The features of urban decay can have a powerful effect on the wellness of a community. But these health impacts are left relatively unexplored

In the spring and summer of 2011, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania strapped heart monitors onto test subjects and set them loose on the side streets of Philadelphia. The subjects strolled around two clusters of vacant lots. Some of the lots had received a “greening” treatment from members of the Philadelphia Horticulture Society, who’d removed debris, planted grass and trees, and installed a low wooden post-and-rail fence. The other lots were untreated as a control. After analyzing GPS data from the subjects walks, before and after greening, the scientists found that walking in proximity to a greened space decreased subjects’ heart rates, compared to a non-greened vacant lot.

It’s just one example of how directly the city affects the bodies of those who live in it. “What I think is magical is that urban greening interventions are pretty simple,” says Joseph Schilling, a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. “It's not as if it takes tremendous improvement to the landscape, and yet you still see this health benefit.”

Schilling co-authored a new report by the Urban Institute that delves into the latest research on how urban blight—defined here as substandard housing, abandoned buildings, and vacant lots—functions as a social determinant of health. The research on this is relatively sparse, he says; while there’s lots of data on housing policy and public health, the two fields are not studied together much. With co-author Erwin DeLeone, Schilling has identified cities where the efforts to rid neighborhoods of abandoned buildings and vacant lots could be studied specifically for their public health impact.

“Public health folks don't necessarily think about blight when they're looking at their range of actions or intervention in housing,” Schilling says. “Housing officials are often narrowly focused on their responsibilities and don't think about what the public health impacts are.”1

Urban Blight and Public Health

Addressing the Impact of Substandard Housing, Abandoned Buildings, and Vacant Lots

Abstract: We spend more than 2/3rds of our time where we live; thus, housing and neighborhood conditions invariably affect our individual and family’s well-being. The health impacts from blighted properties—substandard housing, abandoned buildings, and vacant lots—are often not immediately visible or felt. This report—Urban Blight and Public Health—synthesizes recent studies on the complexities of how blight affects the health of individuals and neighborhoods while offering a blend of policy and program recommendations to help guide communities in taking a more holistic and coordinated approach, such as expanding the use of health impact assessments, tracking health outcomes, and infusing public health into housing policies, codes and practices.