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How "details" might influence safety in urban areas? What can we learn from Broken Windows Theory?

As we talk of safety in low income urban areas, what can we learn about sociological theories about how environment might influence crime and safety. The Broken Windows theory states that signaling effects of urban disorder and vandalism on additional crime and anti-social behavior. It has been implemented in several cities including NY. It raises interesting questions for how to design neighborhoods and cities where people (women and girls in particular) might feel safe, and be safe.

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The Broken Windows Theory (t hat I have presented in another challenge) is particularly relevant to this challenge because of its topic, safety, and its context: urban environment. 

The broken windows theory was first introduced in an article in 1982 in The Atlantic Monthly by 2 social scientists Wilson and Kelling:

"Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars."

Wilson and Kelling defined 3 factors of why the state of the urban environment may affect crime:
  • social norms and conformity
  • the presence or lack of monitoring
  • social and crime signaling 
What the theory implies is that if you see an environment with broken windows and other signals of lack of care (graffiti, littering, buildings falling apart), potential criminals feel safe to engage in criminal activities (because they assume a lack of monitoring) and inhabitants and other visitors are scared and avoid being outside.

Or to use Wilson's words (1997):" Therefore, the objective for preventing street crimes is to prevent the first window from getting broken, or prevent the first graffiti marks, or prevent the first drunkard from a public display. This has led to Neighborhood Watch programs and increased police foot patrols. These measures have not had a significant impact on crime, but they have succeeded in making neighborhood residents feel safer."

This theory has been implemented in several situations, one very famous one being the case of New York, where Kelling was hired as a consultant, and where  it has been claimed to be the cause of the radical decrease of crimes in the 1990's (see for example the discussion of the NY case by Gladwell in The Tipping Point and the article by Kelling: 

While the theory has also been implemented with success in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Lowell, Massachussetts, and in the Netherlands, it  has also been heavily debated and criticized. 
While it might not be the only explanation of the successes (including New York), it does provide interesting insights when it comes to create environments that feel safer and are safer.

One of the main take aways for this challenge is that: Small details matter in creating a sense of safety and in  discouraging potential offenders.

Questions to keep in mind:
  • What are these small details and how are they interpreted? 
  • What are the social norms in a neighborhood or a community? 
  • How to make the presence of monitoring visible to all (potential victims and potential offenders)?


Join the conversation:

Photo of An Old Friend

Anne-Laure, I really like your bringing in influential social science paradigms. I think your point about not inferring causality with the theory is wise.

I think the three questions you pose at the end of your post is especially intriguing, especially the last. It reminds me of my own experiences living in the UK, where the presence of CCTV is so especially felt. It certainly made me feel safer, although I can't comment on that as a woman.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Thanks Justin.
I think it is indeed important to keep in mind that there is no causality and that there are so many factors to be taken into account when designing and implementing social programs. Yet, theories such as the broken window theory does provide useful insights and things to keep in mind.
Reading your interview of your friend in Amman, several points she made could be interpreted from the perspective of the broken window theory.

Regarding your last question, last year, we did a workshop with some students re-inventing the public space under the BQE and interestingly 2 female students suggested having cameras and telephone connected to 911. They explicitly said that this would make feel safer. However, another student (also female) reacted negatively saying that this would be the contrary for her ( I personally agree with her: When living in London, I didn't feel safer with CCTV). Yet, all agreed on the importance of light and having traffic.

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Anne Laure, I was just about to comment and mention exactly that debate we had in class about the cameras and 911 direct call.
I was one of the students who thought cameras are a good solution for problematic areas.
That debate we had in class was very interesting and showed me different ways to look at this. I believe that the change needs to come from education, involved and active community, and of course an effective enforcement of the law. I wonder if security cameras can be a temporary solution until the area is "clean" of problems to the point that the cameras are not needed anymore.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Thanks Ayelet for joining the conversation. I think this conversation is important as it shows how different tools and features of the environment might be perceived and interpreted very differently.

