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
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: http://www.city-journal.org/2009/nytom_ny-crime-decline.html).
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)?