Environmental Features Associated With Teen Homicide

Researchers at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania conducted a unique, multifaceted study of teen homicides that occurred outdoors in Philadelphia. Their results, which appeared online in JAMA Pediatrics, point toward neighborhood elements that could be good candidates for revitalization efforts.

Based on data from the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office, the researchers identified 143 homicide victims age 13 to 20 from 2010 to 2012 who lived in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Police Department provided additional details about the crime scene and circumstances of each homicide.

The study team recruited 155 matched control participants in the same age range who were also outside in Philadelphia at roughly the same time that each homicide took place. The study team then compared the homicide locations with the locations of control participants in terms of differences in the streets, buildings, and natural surroundings.

While the researchers acknowledge that homicides stem from a complex interplay of factors at individual, family, community, and socioeconomic levels, results of this study contributed new evidence about the potential role of physical surroundings in shaping violence. In examining features of the natural surroundings of participants, the presence of a park or a maintained vacant lot were both associated with significantly lower odds of homicide.

Indicators of frequent pedestrian activity, such as street lights, illuminated walk/don’t walk signs, and public transportation stops, were significantly associated with lower homicide. In contrast, stop signs were associated with higher odds of adolescent homicide. 

While this new study shows associations between certain neighborhood elements and teen homicide, the findings do not demonstrate cause and effect, pointed out Alison Culyba, MD, MPH, an adolescent medicine physician in the Craig-Dalsimer Division of Adolescent Medicine at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who was an integral part of the research team of epidemiology and violence prevention experts from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Future experimental research is needed to make actual changes to city spaces and see if those changes make a difference in urban violence.

See the full version of this story in the March issue of Bench to Bedside.    

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