From tipping points to broken windows

From tipping points to broken windows

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Editor’s Note: Dr. Fidel Hernandez has been a full time professor with the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M – Kingsville since 1999.

The article was inspired by an article he read in the Smithsonian magazine about a town in Montana with similar problems after talking to students who expressed “school is great, people are great but the town could use improvements.”

“I’m not out to get Kingsville, I’m just offering suggestions as to how to make improvements in our community,” Hernandez said.

The Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville is the leading wildlife research organization in Texas and one of the finest in the nation. Its mission is to provide science-based information for enhancing the conservation and management of wildlife in South Texas and related environments.


Some litter found in the city of Kingsvile

Several months ago, I was reading an article in Smithsonian about this quaint city nestled in the mountains of Montana.  I don’t quite recall all the details, but it was written by an author who had traded the busy streets and fast pace of New York City for the peace and quiet of the Montana countryside.  The article was not about the author or his life, but about the town itself:  its downtown life, cobblestone streets, artist’s shops, cafes, friendly inhabitants, and surrounding wilderness.  It was quite a description.  I could imagine the picturesque lay of the city and the tranquility that came from living in such a place, and I thought, “Why can’t Kingsville be like that?”.  

Before I progress, I must clarify that this isn’t a negative editorial about Kingsville.  It is not a rant about all the things that are wrong with our town and how “I can’t wait to get out of here”.  On the contrary.  I hold a special place in my heart for our small, rural town.  It was my first home after graduating from college and where my professional career began.  I have lived here for the past 13 years and have grown fond of this town.  What this article represents is a thought piece on how we can realize the full potential of Kingsville, on transforming our unkempt town (and sometimes down attitude that goes along with it) into a clean, well-cared for Texas community we are proud to call home.  We often hear in life comments such as “one vote will not matter” or “nothing will ever change”.  This thought piece is my modest attempt to be an engaged citizen for the betterment of our community based on the belief that one vote does matter and that things can change.

When my thought first arose of, “why can’t Kingsville be like the Montana city described in Smithsonian?”, I mentally progressed through a list of reasons.  I thought, “Well, Kingsville is hot and humid.”  Sure it is, but many places are hot and humid, and people still yearn to visit or live there.  Italy is extremely hot in July, but people travel to it and endure the heat.  Next I thought, “Kingsville doesn’t have mountains”.  True, but many places lack mountains and people still go there.  Think Florida or Cozumel.   (I think we often fail to recognize the natural beauty of Kingsville.  It has beaches, vast open country, beautiful blue skies, radiant sunsets, and unique wildlife.)  Then I thought, “Kingsville has little culture to offer.”  This, too, is not true.  Kingsville has a rich culture and deep history extending back to the 1700s involving Spanish explorers, Native Americans, and Texas cowboys.  I even considered that the lack of big-city amenities limited the attraction of Kingsville.  However, this reason also lacked validity.  Fredricksburg is a small Texas town with few big-city amenities, and people flock to it year round.

In the end, I discarded every reason except for one—Kingsville lacked quaintness.  As I pondered this thought, my conclusions became more refined.  By quaintness, what I really meant is, Kingsville lacked tidiness.  Book stores, coffee shops, and farmer’s markets certainly would increase the appeal of Kingsville.  However, none of this would matter without tidiness.  Not even all the cafes, museums, or mountains offered by towns like Boulder, Colorado or Missoula, Montana would be sufficient to transform Kingsville into a picturesque South Texas town if it lacked tidiness.  To test this, simply imagine such cities as Boulder or Missoula littered with trash and you will see that their appeal quickly diminishes.

Littering is a prominent problem in Kingsville.  Plastic bags cover our parks, properties, and fences.  Fast-food drink cups and paper bags line street shoulders and road ditches.  Even mattresses and couches litter our farm-to-market roads.  Everywhere you look there is litter. I once thought that the litter problem in Kingsville was due to the high winds or poor economic status of the region.  Wind, I reasoned, was so strong that it was impossible to prevent plastic bags from being blown away onto the surrounding streets.  However, there are many windy cities that lack the litter found in our town.  I also thought that the low economic status of the region may be the cause of the problem.  In general, there is a positive correlation with standard of living and tidiness:  the higher the standard of living, the higher the tidiness of a house, a community, or a town.  Although economic status may determine the physical attributes of a house or community, it does not necessarily determine its degree of tidiness.  There are many people in poor or developing countries who care for their modest dwellings with much pride.  The houses may be humble, but they are tidy.

