The Sutton Guardian has a happy report that people from Benhill Estate in central Sutton have been cleaning up their neighbourhood. They’ve painted out the graffiti, picked up the litter, coralled the wayward shopping trolleys and had the abandoned and untaxed cars cuffed and stuffed. So a big thumbs up goes to the hardworking Benhill folk, to the police’s Sutton Central Safer Neighbourhood Team and to B&Q for providing tools and materials. (In the future, we’ll all be sponsored for fifteen minutes.)

Sutton Living Streets members have our own experience of clean-ups and our advice is this: little and often. Spring cleaning the neighbourhood is about as worthwhile as spring cleaning your home if you only do it once a year. That’s not to say that you should never do a big clean, just that regular little ones are needed to keep a place mostly pleasant most of the time. So a big clean, especially if it’s the first one, should be an opportunity to get people enthusiastic and signed up for a regular stint. A couple of hours once a month is probably enough.

The need to stop the rot by keeping on top of relatively minor problems brings us to the sociologists Wilson and Kelling’s broken windows theory:

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.

In the abstract, the theory comes in two parts:

  1. Small problems that are left unfixed will lead to many similar small problems.
  2. The accumulation of many small problems will lead to different, more serious problems.

The first of these is demonstrably true; the second is considerably more doubtful.

Having spent a lot of time painting out graffiti, I’ve noticed that a wall can stay totally clean for weeks afterwards, but once it attracts its first piece of graffiti, many others follow rapidly. The explanation for this seems to be that few people have the nerve to vandalise a pristine wall, but once it’s already vandalised many more feel comfortable to follow suit. The lesson for those that want to keep walls clean is to remove every piece of graffiti as soon as it occurs. It’ll save you a much bigger job later on.

Litter is a problem of a different order. Many people seem much less inhibited about dropping litter, whether they’re the first to do so on a newly-swept street or whether their neighbourhood is just one big bin. Litter doesn’t cause permanent damage and for many people, dropping litter has a social acceptability that I hope and expect that writing graffiti will never have. The No Real Damage Done attitude probably correlates with Public Space Belongs to the Council and Someone Will Get Paid to Clean It Up (the unrelated economic broken window fallacy).

But does litter lead to graffiti, graffiti lead to broken windows, broken windows lead to arson, robbery, rape, murder, rebellion and the Overthrow of Everything We Hold Dear?

It doesn’t look like it. Places with major violent crime will probably have their fair share of litter and graffiti too, but you can find plenty of dismal urban environments that are relatively safe. Sewing a few crisp packets and lolly sticks is not the same as planting the seeds of a drug gang turf war. Just because a place looks like South Central Los Angeles doesn’t mean that it is. The drivers of serious and violent crime are more complex and thankfully more rare than just a seemingly disorderly environment where it appears that anything goes. A neighbourhood that clearly says, “You can get away with graffiti here” doesn’t translate as, “You can get away with murder here.” Fortunately, the proto-murderers know this.

Broken windows theory looks far too simplistic to explain all the world’s ills by itself – but then what could? If you see a broken window, some litter or graffiti, fix it quickly and you’ll save yourself far more trouble later. But don’t be discouraged from walking in your neighbourhood with confidence just because a few people have been inconsiderate enough to litter and vandalise the place.