownership/carriage."

"Given that firearm laws are so polarizing in Michigan and the U.S. more broadly, it's exciting to see a reduction in firearm injury burden resulting from a set of activities that most any resident is likely to support because it's paired with the reduction of dilapidated, overgrown or unsightly properties," argued Heinze.

Next, a cost-benefit analysis of demolitions should be done, said Wheeler, who published a study on demolitions and crime in Buffalo in 2018. "From work in Buffalo I did, a demolition can cost several thousand dollars (asbestos can significantly increase costs, and many of these buildings have it). But violence has large societal costs, so it is likely worth it for cities to subsidize the demolitions of problem properties," he said.