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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)?


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