The Broken Windows Theory – A Tipping Point for Better Communities

Reading Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (admittedly almost a decade after the book’s own tipping point), I’m incredibly intrigued by the discussion of ‘The Broken Windows Theory.”

To illustrate an example of “context” for a tipping point, Gladwell talks about this criminological theory, which states that monitoring and maintaining urban environments in a well-ordered condition may prevent further vandalism as well as an escalation into more serious crime.

In 1985, a consultant to the New York City Transit Authority implemented this theory to try to mitigate rising violence and total disorder on the subway system. The presence of graffiti was intensively targeted, and the city implemented zero tolerance of subway fare-dodging. A crackdown on these “quality of life” issues also included strict enforcement against public drinking, urination, and the “squeegee men” who had been wiping windshields of stopped cars and demanding payment. As a result, rates of both petty and serious crime in New York City fell suddenly and significantly, and continued to drop for the following ten years.

This line of thought and its success as a means to improve neighborhoods and avert more serious violence can be used to justify efforts to crack down on litterers and vandals, as well as the money spent on neighborhood clean up programs and public art.

I, myself, have even wondered at times if the time and effort spent arresting people for misdemeanors might be better spent tracking more serious crimes. But this theory really puts things into perspective for me. It makes sense that people might act different in the “context” of their environment. And the more beautiful and pristine the environment, maybe the less likely people are to want to mess it up!

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