The first article I penned for the Munster Express was based on the idea of broken windows theory. This is a criminological theory that was introduced in the States in the mid 1980s by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L Kelling. It simply states that monitoring and maintaining urban environments in a well ordered condition may prevent further vandalism as well as an escalation into more serious crime. It is largely based on the premise that if you have a building with one or two broken windows and you don’t repair them swiftly, more windows will be broken suggesting that no one inhabits, values or cares for the property. More broken windows could lead to graffiti, perhaps a break in and a newfound venue for antisocial behaviour and so on. It is one of the theories, coupled with zero tolerance, accredited with making New York City a relatively safer place in the early 1990s.
As a theory it has received a great deal of support but also criticism. More than ten years ago now, when I wrote that article about broken windows theory I was a supporter, I still am. While age and maturity allow me to see it as just one tool that requires the support of other mechanisms and programmes for total success, I still believe it to be a valid and worthwhile theory. In Waterford City we witnessed an undocumented broken windows theory experiment unfold in the case of the old Ard Ri Hotel. Had the first broken windows and the first break in at the unoccupied former hotel been dealt with appropriately, the rapid and sickening destruction that ensued would never have happened.
A good example of the theory in action is the recent attack on the band stand in the Peoples Park. Had the damage not been attended to swiftly by Waterford City Council and left for days on end I have no doubt that further damage and decay would have ensued. It may take a few months or even a year or two, but left untended it would have been the start of further erosion and seen as an invitation to destroy. This is classic broken windows theory in action. Immediate action is seen as a successful strategy for preventing further damage. Clean up litter from footpaths every day and the tendency is for litter not to accumulate and, studies have also shown, people are less likely to throw litter on a clean street than they are a littered one.
Human behaviour has been the subject of thousands of studies and research projects. It has been widely proven that we constantly monitor other people and their environment in order to determine the norms. The group sets the trend. If there are lots of people drinking openly and behaving inappropriately in an area this gives a signal that it is alright for anyone to do it. However if there are no people around as is often the case in large urban environments, we look for other signals. A clean and orderly environment says it is cared for and, more importantly, suggests it is monitored. A less well kept area where there is litter and general urban decay is a signal that says this is a place where people do what they like and go undetected.
On a personal note, while my loved ones joke about my mild OCD, they also appreciate the benefits of order. I am not naturally an ordered individual. I was bestowed with messy, unruly hair and therefore have always hankered after that sleek, neat polished unattainable look. Being unable to achieve it in my appearance I have transferred it to other areas of my life. Sadly I am far from perfect and only aspire to order and organisation, rather than inhabit it completely. However the areas I have mastered bear out the theory. I work better when my desk is tidy. I sleep better when the bedroom is in order. I have proven to myself time and time again that an orderly environment does indeed help me. I find it calm and supportive, a good antidote to my often chaotic and busy mind. Were my personal environment to reflect such mental chaos, which it does from time to time, the results are…..well…..ugly.
And so my ongoing quest for a better physical environment led to an invitation to sit on this year’s Waterford City Tidy Towns Committee. It’s actually a good year to be involved as the imminent arrival of the Tall Ships has been a tremendous incentive to get things done. I have also been made aware of the fantastic work that is ongoing, and has been for many years by the local authority, residents’ groups and voluntary bodies that we are indebted to. The volunteers of this nation don’t get nearly enough credit for their contribution and the local authorities are always an easy target for what’s not being done, but when you see the list of items that have been completed and the hard physical evidence of the work, it is very impressive.
One thing every day
So once the Tall Ships leave the national Tidy Towns competition is on the horizon. The judges visit over the summer months without fanfare so it is a bit of a lottery, but then again if the place is looking as good as it can be then we have little to fear. Out of a potential 400 points we scored 261 in 2010, that’s a mark of 65%. This year along with all the group work that is ongoing, if we as individuals did just one thing every day or even every week, it would definitely have an impact. It could be pulling an errant weed, picking up one piece of litter, having the office windows cleaned – it needn’t be expensive or time consuming, we’re talking seconds and minutes of effort. The spin off for a national Tidy Towns accolade is really what we want as it translates into priceless national media coverage and another talking point for those seeking overseas investment. So if you can do just one thing for a tidier city this summer then do and encourage those around you to do the same, it will really help and ultimately we all benefit. Even if it doesn’t cure all the ills, at least it is one less thing to contend with.