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From the 1999 National Summit on Building Clean, Livable Cities. Sponsored by the Urban Litter Partnership. A Joint Initiative of Keep America Beautiful, Inc. and The U.S. Conference of Mayors.

By Jennifer DeLong, Project Manager, U.S. Conference of Mayors

At the National Summit on “Building Clean, Livable Cities,” Dr. George Kelling kicked off discussion by presenting his popular theory on “broken windows,” a metaphor for the breakdown of community organization and stability. Quality-of-life issues related to environmental blight are rooted in this “broken window” theory, postulated in the 1940s and recently popularized through a series of writings by Dr. Kelling and political scientist James Q. Wilson.

The theory posits that a broken window left unrepaired in a building sends a signal that there is a lack of concern about the building. This broken window, left untended, leads to more broken windows. This pivotal event causes a chain reaction because when residents see that vandalism is being ignored, they begin to tolerate other negative activities as acceptable behaviors. In the same way, disorderly behavior, left untended, leads to fear and more serious crimes. Neglect and apathy take root in a neighborhood, fueling further deterioration and often leading to other societal ills.

Dr. Kelling commended the mayors for first recognizing this theory to be true in their own communities, and actively taking leadership to develop local programs addressing issues of blight, crime, and decline in urban areas. He discussed the challenge of balancing the rights of individuals to self-expression with the public rights to orderly neighborhoods. He emphasized the city's need to take back control of public spaces, and that neighborhoods should not be the victims of gang control, crime, and other related problems.

To restore order, Dr. Kelling noted several important components of community organization, including:

  • Residents taking personal responsibility for the neighborhoods.

  • Citizens and police departments working together to combat crime.

  • Business Improvement Districts being essential to clean, safe downtown areas.

  • Civic and church groups providing active support in neighborhoods.

  • Midtown community courts providing enforcement.

  • Restoration of authority for parents and teachers over children in the community.

Dr. Kelling asserted that only with a recommitment to values of civility and respect for others will neighborhoods once again be able to flourish. Dr. Kelling's past experience on projects in New York City include the highly publicized effort to develop order maintenance policies in the New York City subway system, which ultimately led to radical crime reductions. Later, he also consulted with the New York City Police Department to effectively deal with its “squeegeemen,” individuals who would wash windshields of idling vehicles at traffic lights, then demand money for their uninvited work.  

Here are some highlighted quotes from both Dr. Kelling's book, entitled “Fixing Broken Windows”, and his address to the mayors at the National Summit:  

“Quality of life and disorder continue to be among the most urgent issues local politicians address...yet the national debate on crime focuses exclusively on serious, index crimes.”  

“The problem is not the condition of being homeless or poor; it is the behavior of many persons, some homeless but others not, who violate the laws of the city and state...the issue is behavior.”

“Many of these wannabes need instruction about civil behavior. Restraining this group by enforcing rules reduces the disorder and chaos that both stimulate and provide cover for those dedicated to serious crime.”  

“If we ask residents about the major problems in their neighborhoods, almost invariably they describe abandoned cars, graffiti, and other such disorderly behaviors.”  

“Restoring order is key to revitalizing our cities, and to preventing the downward spiral into urban decay, regardless of whether a reduction in crime results.”  

“Quality of life crimes are the focus of the new Midtown Community Court. Eighty percent of all sentences contain orders for performing community service in the neighborhood in which the crimes were committed and supervised by the neighborhood community leaders. If they fail to appear, they are sent to jail.”

“Restoring order was not merely the responsibility of police, but an integrated effort involving a number of different agencies and social service providers, all of which engaged in a problem-solving process to target a specific set of problems. The end result was not only order restored, but crime reduced, and most probably, prevented.”  

“No efforts at restoring order in the community will be successful in the long run without the development of a full partnership between citizens in the community and the criminal justice institutions that affect conditions in their neighborhoods.”

“Citizen or neighborhood-based groups are a key element in this paradigm. Opportunity reduction, problem solving, and crime prevention through environmental design, as well as political and legal action, have all become part of the vernacular of community groups and are included in their banks of skills.”

“The most significant effect of reducing disorder is the development of a renewed commitment within the community for citizens themselves to take responsibility for maintaining civil and safe social conditions.”

“We need to bring police and criminal justice policies in line with citizen concerns. New research is crucial to overturning social policies and legal dogma that give undue weight to liberty interests and ignore personal responsibility and community interests.”

 “We must address disorder through a comprehensive community-wide problem-solving effort, forcing a change in the behavior of wannabes away from disorderly acts, increasing police contact with and control over perpetrators of index crimes, and causing citizens to accept a greater role in order maintenance in public spaces in their community. This holds the potential for preventing and reducing crime.”  

For more information about the “broken windows” theory, or to purchase a copy of Dr. George Kelling's book, entitled “Fixing Broken Windows”, please contact his office at Rutgers University at 973.353.1103.

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