The Broken Windows Theory

When I first heard about this one, a lightbulb went off in my head that was as bright as any billboard in Times Square.

The origin of the idea was an anti-crime measure in urban areas. Long story short, the theory says that a “broken window” in a building sends a signal to people that the residents in the community are not concerned with the overall upkeep of their neighborhood, and that vandalism and crime are tolerated there. In essence, the signal is that it is OK for someone to break another window. And another. And another.

Conversely, if an area looks beautiful and is maintained well, then people will take pride in living there and not want see it vandalized or have crimes performed in their now-improved neighborhood. The more people there are in a given place – who care about what happens there, the more people will want to prevent something from damaging that area.
At the same time, now this is the important part: the environment that is well maintained is ITSELF a deterrent to crime, as it sends a signal to potential vandals and criminals that their behavior is being monitored by residents and that misconduct is not tolerated in this community.

The image of “broken windows” being used as a blanket example for things that can found in areas with high crime rates: graffiti, brown lawns, sidewalks and streets that needed better paving, etc. The original article, written for Atlantic Monthly in 1982 stated:

“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.”

The theory was put into practice in several major Metropolitan areas in Massachusetts, New Mexico, the Netherlands and my home city of New York. Broken and unkept items were replaced, and funds were invested into nicer looking facades, parks, streets, thereby improving the look of neighborhoods. So, what happened? Generally, crime decreased! Whether this cleaning-up was the sole reason or a contributing factor remains under debate, but the fact is that crime did decrease at the same time.

Once each area received a good once-over, the Real Estate Industry took notice. More investments into these once considered “fringe” areas occurred, and development, specifically in the homeowners’ market ensued. I saw it with my own eyes: an area once considered to be not the most desirable due to abandoned houses and storefronts or sub-par looking parks and sidewalks, after some TLC was suddenly the “hot new neighborhood” with sparkling condominium buildings and businesses geared toward the new neighbors’ income bracket.

This idea has been put into place into schools as well. When an educational environment is shiny and new, functional and efficient, healthy and nurturing, then the students will change their behavior to suit the new improved surroundings.
The concept is that if a student has been given an atmosphere that is beautiful, then they will feel that they are deserving of such an environment, and their demeanor will change not only in relation to the environment but to other students and teachers as well. You know what? It actually works! Many schools that have implemented this theory have seen major improvements in conduct and have made large strides in grades, test scores and graduation rates.

People actually do change their conduct in a better-looking setting than in one that is run-down. We all want to take pride in being somewhere that is beautiful. You can see it in large-scale examples like beautiful hotel lobbies, the opera, museums. Watch how someone who normally does not spend time in places like these changes their stance almost immediately upon entering. They will usually stand taller. Once acclimated for a few moments, they will walk prouder and allow themselves to be awed by their environment. Think about it: do you act differently when dining in a better restaurant versus a fast-food chain? Why?

The interesting thing is that most people will look to others in their surroundings in order to determine how they should act and what behavior is considered acceptable in that particular setting. The more interesting thing is what happens when there are NO people around: people then look for clues and signals in the environment to tell them how to behave. An atmosphere that is clean and well maintained sends a signal that the area is monitored frequently and well cared-for, thereby deterring vandalism and crime. On the other hand, surroundings that are full of litter, graffiti and yes, broken windows, sends off the signal that this is a place where vandalism and crime can easily be committed and go undetected.

The theory all boils down to this: Our behavior is dictated by our environment.

So, what can each of us do in our individual lives, on a more attainable scale? Well, whether at home or at work, a more ordered and efficient space leads to more order and efficiency. A well-maintained place full of beautiful well-maintained items will signal to people that this is a place to be treated with care and respect, and that other people in that setting are to be treated with that same care and respect too. Now, I’m not suggesting that there is crime an/or vandalism in your own home, but how about asking yourself, “Does my own environment reflect how I want people to treat it?” More importantly, “Does my environment reflect how I want to be treated in it?”

Try this method in one space of your own life: It could be small scale like your desk at work or kitchen counters. How can improving these spaces improve the tasks you perform there? People will be sure to notice a spruced up office space. And you will create more room in the kitchen for people to cook with you, and it will certainly be easier to maintain a clean counter if it’s already clean.

It could be something larger like a yard or basement. Creating a nicer space for the kids to play or for family and friends to congregate will improve the lives of those you care about. A den? Family room? Front porch? Anywhere that you feel could use a change from clutter or, just to make something look more appealing. Plant a flower bed or add some nice terra-cotta pots in the stairs. Paint the fence. Add a nice small tree. Think about “curb appeal.” You’re not only making your home a nicer place for your family who lives there, but for the neighbors and community as well. Maybe the people next door will see your flowers and love them, and get some too. This is how movements start. Then, if you’re going super-scale to the neighborhood level, and involving lots of people, you really get the idea.

Whatever thoughts or experience you have on putting this into practice, make sure to leave a comment as I’d love to hear from you.

For more information, and to check out some great spaces, check out my website.

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