University of South Carolina

Kresge grant to improve Columbia neighborhoods

Some areas in downtown Columbia have higher crime rates than other parts of the capital city.

Researchers from the University of South Carolina are hoping to change that, with help from a $650,000, three-year grant from the Kresge Foundation. The grant will be used to help residents identify concerns, become more involved and create healthy spaces in their own neighborhoods.

“As much as it is about crime and safety, it’s also about creating more opportunities for people to interact with one another, to develop relationships, trust and rapport,” said Dr. Darcy Freedman, an assistant professor in the College of Social Work and one of the study’s leaders. “Those things become the glue that keeps people together, promotes safety and reduces overall violence. The heart of this project is about creating community. As a byproduct, hopefully we’ll see crime go down.”

Freedman and her colleague, Dr. Ronald Pitner, also an assistant professor in the College of Social Work, are leading the project, collaborating with faculty from the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and the department of criminology and criminal justice in the College of Arts and Sciences. The group will work with the Columbia Housing Authority to help implement the community-based, participatory study.

“The idea is to get people interacting more with each other, for residents to take ownership of the community and create healthy spaces in the community,” Freedman said.

More than 1,000 people live in the public-housing neighborhoods that border downtown Columbia, the target communities for this study. While there are many assets in these communities, the area has fairly high rates of violent and property crimes and is plagued with dilapidated housing, graffiti, homelessness and vagrancy.

“Research has shown that residents that live in low-income, high-crime areas tend to withdraw and not interact with each other as often. This can lead to more neighborhood decay, greater perceptions of crime and, ultimately, higher rates of crime,” Pitner said.

“We want to reverse that by having residents identify what their community concerns are, and to have them actively work together to change them,” Pitner said. “We want to focus on community engagement.”

The goal for the first year is to identify concerns about crime and safety in the community. This will be done through a methodology called PhotoVoice, in which teens and adults will document the strengths and concerns of their community through photographs. Their photographs will be used to spark discussions about what is going on in the community and what changes should be made.

That work has already started through a grant from USC’s Arts and Humanities Grant Program that enabled seven youths in the community to start capturing aspects of their neighborhood through photographs. In the coming months, adults will also work on the PhotoVoice project, which will culminate in an exhibit that will open Jan. 18, 2011 at McKissick Museum.

During the second year of the grant, a community-empowerment center will be established to provide technical assistance to residents who want to improve their community.

“One of the interventions is going to be a community garden. Spaces that beautify the community, where people come together and build relationships, have been proven to reduce crime and violence in communities,” she said.

In the final year, the community members will implement the ideas.

“Our approach is centered around sustainability,” Freedman said. “We want to make sure whatever is developed can continue beyond the life cycle of the grant.

Also, a rigorous evaluation, including surveys, an environmental inventory and a police crime analysis, will be conducted at the beginning and end of the study to see how the neighborhood has changed.

“We hope residents will feel safer in their communities and will have a greater sense of ownership of their community,” Pitner said. “When residents have that sense of ownership, they actively do things to make their community better.”

The Columbia Housing Authority will partner with USC, providing space, feedback and support. The agency will also assign a project coordinator to work as a liaison with the university.

“One of the things we try to do is provide safe and affordable housing for our residents,” said Taleshia Stewart, director of family self-sufficiency for the Columbia Housing Authority. “Getting the residents engaged in their community will increase the likelihood that our housing will be safe. Getting our people out of their homes, having them more engaged and taking ownership of the community is what will make this project a success.”

About the grant
The Kresge Foundation is a $3.1 billion private, national foundation that seeks to influence the quality of life for future generations through its support of nonprofit organizations in health, the environment, community development, arts and culture, education and human services.

Kresge grant

  • What: Three-year grant, worth $650,000, to help residents improve quality of life in neighborhoods
  • Who: Kresge Foundation is a $3.1 billion private, national foundation that seeks to influence the quality of life for future generations
  • Where: Public-housing neighborhoods in and around downtown Columbia

By Office of Media Relations

Posted: 07/12/10 @ 3:50 PM | Updated: 07/12/10 @ 3:57 PM | Permalink