A Penn Doc’s Green Initiative Shows How Environmental Factors Impact Gun Violence

Eugenia South of Deeply Rooted on the benefits of investing in and beautifying our streets and neighborhoods

Eugenia South Deeply Rooted

Eugenia South: Deeply Rooted / Photograph by Kevin Monko

It was the repeat customers who really got to Eugenia South. The kids who’d come into her emergency room at HUP after having been shot not once, but for a second and third time. “We take such good care of physical injuries,” she says wryly. “We bring people back from the brink of death — but we do little to address the upstream factors that cause the violence.” And seeing children return to her for patching-up again and again — “I couldn’t not try to do something. To try to come up with a solution.”

President Biden’s latest plan to curb gun violence focuses on the people most likely to commit it and be affected by it. South’s work — decades, so far, of research and advocacy — doesn’t. Instead of people, she says, we should be looking at places. And she has evidence to back that up. In study after study, South has shown that simple investments in the environment — ­renovating dilapidated houses, clearing trash-strewn lots, planting shrubs and trees — lower gun violence in the surrounding blocks by as much as 29 percent.

Why? One reason’s prosaic: Clearing lots and sealing houses eliminates places where those with guns can stash weaponry. But others are less tangible, albeit reproducible. South ticks them off: “When you turn a space from blight to well-maintained, it’s evidence that care is happening. Vacant buildings make people feel neglected.” Replace the boarded-up windows, plant some flowers and a rosebush or two, and you change how people relate. “It helps them connect more with each other,” South explains. “There’s more socialization. People feel less depressed. You enhance the social fabric.” One of South’s studies found less gun violence in areas with tree canopy; in another, residents wore GPS heart-rate monitors before and after cleaning and greening. “Their heart rates went down by as much as 15 beats per minute,” South reports. “Heartbeat is a marker of stress. The body changes in response to the environment.” She’s careful to utilize randomized control trials, “So we can say we found causation, not just association. And that’s very rare.”

So if we have a proven way of reducing gun violence that has the added benefit of sprucing up the city — why don’t we do it more? “I think people — and I would have fit in this category once — think of parks and trees as nice amenities, not as vital infrastructure.” South says. “The evidence I’ve seen has shifted my opinion on that.” Now she serves as faculty director at Penn’s Urban Health Lab, which designs and tests community interventions aimed at building healthier neighborhoods, in addition to the many other hats (assistant professor of emergency medicine, vice chair for inclusion, diversity and equity for HUP’s emergency department, activist, op-ed writer, wife, mom to three kids) she has on.

She’s worn that activist hat for a long time. South was only in junior high when she founded an organization promoting racial justice. “I always had a bent toward it,” she shrugs, “and I guess I’m still doing it. Intentional gun violence is concentrated in segregated Black neighborhoods in cities. Those neighborhoods are dilapidated, in disrepair, littered with trash, not because the people there don’t care, but because of decades of disinvestment and lack of resources. It’s because of structural racism.”

That’s why she works with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to ameliorate blight, and with Deeply Rooted, a collab with Penn Medicine and CHOP that puts her research into action. It’s why she applies for grants from the National Institutes of Health, the CDC, and every foundation she can find to fund her clean-and-green mission, and fights to cut through the city’s many acres of red tape. The job at hand may seem almost absurdly simple: Really? You’re fighting gun violence with trowels and rakes? But her scholarship says it works — and her heart does, too.

“There’s something fundamental in how we’re made as human beings that connects us to nature,” she muses. “If you look at ancient religious texts — take Psalm 23: ‘He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.’ There’s a literal connection between nature and our well-being.” And it’s hard to think of a place that needs more soul restoration than a big-city emergency room.

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Published as “The Environmental Crusader” in the March 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.