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April 21, 2004

Broken Windows

One of the best books I've read in a long time has been The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. In this book Gladwell argues that social epidemics, like the sudden popularity of a local restaurant or a dramatic decrease in crime for a city, are usually caused by little things or occurences that build up until they reach the "tipping point." Gladwell uses all sorts of examples from the midnight ride of Paul Revere to Sesame Street to the anti-smoking campaign for teenagers to demonstrate how little things can indeed make a big difference.

His best example, however, centered around crime in New York City. In the 80s, NYC was riddled with crime. Gladwell tells the story of Bernard Goetz, the Subway Vigilante, and how he ruthlessly gunned down 4 men who he says tried to rob him on the subway in 1984. People in New York were sick of the crime and living in fear, and Gladwell uses the story of Goetz to illustrate that things were particularly bad on the subway. Gladwell writes:

"Every one of the 6,000 cars on the Transit Authority fleet, with the exception of the Midtown shuttle, was covered with graffiti. In winter, the cars were cold; in summer, there was no air conditioning. Fare-beating was so commonplace that the Transit Authority lost $150 million annually. From 15,000 to 20,000 felonies were committed on the trains every year."

And yet suddenly towards the late 80s and early 90s, crime in NYC dropped dramatically on the subways. You may think this was due to a massive police crackdown on violent crime, or the arrests of some big name criminals. Of course, it was much simpler than this: NYC decided to start keeping the subways free of graffiti and the police started focusing on stopping fare jumping. The local transit authority began reclaiming subway cars by fixing them up and painting over all the graffiti. Gladwell tells the humorous story of how graffiti artists would spend days painting a subway car only to painfully watch the car immediately be whitewashed. And once a car was reclaimed the transit authority never let it get any graffiti on it again. The chief of the transit police got in on the act by arresting fare jumpers instead of focusing on felonies. These seemingly little acts had a remarkable effect because they signaled a sense of caring rather than apathy. Since would be criminals could see that someone cared about the environment around them, they were less likely to commit a crime. This is what is known as the "Broken Windows" theory. Gladwell writes:

Broken Windows was the brainchild of the criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. Wilson and Kelling argued that crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes.

Amazing in its simplicity, isn't it? And it is equally amazing how one can use the "Broken Windows" theory in every day life. Take my house and family, for example. As is typical, my kids' rooms are a complete mess most of the time. Clothes on the floor, beds unmade, homework scattered everywhere. When I look at this of course I cringe, but it forces me to look at my own habits. How does my own room look? Do we keep the entire house as clean as it should be? What kind of message am I unknowingly sending to my own kids about the standards of home cleanliness? Needless to say, I could do better.

I also see examples of the "broken windows" theory on college campuses. I have spent time at 4 colleges throughout my undergraduate, graduate, and work life. Before I read The Tipping Point I have always thought that you could tell how much pride students have in their respective college by the amount of graffiti you find in bathroom stalls on campus. I know, it sounds silly, but the "broken windows" theory has convinced me I am on to something. Take for instance my first college, Concordia College in Moorhead, MN. Not a speck of graffiti anywhere, from what I remember. Alumni from Concordia College also are very proud of their college. It is almost sickening, to tell you the truth. CC alumni are some of the only people you will see wear their college rings! I then transferred to Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD (love will make you do crazy things) and found that the bathrooms there were covered with graffiti. Not surprisingly, to me at least, I also found more of a sense of apathy on campus there.

How about the mighty U of M then? This place is so big that it is difficult to take a completely accurate measurement, but so far I've been impressed. I spend most of my time in Wilson Library and the bathrooms here are clean. You may see some graffiti every now and again, but it is quickly washed away. I also think students here have a lot of pride in their school. Now, I realize you can't totally rank school pride on bathroom cleanliness, but it is certainly one of those little things that can help a person make a measurement.

How about you and your alma mater? What do you remember about the cleanliness of the public facilities? Do you think it had a impact on your school pride and/or apathy?

Posted by snackeru at April 21, 2004 4:47 PM | Books


Could someone tell me why this post is getting hit so much today?

Posted by: Shane at May 18, 2004 1:33 PM

Broken Windows Theory

I have the term paper Broken Windows Theory posted on my CPTED website.

Broken Windows Theory

Posted by: Harry at October 7, 2005 1:04 PM

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