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Why Housing Policy Should Be Health Policy

The features of urban decay can have a powerful effect on the overall wellness of a community. But these health impacts are often left relatively unexamined.
A man walks through a vacant lot in the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia.
A man walks through a vacant lot in the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia.Matt Rourke/AP

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.