From Broken Windows to Busy Streets

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By: Marc Zimmerman, PhD, MI-YVPC Director

Many urbanites follow the old adage of safety in numbers. They will choose to walk on streets with lots of activity because the presence of people acts as a deterrent to crime. This activity may occur because there are storefronts or simply people outside talking or playing together.

Some neighborhoods, however, are unsettled with urban blight. These neighborhoods often start out just fine, but then untended properties create an opportunity for vandalism. This creates a visual cue for diminished social control which can attract more vandalism, loitering, and other criminal acts.  Vacant properties are more likely to be ravaged or burned to the ground.  As a result the neighborhood becomes infected with more serious crime and urban decay. This is the idea of Broken Windows Theory.

Broken Windows Theory suggests that one broken window in a neighborhood is an invitation to break more windows and eventually creates a downward spiral where houses become abandoned, empty lots become overgrown, and residents become increasingly disengaged. Researchers suggest that this results in infrastructure decay, fear, violence, the rise of a drug culture.

As economic hard times continue, this cycle is exacerbated by reductions in police and fire protection, home foreclosures, and social program cutbacks.  In addition, as residents perceive a rise in crime, they modify their behavior by avoiding social interactions near the untended property, or moving out of the neighborhood further reducing informal social controls and organization.

The MI-YVPC is not only trying to stop this downward spiral, but also striving to cultivate an environment where community assets can thrive and resources can expand.  We are, in essence, trying to create an upward spiral. We are applying Empowerment Theory to create opportunities for youth to be involved in community building.  We are working to help youth develop the skills they need to avoid violence while also working with adults to improve empty property parcels and create spaces within the community for safe interaction among residents.

Through university-community partnerships, we are working to improve both the physical and the social organizational processes within a high-risk neighborhood in Flint.  We have developed six programs that focus on the Durant-Tuuri-Mott neighborhood in Flint designed to enhance community strengths. The interventions involve programs to enhance healthy development, organize intergenerational social relationships, and conduct physical improvement projects in this neighborhood.

If we can help generate more positive social interactions across generations while also improving the physical conditions of the neighborhood then we can create the environment for healthy development in a thriving community.  Urban theorists, among them William Whyte, have written about the benefits of vigorous, bustling neighborhoods: We are trying to produce streets with a lot of activity based on the theory that a community with a lot of social interaction, neighborliness, and motion will be a safer place.  In other words, the guiding conceptual framework of the MI-YVPC is Busy Streets Theory.

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