What is the Broken Windows Theory?
The broken windows theory is a theory of urban criminology that emerged in the early 1980s and was heavily utilized by the New York Police. It is an approach to fighting crime which theorizes that the upkeep of cities helps to promote the civil participation in its well-being. In simple terms, the more orderly a city appears (hence the connection to "broken windows"), the more orderly its citizens will behave.
The origin of Broken Windows Theory can be traced back to a psychologist from Stanford, Connecticut, named Philip Zimbardo. He had set up a social experiment to test the theory in 1969. Zimbardo parked an old car in the Bronx, and another one of similar condition parked in Palo Alto, Califiornia. The car in the Bronx was vandalized almost immediately with all items of importance stolen. The other car in Palo Alto was left undisturbed for more than a week before Zimbardo himself went and smashed its windows. Within hours, other people came and vandalized the car as well. The hypothesis is that a community such as the Bronx, where city services may not have the resources to encourage the upkeep of its facilities, would be more apathetic than an upscale area like Palo Alto. This theory was later stated in an article in 1982 by James Wilson and George Kelling who stated that criminal activities in a community begin as small misdemeanors and gradually grow to become capital offenses. The authors also stated that the best way of dealing with crime was dealing with it in its infancy through making neighborhoods free of social ills such as prostitution, drug abuse, and other disorderly tendencies.
In the 1980s and 70s, New York City had seen an upsurge in criminal activity and the city’s municipal council was desperately seeking solutions to the menace that was tarnishing its reputation. The city’s Transit Authority then hired the author of the “Broken Windows” article, Mr. George Kelling as a consultant who then suggested the implementation of the theory. The Transit Authority’s leader, David Gunn implemented the approach by first clearing all graffiti from the city’s subway system which was conducted during his final term from 1984 to 1990. Kelling’s successor, William J. Bratton continued with the implementation of the theory through non-tolerance of fare-dodging as well as reducing leniency during arrests for petty offences. In 1993, New York City Mayor, Ruby Giuliani hired Bratton as the police commissioner, and this gave Bratton a wider scope to implement the broken windows theory and was noted for arrests over public urination, public drinking, and other misdemeanors. Several studies in the past have linked the significant decline in criminal activities in the past decade to Bratton’s implementation of the “broken windows” theory. The impressive results of New York City’s implementation of the theory have made several other US cities implement the theory including Boston, Albuquerque, and Lowell.
Through the rolling out of the theory in New York, the areas saw a decline in criminal activities and also improved in face value which made the area appealing to investors and attracted many tenants who initially, were skeptical about living in those areas. However, the theory has not been consistently successful when applied elsewhere.