Any number of different images might come to mind when you hear the term blight: abandoned and dilapidated buildings, vacant lots, illegal dumping sites. Those images, and your reaction to them, might depend on whether you live in a rural or urban community, and your own personal background.
The national nonprofit Keep America Beautiful (KAB) and the Philadelphia-based research firm Econsult Solutions have teamed up to diagram and provide context to the various meanings and results of blight, which we loosely define as physical changes to properties with damaging consequences for surrounding communities. The first phase of that national research project was released in May. Several key themes emerge from this literature review, all with clear implications for Philadelphia.
Principally, blight manifests itself differently depending on the community, with a wide range of connected economic, environmental, and social consequences, such as crime, disinvestment, and negative physical- and mental-health outcomes. That said, historical and political context play a role in how decision-makers understand the causes and consequences of blight. (For instance, policymakers focused on blight as an economic issue in the aftermath of the Great Depression.) A deep understanding of blight as a malleable and complex concept is key to crafting comprehensive and effective solutions, and that takes open and honest engagement with a range of stakeholders.
Additionally (and intuitively), studies indicate that blight disproportionately impacts disadvantaged communities and communities of color. Scholarly work shows that blighted areas too often lack employment opportunities, and possess limited social and political capital.
So, what does all of this mean for Philadelphia specifically?
As we become the largest city in the United States to institute a land bank, a mechanism designed to streamline municipal government's ability to acquire and dispose of vacant and underutilized land, blight and its multiple impacts continue to be on the minds of policymakers, advocates, and residents alike. And KAB and Econsult's research underscores why this work is so critical.
First, blight is a shared challenge. Though some neighborhoods deal with blight more acutely than others, its negative consequences impact the entire city. Abandoned commercial corridors depress job creation and impede economic development with citywide ramifications. Vacant and overgrown lots impact public health and safety for all of us.
We are all in this struggle together.
And we all stand to benefit from the remediation of blight. There would be a large return on investment to the city and to its residents. The benefits include a strengthened tax base to support municipal services and public schools, fewer dollars lost to expensive remediative work and tax delinquency, and increased economic opportunities from reinvestment. The next phase of KAB and Econsult's research involves determining the costs, both overt and hidden, of allowing blight to fester.
Ultimately, KAB and Econsult's study highlights the need for our notions of blight — both those of the average citizen and in the academic community — to be broadened and our motivation to deal with it strengthened, if we truly seek to pursue social justice and economic equity.
The good news is that there is a wide network of city agencies, local nonprofits, and residents all working every day to combat blight locally. From the Street Department's expansive block captain network to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's LandCare program and environmental education initiatives organized by KAB's local affiliate, Keep Philadelphia Beautiful, countless people are dedicated to eradicating blight and its harmful effects. You can read more about these programs and resources in the annual Community Beautification Resource Guide (www.keepphiladelphiabeautiful.org/resources).