Forget the Broken Windows theory: it’s time for Busy Streets

January 2016: a Flint restaurant reassures its customers about the quality of its water. Image: Getty.

Neighborhoods struggling with physical decline and high crime often become safer simply when local residents work together to fix up their neighborhood.

My colleagues and I at the University of Michigan School of Public Health Youth Violence Prevention Center have spent nearly a decade documenting why. Research from cities across the United States shows how small changes to urban environments — like planting flowers or adding benches — reduce violence.

The result is an emerging crime prevention theory we call “busy streets.” Here’s how it works.

From broken windows to busy streets

Busy streets flips the logic of the broken windows theory – a controversial criminological approach to public safety – on its head. Broken windows defenders see urban disorder in U.S. cities – graffiti, litter, actual broken windows and the like – as a catalyst of antisocial behavior. So they direct police to crack down on minor offenses like vandalism, turnstile jumping and public drinking.

Proponents of busy streets theory, on the other hand, believe it’s better for neighborhoods to clean up and maintain their own city streets.

Our research in Flint, Michigan – a once prosperous manufacturing hub near Detroit that’s now synonymous with industrial decline, unemployment and crime – documents this process in action.

Flint’s median income today is less than $26,000, and more than half of families with children live in poverty. It lost 27 per cent of its residents since 1990, U.S. census data shows. Nearly 1 in 5 homes is vacant. Crime followed this cycle of abandonment and decay, as it has in postindustrial cities across the Rust Belt. Flint now has the second-highest homicide rate among U.S. cities with populations under 100,000, after Gary, Indiana.

In 2012, the University Avenue Corridor Coalition – a group of residents, businesses and two local colleges – decided to try to prevent crime by fixing up a three-mile stretch of University Avenue running through the Carriagetown neighborhood of central Flint. We began measuring their results in 2014.

The group started holding frequent neighborhood cleanup days to fix up vacant lots and abandoned buildings, symbolically “owning” them by adding lighting, sidewalk repair, benches and plantings. The owners were usually happy to allow neighbors to fix up their private property for free. Sometimes, they even pitched in.

Those changes, we observed, inspired other homeowners and businesses on this flat, three-lane road to spruce up their properties, too – what one local resident called the “spreading effect of pride”.

“I think that people really just needed to see that, ‘Hey, somebody does care about this other than just us,’” said a coalition member.

The group also successfully pushed to get a local corner liquor store – dubbed the “Stab ‘n’ Grab” because fights broke out there so often – transformed into a Jimmy John’s sandwich shop. That may sound like just another chain restaurant, but in this part of Flint there are few businesses and almost nowhere else to eat. A new sandwich shop was a huge development.

The corner of University Avenue and North Grand Traverse Street in Flint has been transformed. Above: a liquor store where fights used to break out. Below: the Jimmy John’s sandwich shop that replaced it. Image: Google Street View.

The vacant lot across the street from the Jimmy John’s, previously a favorite public drinking spot, was turned into a park called University Square. It now hosts regular events, replete with food trucks and lawn games.

When people drive by this once derelict intersection and see a block party underway, a community organiser told me, their jaws drop.


Busy streets have less crime

These surface-level environmental changes turned out to have profound economic and societal effects on this part of central Flint.

We surveyed residents there in 2014 – before the intervention began – as well as in 2016 and 2017. We are now preparing the results of the Flint study for publication in an academic journal, but here’s a snapshot of our findings.

Over time, community members reported fewer mental health problems, said they’d been victims of crime less often, and felt less afraid. That’s probably because crime did go down along the University Avenue Corridor: according to the coalition’s latest report, assaults decreased 54 per cent, robberies 83 per cent and burglaries 76 per cent between 2013 and 2018.

To test the connection with the coalition’s work, we compared this area to a control group of Flint neighborhoods that had suffered similar levels of disinvestment and urban decay. We learned that places where empty lots were being maintained by the community had nearly 40 per cent fewer assaults and violent crimes than untouched vacant lots.

This finding is similar to data from other cities. From 1999 to 2008, for example, the city of Philadelphia cleaned up 4,436 vacant lots, signaling “ownership” with fencing, benches, plantings and the like. Gun assaults in areas where the interventions occurred dropped by 29 per cent over three years. Nuisance crimes like loitering and vandalism declined 30 per cent.

Philadelphia also saw economic gains from maintaining empty land and fixing up abandoned properties. According to an economic analysis published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2016, for every dollar spent reoccupying an abandoned building, taxpayers saved $5 in potential criminal justice costs. Cleaned-up vacant lots saved the city even more: $26 per dollar spent.

People in areas of Philadelphia with newly greened lots also reported exercising more and experiencing less stress, presumably because they they felt more comfortable being outside.

Resilient cities

One likely reason that crime drops after joint neighborhood improvement projects is community engagement. Residents in the University Corridor intervention area reported participating more in neighborhood watches, block associations and community events than in the area where residents didn’t undertake improvement projects.

In other words, when neighbors work together to clean up, say, an empty lot, they don’t just eliminate the kind of dark, empty place that lends itself to criminal activity. There are spin-off effects, too.

Nicer public spaces encourage more people to spent time in those places, which helps neighbors get to know each other. And when people know each other, they look out for each other, monitoring activity in their neighborhood more closely. Streets get busy.

Community members hauled garbage out of the Flint River. Image: author provided.

We also found that the efforts to upgrade public spaces along the University Corridor spurred a modest local economic recovery.

Before the 2013 intervention, very few businesses were operating in the area. From 2015 to 2017, seven new businesses opened. More commerce makes streets busier, too.

Role of the police

Based on our surveys, University Corridor residents were also more willing to report crimes to the police after the 2013 intervention began.

This was critical in this mostly African-American neighborhood, where many people expressed mistrust in local law enforcement. They said officers were “never around when you need them”.

Indeed, Flint’s police department – overworked and underfunded – was called “broken” in a 25 February 2018, New Yorker article.

So when Kettering University, one of two partner colleges in the University Corridor coalition, got a grant that financed more police presence in the area, many locals said they were grateful.

The ConversationPolice can lay the foundation for neighborhood revitalisation efforts to succeed. The aim is not to aggressively flood high-crime areas with police – as cities like New York and Newark did in their broken windows days – but rather to increase foot patrols. This shows residents that the city cares about their neighborhood and their safety.

But law enforcement is not the main reason “busy streets” work to prevent crime. Rather, after years of studying community resilience, I believe that locally driven revitalisation projects make troubled neighborhoods safer because they recognise residents not as victims but as agents of change.

Together, neighbors help people rebuild the kind of economic and social fabric that keeps communities healthy.

Marc A Zimmerman, Professor, University of Michigan.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 


CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.