Here is just one more study that proves everything is related, and the smallest urban decisions can snowball in to a ruined neighborhood. I wrote earlier about Donald Appleyard’s street study in San Francisco, which proved a better quality of life on streets with calm automobile traffic. The City of Chicago’s 2011 Pedestrian Crash Analysis suggests that calm streets also provide a better chance of life.
This correlation between street crime and pedestrian-vehicle crashes can be explained with the help of the Broken Window Theory, introduced in a 1982 article of The Atlantic. The theory, created by James Wilson and George Kelling, explains that the best indicator of future criminal behavior can be predicted by current criminal behavior. It takes its name from the example of a few broken windows in an otherwise fine neighborhood:
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.
If I’m being honest, I am guilty of this in my lifetime, and I am sure almost everyone else is as well. Who could help, at some point, seeing a boarded up or graffitied building and not feeling the urge to contribute a little to its destruction? It’s one of the less admirable traits of human nature, but it’s there. I would never, however, pick up a rock on a bright summer morning along Grand Avenue and throw it through the window of Cafe Latte.
The Broken Window Theory has a controversial history, and it makes some pretty general sociological assumptions. It was most notoriously employed by Mayor Guiliani in New York City, with great affect but not without angering and alienating wide swaths of the city’s citizens. In an effort to tame New York, the NYPD was instructed to take drastic “zero tolerance” measures against petty criminal behavior such as graffiti or littering. It was extremely effective in cleaning up the streets, but filled the jails and derailed the lives of thousands of young people that made an otherwise relatively minor mistake. However, the theory held true, and in an absence of litter, graffiti, broken windows, and missing hub caps, the crime levels dropped dramatically. The theory’s authors acknowledged that their work could be used as an excuse to discriminatively arrest people for the “‘crime’ of being undesirable”, but this should be contributed more to racism than to the legitimacy of the theory.
There is a flip side to the “zero tolerance” approach to the Broken Window Theory. The Minneapolis Downtown Council, a group of commercial businesses and landowners, formed the Downtown Improvement District (DID) in 2009. The downtown neighborhood of Minneapolis is now full of bright green pickup trucks and helpful Ambassadors in bright blue uniforms giving directions, offering greetings, and most importantly, keeping eyes on the streets. The DID boasts some pretty impressive numbers in three years of operation: over 2.5 million pounds of trash removed, 13,000 pieces of graffiti removed, and over 25 lives directly saved.
The DID is an extremely interesting study of business leaders taking it upon themselves to finance and operate an organization that benefits the community, but as any student of Jane Jacobs will tell you, the benefit is mutual.
This is where the statistics from Chicago become very interesting. It is known that petty crime on the street contributes to a sense of lawlessness, which leads to more crime. Before now, however, I had never made the logical leap off of the sidewalk and in to a car. It is true that in an undesirable area I am less likely to drive a reasonable speed or to feel cheerful toward pedestrians, I might even honk at someone! Next, I take myself back to a pleasant morning on Grand Ave, and I can’t even fathom speeding, blowing past pedestrians or cutting anyone off. Thanks to the DID, I am sure this is much moreso the case in Downtown with 2.5 million less pounds of garbage on the ground. if the correlation on the graph above is to be believed, it could be postulated that 25+ lives saved is an extremely conservative estimate.