After my extended mental digression, I was left with the feeling of wanting to do something to address our litter problem.  However, I didn’t know what to do or how to do it.  Rectifying the problem, seemed to me, would involve a major effort.  It would take considerable money (funds our city budget likely did not have) and an extensive campaign to educate an entire community.  People’s mindsets and habits also would have to be changed; habits possibly engrained deeply into people’s psyche over many generations.  This behavioral change would be extremely difficult to effect and take a very long time to occur.  It seemed overwhelming and impossible. But is it really?

During the 1980s, New York City was in the grip of a crime epidemic.  The city averaged more than 2,000 murders and 600,000 serious felonies per year.  Crime on the subway was just as bad.  The walls and trains of the subway system were covered with graffiti, and the floor was littered with trash.  A fire occurred somewhere on the subway system every day, and a derailment happened every two weeks.  Fare-beating (i.e., not placing a token in the turnstile) was rampant.  People were jumping over and around turnstiles.  Harassment of subway riders was widespread.  Felonies on the subway reached 20,000 per year by the end of the 1980 decade, and use of the subway sunk to its lowest point in history.  From such a chaotic state of affairs, however, things suddenly changed and crime underwent a precipitous decline.  Within a span of about 5 years, felonies dropped by about 50% and murders by about 65%.  Felonies on the subway declined by 75% by the end of the 1990s.  What caused such an unprecedented and rapid drop in crime?

Several explanations exist, but one of the most intriguing is outlined by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point.  Gladwell suggests that social phenomena such as ideas, fads, or trends spread through a society similar to how a disease epidemic spreads through a population.  Disease exists in equilibrium within a population, impacting only small percentage of individuals, until a small change in infection rate or some other parameter tips this equilibrium and the disease explodes into an epidemic.  The point where a phenomenon goes from equilibrium to epidemic (and vice versa) is the tipping point.  A principle emerging from this concept is that small changes in a system can lead to big differences.  For New York City, the small changes that led to a precipitous decline in crime appear to have been a clampdown on “quality of life” crimes such as graffiti, fare beating, public intoxication, and other minor crimes indicative of social disorder.

Criminologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling suggest that crime is an inevitable outcome of disorder.  The theory is called the Broken Windows theory of crime and proposes that small, insignificant transgressions eventually lead to more serious crimes.  An experiment by Phillip Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University, provides some evidence for the Broken Windows theory.  The experiment involved 2 cars parked on separate streets in comparable neighborhoods.  One car was left with the hood up and its license plate removed.  The second car was left intact.  Within a day, the first car was stripped.  The second car, however, remained untouched for a week.  As a further test, Zimbardo returned and broke the window of the second car.  Within hours, the second car also had been vandalized.

An implication of the Broken Windows theory is that environments provide strong contextual cues that indicate to people what is acceptable behavior.  Consequently, behavior changes as the environment changes.  You have likely experienced this phenomenon, although you probably were not consciously aware of it.  To illustrate the power of an environment, consider the following example.

In towns throughout New England, walking pets is part of everyday life.  Owners generally carry a small plastic bag with them to pick up after their pet should it relieve itself.  Because people may occasionally forget to bring a bag, cities encourage tidiness by providing complimentary plastic-bag dispensers along dog trails or parks.  Now, imagine yourself living in a small, friendly community in New England.  The town is marvelous.  It has red-brick streets outlined with pedestrian friendly sidewalks.  Homes are restored houses of 1930s America.  Gardens of tomatoes, squash, and eggplants cover the back yards, and flower beds of wild blue phlox and trumpet honeysuckle decorate the front yard.  Tall, majestic elm trees shade houses and sidewalks.  Folks take full advantage of their wonderful town and walk their dogs often, particularly on Saturday mornings, on their way to enjoy brunch at the local café.  You indulge in the local culture and also take your pet for Saturday strolls.  You notice that all pet owners carry a plastic bag and responsibly pickup after their pets.  One day, you’re out enjoying a Saturday morning walk with your dog, when it gets the urge to relieve itself and does on a house lawn.  Unfortunately, you have forgotten to bring a plastic bag but notice that a dispenser is only a few yards away.  The question arises, “Should I pick up after my pet, or should I walk away?”  Most of us, I believe, would pick up after our pet.

