Sweeping Up the Broken Glass
A 1980s criminological theory has been implemented in many cities throughout the U.S. as a way to deter crime and revitalize their neighborhoods

By Megan Berberich
Enter New York City’s Bryant Park: littered with trash and debris, trees and plants went unmaintained and drug dealers completed transactions around every corner. By the 1970s, this 17,000-square-foot park was a symbol of the city’s decline. It wasn’t until Dan Biederman, one of the country’s leading urban parks and streetscape planners, came to the rescue with his company; Biederman Redevelopment Ventures Corporation (BRV).

It was all thanks to the Broken Windows Theory, an idea Biederman discovered by accident.

A longtime reader of Atlantic Magazine, Biederman brought a copy along with him on a mountain climbing trip. A 1982 cover story was called, “Thinking About Crime” by George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, two Boston College professors.

“I sat down in the middle of the woods with mosquitoes biting the hell out of me and read the story,” said Biederman. “I got so excited because once I got back I told my wife what I had read and that the article taught me how I was going to fix Bryant Park and it was called the Broken Window Theory.”

The premises is simple — if you have a broken window in a neighborhood and leave it unattended, more broken windows will appear within that neighborhood.

Inspired, he took that principle back to Bryant Park, redesigning the space to include a restaurant and four permanent food kiosks. He spearheaded the implementation of dozens of daily and weekly programs, even adding chairs and movable tables. These changes ushered in crowds of over 5,400 people at lunchtime on non-event days. The park created over $3 billion of value for its owner.

The park didn’t actually have windows to repair, but by changing or improving minor details, the BRV completely revamped the area.

Decades later, Bryant Park is seen as one of the city’s greatest successes.

From Theory to Reality

Really, it all revolved around the idea of attacking the base of the problem. Eliminating smaller crimes, and prevented the large crimes from occurring.

“If you let parts of your neighborhood go unattended, you will see crime and disorder in your community,” said Tod Burke, professor of criminal justice at Radford University and former Maryland police officer.

Biederman started with exactly what Kelling and Wilson recommended — cutting down on things that people perceived of as out of control — things like eliminating the smell of urine, removing graffiti and cutting down on bad behavior.

“You know how people say don’t sweat the small stuff? Well, they should sweat it,” said Burke.

Order begets accountability and disorder begets crime, the theory suggests. People begin to care about a space when it’s transformed into something beautiful.

“It’s simple,” Biederman said. “Anywhere that Kelling has been a consultant and anywhere were Bill Bratton (former Boston police official) or his allies have been police commissioner, there has been a lot of success with the broken windows enforcement.”

Many credit the theory as the cause for New York City’s significant drop in criminal activity throughout the ‘90s. In fact, violent crime decreased 51 percent and homicide decreased 72 percent. In the 1990s, Bratton became the commissioner of the NYC police department and implemented a “zero tolerance” policy.

Biederman found a recipe for success. Or at least, a simple way to clean up the mess.

Reclaiming Cities

Like the New York City of the 80s, Detroit has seen better days. The city took a major hit in the economic collapse of 2008, but organizations like Detroit Future City (DFC) are looking to revitalize their city.

Ken Cockrell Jr., former Detroit mayor, leads a team of experts implementing DFC strategies that invest in the future of the city. Unlike using the police department as a source of major crime deterrence, DFC collaborates with public and private Detroit businesses to articulate a blueprint for Detroit’s future success. These pilot programs are created, tested and then shared with the community for reimplementation.

One such example is the deconstruction pilot project, which took 10 single-family homes from the Springwells Village neighborhood of Detroit and captured specific metrics around the ability of deconstruction contractors to partner with demolition contractors while removing vacant structures from neighborhoods (with moderate levels of vacancy). Similar to the Broken Windows theory, by taking rundown parts of the neighborhood and revitalizing it, the neighborhood is expected to thrive.

Erin Kelly, DFC representative for the deconstruction project, sees it as a move toward community empowerment and involvement.

Kelly and Kinkead

Erin Kelly and Dan Kinkead, both DFC representatives, led the Partial Deconstruction Project, a pilot program through Detroit Future City.

“We went door-to-door telling people how they could buy the vacant land once the project was finished,” Kelly said. “Many had a hard time seeing how it was beneficial before we did the project but now that it’s not just a vacant building, there are so many more people that are interested.”

This pilot program was finished in March and research is still being compiled. But Kelly knows one thing: rebuilding the community will do more than just clean up the bad parts — it creates a connection and something the community can care for.

“It does so much to someone’s psyche,” Kelly said. “When they realize their neighborhood is something to showcase, that gives them a sense of empowerment.”

Back to the Land

Another program led by DFC transforms vacant lots through the use of green infrastructure. Led by the Greening of Detroit and volunteers, the program is a model for how green infrastructure can be implemented in the city.

This program transformed 20 vacant residential property lots in Detroit’s Cody Rouge neighborhood. The lots receive four different low-maintenance treatments designed to “stabilize and beautify, increase tree canopy, and mitigate storm water runoff” the property.

Chris Dorle, DFC representative for the project, believes removing blight and runoff from these neighborhoods will help residents see a better quality of life.

“There is a Detroit storm water overflow and every time it rains more than a half inch, it flows into the Great Lakes — and that flows into the fresh water,” said Dorle.

By managing the storm, they can manage the bigger problem of blight in their neighborhood, which goes back to the Broken Window Theory. When cities aren’t taken care of, it’s a hot bed of crime.

Despite many successes, both pilot programs come with challenges.

“Treatments are very costly to maintain,” said Dorle. “The last thing we want is to go back to blighted property.”

Community groups and other methods of upkeep have been used to try to combat the issue, but no solution is perfect.

“We now have these vacant lots, but they can easily turn into a dumping ground,” Kelly said.

DFC is responsible for keeping the area clean, but it can also fall on the shoulders of its residents.

While many cities have seen success stories through use of the Broken Window Theory or strands of it, there are those that strongly oppose the theory.

Holes in the BWT

But the theory isn’t foolproof, and not everyone holds it in such high regard. There are skeptics, like Richard Moran, a professor of sociology and criminology at Mount Holyoke College and a national commentator for National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” Moran credits the lack of empirical evidence as a reason to question the theory.

“Although New York City experienced the most dramatic decline, murder and violent crime have declined nationwide,” said Moran. “Some cities that experienced a drop in crime adopted new policing practices but others did not.”

Take, East St. Louis, Ill., one of the most economically depressed cities in America. The city was once so in debt that police layoffs were common and many police cars did not have functioning radios and stayed idled due to gas shortages. Despite the debt, the city experienced a 60 percent decline in the homicide rate over the same period, from 67 homicides in 1991 to 27 homicides in 1996.

Burke, too, is wary of relying too heavily on the theory.

“We have to be careful about the cause and effect of this theory because there could be other variables besides the policing tactics that lead to a drop in crime,” Burke said.

NYC and other cities have been greatly impacted by the theory. But, because of its inability to find a direct correlation, people must take it with a grain of salt.

For Kelly, it’s worth a shot. In a city like Detroit, that’s one step closer to a better community.

“So many smart, dedicated people are working on this everyday to help get Detroit get back on its feet,” said Kelly.

Photos courtesy of Detroit Future City



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Samantha BakerSweeping Up the Broken Glass