Testing the Broken Windows Theory

A report in this week's Economist explains that researchers in the Netherlands deliberately created controled settings as a series of field experiments designed to discover if signs of vandalism, litter and low-level lawbreaking could change the way people behave.
They found that they could, by a lot: doubling the number who are prepared to litter, trespass, or steal.
According to the Economist, the message for policymakers and police officers is that clearing up graffiti or littering promptly could help fight the spread of crime. Read more here. A full report on the experiment's findings is published in the current issue of the journal Science (subscription req'd).


Thanks for the link, Ben - I can't wait to check this out. At various times, I've also run across studies that show that landscaping can also impact crime rate. Contrary to expectations, a space that is denuded and institutional (as I recall) does not work nearly as well as a space with lots of greenery. I'll have to poke around and see if I can find it.
Anonymous said…
Interesting, have not read the full report.

I wonder if they controlled for neighborhood factors releated to collective efficacy--i.e. are the areas with more of the bad stuff less likely to have community gardens, active civic organizations, etc.

Chris Watler
Benjamin Chambers, Thanks for the comment. I'd be very interested to read anything about the connection between green spaces vs. crime, as it's a bit of a pet issue for me.

Chris, I haven't been able to read the full report (I don't have a subscription to Science), but the summary in the Economist seemed to state that the researchers attempted to control as many variables as possible (since they were trying to conduct a controlled scientifice experiment) and just changed one factor in each experiment - graffiti vs. clean walls, litter and garbage vs. clean streets, and compliance vs. non-compliance with a posted regulation (about not locking bicycles to a particular fence). In their experiment the "bad stuff" was being controlled by the researchers, not a product of actual neighborhood conditions.

In my own opinion, I think the theories of collective efficacy and "broken windows" are complementary, rather than competing, views. In the context of limited resources, limited political will, and half-hearted or cynical civil servants, it takes collective efficacy to prevent broken windows! A particularly zealous goverment official (we've worked with a few great NYPD Community Affairs officers), can make a real impact on conditions - it requires commitment, creativity and sustained follow-up. But in the long run, making a lasting improvement to quality of life requires community action, I think. Residents are best equipped to maintain and clean-up streets, set and enforce social norms, police informal behavior, and pressure the city when services (like repairing street lights or doing extra cleaning) aren't being delivered.
Also, this book looks interesting:

St. Jean, Peter K.B. Pockets of Crime: Broken Windows, Collective Efficacy, and the Criminal Point of View. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 2007.

It focuses on interviews with criminals about how they observe neighborhood conditions and make assumptions about collective efficacy (althought that's probably not how they would describe it). It was reviewed in the most recent issue of Geography and Public Safety, which you can view here.

Does anyone else out there have a reaction or an experience?
Julius Lang said…
Here's another blogger weighing in on this study:
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