Now imagine the same dog walk except this time you are walking your pet along a street in an unkempt neighborhood on the south side of Chicago.  Lots are neglected and overgrown with vegetation.  Houses are in a state of disrepair.  Styrofoam cups, grocery bags, cigarette butts, and even toilet paper litter the lots and streets.  As you walk through this neighborhood, your pet relieves itself in one of the overgrown lots.  You have forgotten to bring along a plastic bag, and there are no dispersers in sight.  The question again arises, “Should I pick up after my pet, or should I simply walk way?”  This time, unfortunately, most of us would walk away.

The New York City case study and the example above illustrate the power of context.  They demonstrate how an environment (and the cues it provides) can strongly influence human behavior.  They illustrate how the same person in two different environments can exhibit contrasting behavior.

After reading Gladwell’s book, I began thinking how the concept of broken windows could be applied to our litter problem in Kingsville.  I became optimistic about a solution.  In New York City, uncontrolled graffiti and rampant fare beating were symbols of a system that was in a state of chaos.  Both provided social cues to people that indicated an “anything goes” state of affairs.  For criminals, this invited more serious crimes.  For ordinary citizens, this permitted uncharacteristic behavior.  Citizens who ordinarily would not engage in minor crimes such as fare-beating would because “everyone was doing it”.  Why pay for the subway when waves of people were going around the turnstiles or jumping over them?  By focusing on these broken windows, however, officials were able to bring about drastic social reform within a relatively short period of time.  Similarly, I reasoned, a rapid change in behavior could be possible in Kingsville if we addressed our litter problem within a broken-windows framework.  I wondered, “What are Kingsville’s broken windows?  What are the environmental cues that signal to people that littering is acceptable in our town?”

The cues may involve abandoned houses and buildings or overgrown lots.  Sofas and mattresses disposed along roadsides may signal to people that “anything goes”.  The presence of litter itself also may provide a reinforcing cue that limits people from taking action.  Why pick up nearby trash when there is more present just beyond?

In this context, I am enthused that our city has begun demolishing abandoned houses and restoring historic buildings.  The restoration of the old high school on 3rd Street and the recycling center on Lee Avenue represent important renovations of our town.  The urban xeric garden on 6th street also is a welcomed addition.  The manicured garden, with its blooms of purple sage and vibrant yellow Esperanzas, add much aesthetic appeal to the neighborhood.  On more than one occasion I have seen families enjoying evening walks through the garden.  I have even observed people in formal attire having their photograph taken at the garden.  It is interesting to note that the urban xeric garden was a collaborative project between the Department of Agronomy and Resources Sciences at Texas A&M University-Kingsville (TAMUK) and the City of Kingsville.  Students in the Landscape Design class designed and implemented the garden as a class project under the direction of Catherine Simpson.  The garden is maintained by the city.  It is conceivable that other innovative projects exist such as adopt-a-street program by campus organizations, annual plant-a-tree campaigns by agronomy students, and urban improvement projects by engineering students.

We should take heart in knowing that such care and interest for our community can and does change people’s behavior.  It was not that long ago that many of our students (and professors) ignored the sidewalks and took short cuts across TAMUK lawns.  When President Tallant arrived here about 3 years ago and began his campaign to beautify campus, I thought that the newly planted lawns didn’t stand a chance; people were going to trample right through them.  Much to my surprise, people modified their behavior and few traverse across the lawns today.  Most everyone uses the sidewalks, even it if means a longer walk to their destination.  Perhaps the brown grass patches conveyed a different cue than the cared for, manicured lawns.  The former may have signaled “anything goes” whereas the latter indicated “we care”.

The fact is many of us do care.  We all want a tidy and beautiful Kingsville.  We only need to know what to do and how to do it.  Perhaps the time has come for us to identify our broken windows and find novel, inexpensive solutions for them.  Who knows, if we do, maybe someday our small town of Kingsville will grace the pages of Smithsonian.