Imagine that you are moving to a new city: As you’re house-hunting, you walk into a neighborhood and notice that the windows on some of the buildings are broken, trash is strewn all over the sidewalks, and abandoned cars are occupying the corners. Without knowing anything about the neighborhood, you assume it is an unsafe place to live. This assumption is at the heart of Broken Windows Theory, which, simply put, states that signs of disorder will lead to more disorder.
It spotlights some of the social and physical incivilities that cause neighborhoods’ decline into high-crime areas, including: public drinking, prostitution, vacant lots, and abandoned buildings. These spaces are often off the radar when it comes to official surveillance.
Cues to Care theory, on the other hand, implies that greater community responsibility leads to an increased sense of safety, but more importantly, greater attachment and ownership of spaces. It reinforces the idea that inhabitants’ maintaining and supervising space will generate the oversight needed to deter criminal activity.
According to a 2015 study conducted in Youngstown, Ohio, one way of improving the safety of a neighborhood is by greening public spaces. The study examined the effects of greening vacant lots on crime rates. As a result of the local community’s involvement in greening the vacant lots, there was a significant decrease in different types of crime: 85% in felony assaults, 24% in burglaries, 69% in robberies, and 7% in thefts.
It’s not just that installing greenery contributes to a safer environment, it also invites individuals to create everyday relationships that can be more effective at staving away criminal activity than legal sanctions. This process is referred to by David Garland as informal social control.
The Baltimore School of Urban Ecology
A 2016 analytical study published in the journal of Landscape and Urban Planning was conducted across 1,000 houses in Baltimore and included more than 40 yard features, including lawns, trees, shrubs, and flower beds. The aim was to prove the correlation between well-maintained residential yards and lower crime rates.
The results found 10 statistically significant landscape features that correlated with lowered crime rates. The ones that top the list were having a lawn, shrubs, water sprinklers, and trees. Negative features such as litter and lack of lawn trimming correlated with higher crime rates.
According to science researcher at the U.S. Forest Service Morgan Grove, the concept of urban ecology is not merely the physical eco-components of the city, but also the social sciences of landscape development. Simply put, safety level on a micro-level, i.e. within neighborhoods, is highly dependent on the maintenance of the backyard.
More maintenance means more community responsibility, which in turn means enhanced social relations in deterring unlawful behavior. Whereas the “Broken Windows Theory” claims that criminals seek physical spatial signs of neglect, the “Cues to Care” theory – adopted by the Baltimore yard study – reinforces the idea that maintaining shared spaces within a community deter criminal activity.
American architect Oscar Newman highlights in his Defensible Space Theory that individuals should have the feeling that they own shared public space and take responsibility for continuously improving, creating natural surveillance, rather than being monitored by legal objects.
Eyes On The Street & Broken Windows Theory
Place attachment – which can be defined as the bond between users and their space as an outcome of maintaining place identity – can be a counter-technique to Broken Windows Theory. It is nourished by daily encounters with the environment and neighbors, including their sense of responsibility to upkeep their home and neighborhood.
On the macro-level, shared urban spaces are central to cities. Since they are the sharpest focal point of communal interaction, their quality and surrounding environment determine how individuals use them. According to Jane Jacobs, spaces can be spotlighted with a range of activities and uses if they are accessible and safe. On the other hand, neglected spaces can act as trigger points for illegal activities – leading to less safety. Her claim is that in order for a street to be a safe place, “there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street.”
Using less authoritarian monitoring methods and allowing voluntary care by inhabitants – via installing community gardens in vacant lots, for example – can reinforce their sense of place attachment. An article published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology defines the notion of attachment as the bonds cultivated by memory accumulation and informal active investment in decorating one’s house or yard. Residents are attached by keeping up appearance of their spaces that are sources of pride and identity.
What’s left to discover is alternative methods for formal bodies to implement broken windows policing strategies. One article suggests that the work of residents needs to be integrated with police efforts to alleviate disordered conditions. It’s not enough for police to act upon reports by citizens; rather, neighborhoods may benefit from police shifting to an investigative technique, by helping the community to solve issues regarding their neighborhood and increasing their sense of safety and ownership of spaces.
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