Should revitalization campaigns ignore broken windows?
A new proposal for helping distressed neighborhoods tosses aside — unwisely — one of the best city-mending methods of our time.
"It’s been nearly 30 years since James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling published their broken windows theory, positing that the torn social fabric that allows for vandalism also encourages other kinds of crime and disinvestment in a neighborhood," Diana Lind, editor at large of Next American City, observes in an op-ed article in The New York Times.
"The theory validated the inclination to improve the built environment first, in the hopes that once a sense of confidence has been restored, other aspects of an engaged community will follow," says Lind. "And in places on the cusp of gentrification or economic recovery, like certain New York areas in the ’90s, quality-of-life campaigns have been proven to clean up the streets and reduce crime."
But Lind isn't very fond of the fixing-broken-windows approach. She is bothered by the fact that it leaves many economic and human problems unsolved, or only partly remedied. In her view, the persistent problems of crime, poverty, and lack of jobs in tough urban neighborhoods call for a much different set of initiatives.
Okay, I'd agree that repairing damaged buildings, cleaning up trash, undoing vandalism, and making other physical improvements will not necessarily save a neighborhood and its people. In truly depressed neighborhoods, the problems are deep and intertwined, and are unlikely to be eradicated by a basic maintenance regime. An unemployed 20-year-old with sixth-grade math and reading skills will not be rescued by a better-looking streetscape.
But judge for yourself whether Lind's line of argument leads in a satisfying direction. In her telling, the Kensington neighborhood — a rough part of Philadelphia, a city in which 40,000 properties lie vacant and in which a quarter of the population lives in poverty — shows there's a method that holds more promise.
In the Times article, available here, she says: "Indeed, as gentrification has slowly crept northward in Philadelphia, Kensington residents have gained some hope from a newly branded arts corridor, a few rejuvenated parks and street improvements, all thanks to the efforts of an invaluable local community development corporation. But this scattershot approach has failed to create the kind of holistic change needed in this neighborhood — or its counterparts in St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit and Baltimore."
"Many cities," she continues, "have also sought to transform undeveloped lots into green space and urban agriculture. It’s a natural fit and, again, in Kensington a full city block has been converted from an industrial brownfield to an admirably active farm. But land-based strategies that try to reinvent this vacant lot or that blighted ground do little to stem the larger social trends that created the spatial problem in the first place."
"That’s why any plan to mitigate the vacant property crisis must not only include innovative urban planning, but also try to restore employment opportunities," Lind contends. "We need to literally build jobs on neglected and undeveloped land."
How might such an ambitious objective be accomplished? She points to efforts like the Job Opportunity Investment Network, a public-private partnership that "supports workforce training programs that have a hyperlocal impact." One of those programs is the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, which she says "provides low-skill residents with intensive education and then matches graduates with jobs at the prestigious universities and medical centers within walking distance of their homes. While the jobs help people leave poverty behind, they ensure that the new wealth created remains in their neighborhoods, helping stabilize these downtrodden communities."
Well, maybe they do for a brief while, but they can't keep new wealth in a neighborhood indefinitely. The problem, if you want to call it that, is that when individuals start to prosper, they don't necessarily stay in downtrodden communities. They move to neighborhoods that are safer and better kept. They've been doing so for generations. Some would equate it with the "pursuit of happiness."
Lind performs a service by spreading the word about the Skills Initiative. Perhaps this program could be copied in other cities that have blighted neighborhoods within walking distance of universities and other job centers. What bothers me is the division that Lind tries to set up between the fixing-broken-windows theory and her arguably more holistic approach to solving urban problems. The two ways of dealing with troubled areas are not, in fact, mutually exclusive. I would hate to see officials and organizations conclude that tackling physical disorder is merely a cosmetic endeavor and therefore suspect.
Most city-dwelers who concern themselves with physical disrepair — with rundown properties, vandalism, torn-up parks, hostile graffiti — know full well that without improvements in the education, skills, and behavior of poor, dysfunctional families, a lot of places will remain distressed. The fixing-broken-windows approach doesn't suggest that we stop aiding disadvantaged people through schooling, training, job programs, and other methods. Surely, restoring care and order to the physical environment must be part of any realistic effort to help people in dangerous neighborhoods advance in life and obtain the benefits of a decently functioning environment.
Lind urges cities to "partner with neighborhood groups to determine the most suitable abandoned buildings and lots for development, luring companies and projects that would employ newly retrained residents." But how many companies are willing to set up shop in places that show significant evidence of physical neglect? Very few. Companies worry about crime and about whether the employees will be satisfied working in locations that are low on amenities.
As it happens, Lind's piece in The Times ran next to a column by David Brooks on "The Talent Magnet" (available here). In it Brooks discusses a somewhat different topic — America's economic future — yet his remarks provide a useful perspective on the issue of urban blight and urban attractiveness.
The new kind of competition in the world is "about gathering talent in one spot," Brooks argues, noting that "in the information economy, geography matters more than ever because people are most creative when they collaborate face to face." As Brooks sees it, "The nation with the most diverse creative hot spots will dominate the century."
What's needed, he believes, are good settings — places with "an atmosphere where brilliance can happen." In saying this, he is, of course, restating a theme set out most memorably by economic geographer Richard Florida in his writing about the "creative class."
Brooks and Florida, it seems to me, both uphold the notion that getting the atmosphere right is crucial. I think that's as true in bedraggled neighborhoods as it is in more well-off places. It's important to remedy the flaws in education, skills, and behavior that often hold poor neighborhoods back, but focusing on those needs should not cause us to forget the significance of the built environment. It's hard to imagine that a neighborhood can be revived for long if we don't restore order and care to its physical surroundings.
That was what Wilson and Kelling were getting at. "Fixing broken windows" must be an ingredient in any realistic strategy for saving a place and serving its inhabitants.