Broken Windows Theory Busted?

The Broken Windows theory suggests that a high concentration of small, petty crimes leads to a higher incidence of bigger, nastier crimes. Some European cities run counter to that premise, according to this piece from Next American City.

Ben Adler looks at Berlin and Copenhagen and finds the crime trends don't match the idea behind Broken Windows.

"Increasingly, criminologists are challenging Broken Windows' hegemonic grasp on urban public policy. My travels in Europe have convinced me, once a Broken Windows believer, that it is largely a lot of hokum. Let the pot dealers return to Washington Square Park, the graffiti sit indefinitely on the mailboxes, the hookers wander Times Square, and I'm not at all sure you'd see an increase in violent crime as a result.

Berlin, Germany, a city of 3.4 million, is rife with symbols of social disorder. Sitting at a bar's outdoor table you're liable to smell hash wafting over from the table next to you, and to be offered it while walking through some of the city's parks. Prostitution is legal. If there are any open container laws, they are completely unenforced. Beer is drunk openly on the streets and the metro.

And yet there is very little crime."

Full Story: Does Berlin Disprove Broken Windows?



Michael Lewyn's picture

America is not Berlin

Adler's basic argument is: because graffiti, etc. is irrelevant to crime in a low-crime city, it is equally irrelevant in the United States.

This logic doesn't really persuade me. In a place which has never had any significant amount of violent crime, graffiti, pot, hookers, etc. carry no real social meaning. But in a city where some neighborhoods have much more crime than others, these phenomena may send a message: this is a neighborhood that no one really cares about. Mind you, I'm not sure that Broken Windows is correct. All I am saying is that Berlin doesn't prove the contrary. Now, if there were examples of graffiti/pot/hooker-strewn low crime neighborhoods in NYC, Adler's argument would be much stronger.

Where's the Beef?

Hardly persuasive - the article is full of the sort of assertion without empirical foundation that is all too familiar from what passes for political discourse these days. There are, after all, well-established tools for putting one's happenstance impressions of crime and blight to the test:

I've also walked likely high-risk urban areas after dark without incident - but I'm six-feet tall and built like a wrestler, and wouldn't use my experiences to assure my 90-pound nieces of the obsolescence of Broken Windows...

Not to mention the facile use of Euro-legal practices and behaviors as a basis for comparison to Amer-illegal activities...

Here's the Beef!

From Google Maps Mania:

"German newspaper The Beliner Kurier has created a Google Maps mashup of crime in Berlin.

The crimes are marked on the map by categorised markers; a black fist indicates violent crime, red fire indicates arson, a hammer indicates vandalism, the blue police car indicates transport crime, a black mask means it is a robbery, a flashlight indicates theft and a green policeman stands for all other crimes.

When you click on a map marker an information window opens with the police report for the crime."

"The crime mapping application Crimeblips provides up-to-date crime statistics for neighbourhoods throughout Berlin. The application maps, visualizes, and analyses crime incidents, allowing users to identify crime hot spots, trends and general patterns. The occurrences, events and data are extracted from public press releases of the City of Berlin Police Department and Berlin Fire Department.

The application has been developed at the University of Applied Sciences Kaiserslautern and they say that future versions will provide comparisons with incident descriptions in the media, published law enforcement agency data, schools and shopping centres, as well as other third party information including real estate prices and indicators."


Periodical Report
on Crime and Crime Control
in Germany

The culture is just different there

After living in Berlin for almost a year, I found Berlin to be the safest cities to walk around by myself at night out of any place I have lived. For those of you interested in pondering "freedom", I had more freedom in Berlin than I do in the U.S.

The signs that typically point to social disorder here are simply part of the culture in Berlin and to a somewhat lesser extent, in Amsterdam. Consider:
- There are no open container laws in Germany. It is perfectly legal and socially acceptable to walk around with an open beer. (I enjoyed doing so myself.)
- There is a huge artist community in Germany and many of them find graffiti to be 'art.' Germany also has a long history of expressing itself through graffiti and Berlin is probably one of the leaders in quantity of graffiti. East Side Gallery is a great example of graffiti art at its best. Here in the US, graffiti is often tied to gangs who tag their turf.
- Prostitution is legal and obvious in Berlin; Amsterdam turns it into a tourist attraction. It is also regulated, unlike here where it is not.
- Recreational drug use also occurs in Berlin; if you want to partake it's not hard to find a source. I can't say where all if it comes from in Europe, but by having legalized pot in Amsterdam, that cuts down on the criminal world needed to buy, ship and sell drugs. Drug dealers are also noticeably violent in the U.S.

I agree that the lack of guns in Germany certainly plays a big part in the low crime rate, as does the social welfare. Whatever criminal behavior occurs, it doesn't involve random people and it is simply less violent than in the U.S. There are statistics here in Minneapolis that found drops in crime after clean up events, suggesting that crime is more likely to occur in areas that do not look well cared for. In Germany, no matter what the place looks like, crime just doesn't occur.

Unfortunately, I have yet to find an American city I would comfortably walk through at night as I could in Berlin despite less graffiti, public drinking, visible prostitution and drug availability. The negative side effects of these livability issues are much greater in the U.S. Many often stem from the violent American gang and drug culture that is largely absent from Germany.

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