606 Green Spaces

A view of The 606 from near the Humboldt Park Boulevard overpass looking east.
Image Credit: Brandon Harris

A new in-depth study published in Environment and Behavior from Clemson and North Carolina State researchers suggests parks and greenways could play a role in reducing crime. The study’s lead author, Brandon Harris, is a Ph.D. candidate in Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism management department, and chose to center the research on his native Chicago and its 2.7-mile Bloomingdale Trail, also known as The 606.

The new elevated greenway, built on an abandoned railway line northwest of downtown, connects diverse neighborhoods. The research team’s study examined crime rates in neighborhoods along the trail between 2011 and 2015, and it drew on census data to find Chicago neighborhoods that shared similar socioeconomic characteristics with neighborhoods along The 606. During that time, crime of all types decreased at a faster rate than in similar neighborhoods that could not benefit from the green spaces.

“Rates of violent, property and disorderly crime all fell at a faster rate in neighborhoods along The 606 than in similar neighborhoods nearby,” said Harris. “The decrease was largest in lower-income neighborhoods along the western part of the trail.”

Using City of Chicago crime statistics, researchers compared crime rates for June-November 2011, before the greenway opened, with rates for the same period in 2015, the trail’s first year of operation. Several factors could have contributed to a greater drop in crime along The 606 over the four-year period, said co-author Lincoln Larson, an NC State faculty member who has previously studied greenway use in urban Atlanta and suburban San Antonio.

“We know that having a well-designed greenway can increase residential and commercial activity, bringing in more foot traffic that pushes out crime in the neighborhood,” Larson said. “People along the trail may also be having more positive interactions and feeling a greater sense of community among neighborhoods, which prompts them to take ownership in the trail.”

After looking at crime patterns on a city scale, researchers zoomed in on crime rates within walking distance – a half-mile – of The 606. Their analysis showed that property crime decreased at a faster rate in neighborhoods closest to the trail, said co-author Scott Ogletree, a Clemson graduate student. There were no significant differences in rates of violent or disorderly crimes.

Ogletree noted that the city invested in lighting, installed security cameras, increased police presence and added access points along the trail, which tourism officials promoted as a “must-see” destination for visitors.

Larson said a growing body of evidence suggests that investments in park-based urban revitalization could be part of a long-term solution, but there are few counter-examples. He said keeping the trail in good condition is vital to prevent crime, just as design and programming for parks is also critical, especially considering some of the troubling crime trends in Chicago over the past year.

Harris said one example of quality neighborhood programming is The 606 Moves, a dance workshop offered in pocket parks along the trail with support from the city. It’s a step in the right direction, but he said officials must also consider how revitalization and increased development affect residents. Harris is currently doing follow-up research on those issues.

“Cities must be very careful when constructing a trail through a minority enclave,” Harris said. “Revitalized spaces can be transformative, but they must be inclusive, safe and welcoming to all parties.”