Ottawa - May 3 Graffiti report to Council
Supporting letter to local councillor

Fixing broken windows

I kept hearing references from the anti-graffiti "side" to the "Broken Window" theory - that leaving broken windows (or graffiti) in an area leads to a gradual deterioration of the neighbourhood and a corresponding increase in the frequency and seriousness of local crime. I was concerned with the "fear-mongering" approach being used, and that those stating this as a fact were actually only quoting from various web sites that quoted the theory and left it at that. And often point to the case of New York - zero tolerance of petty crime in the 90's and a drop in serious crime rates too - cited as "proof" the two are related and support of the theory.

So I turned to Google and Wiki to track down the source, and found some better answers, some alternate views that seem to get ignored when the theory is quoted. 

The following is from the Wiki article:


Based on a 1982 article titled  Broken Windowsby James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, which appeared in the March 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly , it states in part:

"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."

A successful strategy for preventing vandalism, say the book's authors, is to fix the problems when they are small. Repair the broken windows within a short time, say, a day or a week, and the tendency is that vandals are much less likely to break more windows or do further damage. Clean up the sidewalk every day, and the tendency is for litter not to accumulate (or for the rate of littering to be much less). Problems do not escalate and thus respectable residents do not flee a neighborhood.


Sounds good but in fact several subsequent studies have re-examined the initial study, and new data, and concluded that the relationship is modest at best, especially for serious crime.

Some of their points are:

  • "the relationship between disorder and serious crime is modest, and even that relationship is largely an artifact of more fundamental social forces"
  • "rates of major crimes also dropped in many other U.S. cities [besides New York] during the 1990s, both those that had adopted "zero tolerance" policies and those that had not"
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development program that re-housed inner-city project tenants in New York into more orderly neighborhoods. The Broken Windows theory would suggest that these tenants would commit less crime once moved, due to the more stable conditions on the streets. Harcourt and Ludwig found instead that the tenants continued to commit crime at the same rate."
  • "For the broken windows approach, Lott found that the approach was actually associated with murder and auto theft rising and rapes and larceny falling. Increased arrest rates, affirmative action policies for hiring police, and right-to-carry laws were much more important in explaining the changes in crime rates."
  • "Levitt noticed that years before the 1990s, abortion was legalized. Women who were least able to raise kids (the poor, drug addicted and unstable) were able to get abortions, so the number of children being born in broken families was decreasing. Most crimes committed in New York are committed by 16-24 year old males; when this demographic decreased in number the crime rate followed. At the same time, Levitt also found that the greater number of police as well an increased incarceration rate had contributed to the decline in crime."

I'd encourage you to read the whole article, and discuss the larger views with your local community leaders and police.


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Sang Bum Park

thanks for your writing. it's helpful to me. appreciate to you.

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