How to Make Your Community Safer

How to Make Your Community Safer

How does a family friendly, close knit neighbourhood deteriorate into a crime den/drug hub?

It is a decrease in police presence?

Is it an increase in gang activity?

Or is it simply a broken window left neglected for a few days? In this post we’ll give you the answer and you might be surprised.


The broken window theory is the idea that serious crime can be prevented by targeting petty crime such as graffiti, littering and vandalism. At it’s core, it relies on three sociological theories:

1) Conformity

It simple terms, conformity refers to people’s nature to do what they see others doing around them. If you’re standing at the traffic light and one person starts to cross on a red, chances are a few people will join, if not the whole group.

2) Monitoring

Monitoring refers to the person’s understanding that they are always being watched. The fear of being caught often deters crime.

3) Signalling

Signalling or signage eg. a signpost saying ‘Don’t Litter’ prevents people from claiming ignorance of the law and clearly indicates which behaviour is accepted.

If a community adheres to the three sociological theories above it can make for a safer place.


In 1969 Phillip Zimbardo, a Standford psychologist conducted an interesting experiment. He arranged for a vehicle without license plates to be parked with its hood up on a street in the Bronx and another on a street of Palo Alto, California.


The “abandoned” car in the Bronx took less than 10 minutes to be vandalised. The first on the scene were a family with a mother father and son who extracted the car’s radiator and battery. Minutes later, others followed suit, stripping the car to pieces until 24 hours later, nothing but the shell remained.

Next came the destruction. The citizens started smashing windows, breaking off parts and tearing up the interiors. Children played in the car and adults vandalised what was left of the vehicle. This behaviour was no longer an attempt to sell parts for money but for the joy of destruction itself.

The car left “abandoned” in Palo Alto sat untouched for almost a week until Zimbardo gave it a few good hits with a sledgehammer.

You can guess what happened next.

It didn’t take long for the passers by to finish the job. The same behaviour observed in the Bronx was exhibited in Palo Alto. It took only a few hours for the car to be turned upside down and completely destroyed.


Another confirmation for this theory comes from a set of a experiments conducted by the University of Groningen (Netherlands). The researchers set out to discover if negative social actions encourage others to act inappropriately.


Experiment 1

In one experiment, the researchers choose two alleys, one clean and one covered with graffiti.

In both cases a flyer saying “no littering” was placed on the walls.

The result. Littering increased more than double! With 33% of people choosing to litter in the clean alley and 69% littering in a alley covered in graffiti.

Experiment 2

The researches decided to test whether the disregarding of laws by one citizen promoted another to do the same.

They placed two signs in front of a slightly open gate in a parking lot.


Sign 2) “DO NOT ENTER THROUGH THE GATE” (use a detour located 200m away).

Experimenters then chained four bikes 1m away from the fence. Seeing other bikes obeying the rules, the majority of people did the same with their bikes. When those same people then saw the second sign, only 27% disobeyed and entered through the gate.

Experimenters then chained four bikes against the fence. How many people do you think disobeyed the second sign after seeing people not following the first sign? The answer is a staggering 82% of people.


Experiment 3

For the final experiment, the researchers wanted to see if they could make people steal.

In three different mini experiments, five euros were placed in an envelope sticking out of a mailbox.

  • One was placed in a clean street with no graffiti and no litter.
  • The second was placed in a mailbox covered with graffiti.
  • The third in a clean mailbox with rubbish scattered on the floor.

The results fell in line with what the researchers expected. Only 13% of people stole the money from the clean street and mailbox, while 25% stole money from the street littered with rubbish. The highest statistic came in at 27% of people stealing from a mailbox covered with graffiti.

These experiments goes to show that preventing small crime such as graffiti or littering can prevent a domino effect that leads to bigger crimes such as drug dealing and assault.


Many police enforcement agencies subscribe to the broken window theory, most famously, New York City.

In New York, the first plan was drawn up in the early 1980’s in order to try and curb the extremely high crime rates plaguing the city.

Following a successful experiment of cleaning graffiti in the New York subway, the mayor implemented a “zero tolerance” policy on crime.

They had police chasing every drunk, public urinator and aggressive squeegee cleaner around town.

To the dismay of sceptics, the crime rates of both petty and serious crime dropped significantly and suddenly. This is just one example of the broken window theory being implemented.


The state of your neighbourhood is not in the hands of law enforcement, but in yours and your neighbours.

If taking care of the state of your house/street/suburb is not a priority for you, it will not be for anyone else either.

Remember that every time you throw rubbish on the floor, leave old furniture on the curb or let your lawn turn into a jungle, you are encouraging everyone else to do the same.


Setting standards of acceptable behaviour in your suburb is not simply a job for police. It’s a community effort.

Just like the rich get richer and poor get poorer, nice communities get nicer and bad neighbourhoods get badder.

Now when you see that piece of rubbish lying in your street, you will be much more likely to pick it up. By setting a good example, you can greatly influence your community.

And if you do see a broken window, well, you know what to do.