Recovering lost spaces

sabana grandeIt is a dangerous thing letting city spaces get taken over by criminals. When the authorities in charge of people’s safety leave their responsibilities aside, common and organized criminals take over urban areas and leave no option but the intervention of the organized community along with the city hall to recover such lost spaces, as happens in some municipalities of Caracas.

In 1969 in Stanford University (USA), Prof. Philip Zimpardo carried out a social psychology experiment. He left two identical cars, of the same make, model and color, abandoned on the street, one in the Bronx, a poor and conflictive area of New York, and the other in Palo Alto, a rich and quiet area in California.

Two identical cars abandoned, two neighborhoods with very different people and a team of specialists in social psychology studying people’s behavior in each place. It turned out that the car abandoned in the Bronx was vandalized within a few hours. They took the tires, the engine, rearview mirrors, stereo, etc. Everything worth something was taken, and what wasn’t worth anything got destroyed. In turn, the car abandoned in Palo Alto was left intact.

It’s a common thing blaming crime on poverty, but poor is not a synonym for criminal. How many poor people are there in Caracas and how many of them are criminals? Poverty might be a factor, but it is not a basic condition. The experiment did not end there.

After the car abandoned in the Bronx was totally destroyed and the one left in Palo Alto had been intact for a week, the researchers broke a window of the Palo Alto car. That triggered the same process that had taken place in the Bronx, robbery, violence and vandalism reduced the vehicle to the same state as the one left in the poor neighborhood. The result of this experiment was later called the “Theory of Broken Windows.”

ventana-rotaWhy is a broken window in a car abandoned in an allegedly safe neighborhood enough to trigger a criminal process?

It is not about poverty. Evidently it has something to do with human psychology and social relations. A broken window on an abandoned car sends a message of deterioration, a lack of interest or concern that breaks codes of coexistence, like an absence of law, a lack of rules, as if it is no man’s land. Each new attack on the abandoned car reaffirms and multiplies that message, until the escalation to worse and worse actions becomes uncontainable, culminating in irrational violence, a social anomie. In later experiments, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling developed the theory of broken windows, the same that from a criminology point of view concludes that crime is bigger in areas where carelessness, filthiness, disorder and abuse are present in a bigger proportion.

If a building’s window is broken and no one fixes it, soon all other windows will be broken too. If a community shows signs of deterioration and it doesn’t seem to bother anyone, crime will proliferate. If “little faults” (parking in forbidden zones, speeding or running a red light) are overlooked and unpunished, bigger faults will begin to take place and then serious crimes; there’s no doubt that impunity is crime and violence’s best ally.

54937colectivo%20la%20piedritaIf deteriorated parks and other public spaces are progressively abandoned by most people (who stop leaving their homes out of fear to gangs or criminals), those same abandoned spaces are progressively occupied by criminals. The theory of broken windows was first applied in the mid 80s in the New York subway, which had become the most dangerous place in the city.

They started out by fighting small transgressions: graffiti deteriorating the place, filth in the stations, public inebriation, ticket payment evasion, small theft and disorders. The results were evident. Starting small they were able to make the subway a safe place. Then in 1994, Rudolph Giuliani, Mayor of New York, based on the theory of broken windows and on the subway experience, promoted a Zero Tolerance policy. The strategy consisted on creating clean and organized communities by not overlooking transgressions to the law and rules of urban coexistence; of course, the economic reality is very different in Latin American countries.

The practical result was a significant reduction in all crime rates in the city of New York.

The expression “zero tolerance” sounds like an authoritarian and repressive solution, but its main concept is more about prevention and the promotion of social conditions of safety. It is not about lynching criminals or the arrogance of law enforcement officers. As a matter of fact, a zero tolerance policy should also be applied to authority abuses. It is not zero tolerance for the person committing the crime, but for the crime itself. It’s about creating clean, orderly, law abiding communities following the basic codes of human social coexistence.

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