This conversation made me try to articulate for myself why I did not feel safer with cameras or when I saw police men or soldiers with guns.
1. I tried to recall our discussion in the fall and I think that the other student who questioned having cameras and telephone with 911 thought that having these would signal that this could be a risky area and thus create fear of potential problems. At least, it's what I recall. Do you recall her argument Ayelet?
2. I also felt that she had some concerns around cameras and surveillance, which is one issue I have (and that has been very much debated). Reflecting about this today I felt that the problem (beyond the "big brother" associations) was that you needed to make sure that someone will do something and thus it is key that people trust that "someone" would watch these images and be ready to come and help them. . I personally don't necessarily associate with these cameras with immediate help. This might vary among individuals and also among cultures. For example, in one video posted by Luisa several people expressed their distrust in the army and the police, although they should in principle protect them and they also express fear. This was also something mentioned by a friend I interviewed:
Women won't go and complain about violence or rape, because the police won't take them seriously and they won't punish the offenders.
I remember being with my daughter, just after we adopted her. She was 3 years-old girl in Kathmandu and each time she saw soldiers or people with uniforms she was scared.
3. Today, in fact, I was discussing my family this thread of comments. While she did not remember that instance (she is 12 now) , she still (as I do) does not feel comfortable when she sees police men. I was asking her why and she immediately said she felt they were racist and that they would be more suspicious vis-a-vis African-Americans, Latinos or Asian who were not "very white". She then talked about stop-and-frisk. In fact, I asked her if someone was bothering her, or she felt unsafe and saw police men if she would go to them, her response was "no".
It reminded of an inspiration by Ashwin:

Caveat: Let me be clear that these are only perceptions that don't rely on do not refer to any specific individuals, nor a criticism of the work soldiers and police men do for society.

To conclude this long response: I think it is important to be aware of how some artifacts / technology or groups of people are interpreted by different individuals, but also different cultures. What signals safety to some, might signal dangers to others?
I am not sure there is a universal response. I guess we need to be aware of the different culture contexts and think of what would signal safety in a specific place, for a specific community.
I also think that it also underlines the need to make sure that whatever we implement we build trust in the system (technical and social).

Photo of An Old Friend

Anne-Laure, I've really enjoyed your posts and comments. I really like the way you think.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, but one idea in big data is the thought that we can learn enough about individual behavior to make accurate predictions about small cohorts of people, rather than dumping them into one big mean. MIT's Human Dynamics Group is at the forefront of this research.

Putting aside the ramifications of big data and privacy for a moment, I am struck by a similarity. The value of this approach is that we can generate interventions which work for specific groups of people, rather than taking a shotgun approach for the whole lot. This is in a sense the problem we are dealing with in thinking about what approach will be best for this challenge.

Although technology could be a part, my intuition is that we need to eventually come up with an idea that would allow both flexibility to be relevant to potentially disparate groups, while also having enough structure to be implementable.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Thanks Justin for the kind words.
I don't know much about the MIT's Human Dynamics Group but I agree with you that it is key to avoid thinking in general terms, and to develop a localized understanding.
This will allow us to hopefully see some general underlying themes and to also think about developing solutions that can be enacted differently depending on the local cultural context. E.g. girls and women might interpret differently what makes them feel safe (or unsafe), but they all encounter environments or situations that make them feel safe or unsafe. If we can define what they need to feel safe, we might then think of different ways to implement it. Is it what you have in mind?

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Anne-Laure, you remember correctly; the other student argued that having cameras would signal that the area is problematic and might be dangerous.

Although my first thought was that security cameras would make me feel safer in problematic areas, I can understand and relate to the other arguments as well. Maybe researching the perceptions of people in a specific area, discussing and educating them regarding the meaning of using cameras, and adjusting the solution based on the citizens preference would be the right thing to do?

It is very interesting to read about your daughter’s observations about soldiers and policemen. I wonder if it is the fact that they are holding weapons and have the power to hurt/kill makes them scary, or is it because they were observed taking unethical and violent actions against innocent people, and thus lost their credibility and trustworthiness. It can be interesting to compare this perception of police/army among citizens of different countries or even different areas in the same country.

I find the issue of weapons and power very critical when it comes to women’s ability to defend themselves. I think that even when women have the courage to protect themselves, they do not always have the ability/means to do so because physically they are weaker or do not tend to hold a weapon. I really liked some of the ideas posted here about carrying self-defense solutions that are not visible but will provide women with the ability to respond and protect themselves against attacks.

Another point to consider is that even if no one is watching the tape and doing something about it immediately, just having the camera there might prevent people from acting in an unlawful way in those areas. It is true, however, that if the reaction to violence in these areas will be slow and ineffective, in the long term the strengths of the solution would weaken.

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thanks for your comment. I agree with you that being aware of the possible different interpretations in certain cultures and communities is important.

As for my daughter, when she was little in Kathmandu or just after we came, I can tell for sure but at that time the civil war was not finished. Today, from what she says, I think that while she finds the guns scary, there is also an association with possible unethical use of power. Again comparing is crucial. My point was just to highlight (and this is true whatever your perception) that there's not one single perception and that we should not forget it as we start imagining solutions.

Regarding your last point: you are right that it is key to create a trust in the system and make people believe that technology like cameras will lead to negative consequences for offenders and help for the victims.

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