Law and litter

2010-10-19 00:00

TIME, distance and new experiences allowed me a fresh look at my home town after a three-week absence. It was a Sunday afternoon when I returned and the streets were deserted. Trash lay everywhere. A hot wind blew and the lack of rain rendered everything dry and dusty. There was a Wild West feel about the place. Bring on the tumbleweed and this would be Dodge City.

Driving down Mayor’s Walk, I saw litter strewn across the grass verges and split rubbish bags in festering piles beneath blossoming jacarandas. A number of emotions bubbled up and under. Anger and frustration that such a situation had been allowed to happen in the city I love. With the anger came aggression, a wanting to hit back. After all, why bother sticking to the rules? Nobody else is. Perhaps the comparison with Dodge City was more apt than I first thought. Dodge City was famously lawless.

That night an item on M-Net’s Carte Blanche titled “Maritzburg Mess” laid it out for all to see. It’s now official: we are a national embarrassment.

A couple of days later someone I was interviewing for an article inadvertently put it all together. “Security and environment go together. Crime and grime. There’s a study that found that if there is litter around and the area is unkempt people are more likely to break the law, even previously law-abiding citizens.”

As it turns out not only is there a study, there’s a theory — Broken Windows Theory. It first saw the light of day in a 1982 article in the Atlantic Monthly by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. “Consider a building with a few broken windows,” they wrote. “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.” In this part of the world they take things a bit further.

In 1996, the book Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities by George L. Kelling and Catharine Cole proposed a more direct relationship between degraded environments and escalating crime, adding that authorities should act early to prevent situations from spiralling out of control.

Human beings check out how others behave to find out what is socially acceptable in a given environment. They tend to conform to what they perceive as the norm. In a degraded environment where littering appears to be okay and where the authorities do nothing to stop it, it becomes acceptable to behave anti-socially, to create a mess. Even law-abiding citizens relax their standards. A clean environment sends out a clear message: behave.

Under mayor Rudy Giuliani, New York applied the Broken Windows Theory (along with a “zero tolerance” policy) to clean up the subways of graffiti and to stop fare dodging. It had a knock-on effect. Rates of both petty and serious crime fell. However, there are critics of the Broken Windows Theory and the drop in New York crime rates has also been attributed to the legalisation of abortion and the subsequent decrease in 16 to 24-year-old males (who commit the most crimes) on the streets.

Whatever. Something happened. These days they don’t shoot violent crime films in New York because they no longer make sense in what has become a law-abiding city.

However, a study in Holland seems to confirm the Broken Windows Theory. A series of controlled experiments were run to see if trashed environments led to increased crime levels. They used two locations — one was maintained, minus graffiti and broken windows, while the other was the opposite. The behaviour of people in the two locations was then secretly observed. It was found, according to the report published in Science, that: “One example of disorder, like graffiti or littering, can indeed encourage another, like stealing.”

The Pietermaritzburg municipal workers’ strike earlier this year saw rubbish strewn all over the city and highlighted the apparent helplessness of the authorities. A friend said she thought this was a “tipping point” for Maritzburg, one from which it might never recover. She was using the title of Malcolm Gladwell’s famous book The Tipping Point which has now entered common parlance. But don’t forget the book’s subtitle: “How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference”.

On Carte Blanche, city mayor Mike Tarr was interviewed by Chantal Rutter. “Right here on your doorstep, we’ve seen filth and litter and broken pavements,” she told him. “That’s been one of our problems,” he replied. “You know, while you’re trying to get solvent and on your feet again, unfortunately you’ve got to cut a lot of things and you can’t spend money that you should spend on, like waste removal.”

Given Broken Windows Theory, he’s wrong. We need to sweat the small stuff.

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