In the early nineties the New York crime rate started to plummet, dropping down two thirds over the course of six years. What brought about this change? Life is complicated, and so is the answer, but one big reason boils down to one word: graffiti.
Criminologists James Wilson and George Kelling had recently developed a philosophy on crime called the ‘Broken Windows theory.’ They reasoned that if a window is broken and left unfixed, it sends a message that this is an area without the sufficient level of care to preserve order.
This is a place where anything goes. Before long another window will be broken, and as the disorder increases, so will the crime rate.
Scrub the decks
Kelling was brought in as a consultant for the New York Transit Company who ran the subway systems through New York – the heart of the city’s underbelly of crime. In the late eighties these subway systems were extremely unsafe – dirty, heavily graffitied carriages frequented by shady characters, thugs and swindlers.
Popular opinion asked for a crackdown on rampant violent crime and for increased reliability of the subways – Kellings solution? Clean off the graffiti.
One by one the carriages were cleaned up. Carriages were sprayed over again, solvents used to dissolve unwanted slogans. And they had a simple rule: once a carriage was clean, it must stay that way. Each night any new artwork would be swiftly scrubbed away. The big murals painted in the freight yards over the course of a few days would never see the light of day, a spray of paint quickly wiping the slate clean.
Bit by bit they gained ground. The graffiti artists got discouraged. The subway cleaned up, and so did the culture. By taking away the graffiti and the dirt they sent a subtle message that this subway line was cared for, there would be no shenanigans here. This was a place of order and safety.
The little things
Life is all about the little things. Little things have far bigger consequences than you might logically think. Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction. But while that works for physical objects, it seems in the subliminal there are far bigger consequences to small things then the action should warrant.
How does cleaning up a little bit of graffiti bring down violent crime rates? What does a broken window have to do with a shady neighbourhood? It’s the little things that change a culture.
Cleaning the dishes
On a personal level, when life spirals a little out of control I often feel like I have to take drastic action. When I notice my fitness declining suddenly I feel the need to hit the gym three times a week, plus a morning run, plus some bike rides. But it isn’t sustainable. Fitness is all about consistency, and that requires achievable goals.
When the house is a mess I wake up one day and go on a cleaning blitz. But if I really want to live in a state of reasonable tidiness it isn’t drastic spring cleaning that’s needed – it’s a little bit of cleaning every day. A little dish-washing here, a little tidying there and suddenly chaos isn’t the norm.
I’ve found that simply going to bed at a reasonable hour can massively change my day. What is a late night here or there? Not much, but string some together and suddenly everything feels too hard. Energy is lacking, focus is drifting. A little bit of sleep can go a long way!
So my goal today is to fix some windows. Nothing drastic, nothing crazy, just a little more discipline here, a bit better attitude over there.
Thomas Devenish lives in Hobart, Tasmania. He works as a motion designer and enjoys the diverse experiences life has to offer, from wake-boarding to curling up with a good book on a rainy day.
Thomas Devenish’s previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/thomas-devenish.html
Thomas Devenish lives in Hobart, Tasmania with his wife and two daughters. He works as a motion designer and enjoys the diverse experiences life has to offer, from chasing tennis balls to curling up with a good book on a rainy day. Thomas Devenish’s previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/thomas-devenish.html