Feature Article - November 2011
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Maintenance Series: Vandalism & Graffiti

Straighten Up, Fly Right
Preventing Vandalism, Graffiti With Smart Maintenance

By Dawn Klingensmith

“Blank walls will always be vandalized because they offend people," said Dan Biederman, who transformed New York City's Bryant Park from a menacing eyesore to an urban mecca.

Today, the privately managed public park is an exemplar of urban renewal. Biederman credits the successful turnaround largely to beautification.

When it comes to creating public spaces that promote orderliness and deter property damage, "Pretty is always better than ugly," he said.

Biederman subscribes to the Broken Window Theory developed and made famous in 1982 by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, who co-wrote an article titled "Broken Windows" for the Atlantic Monthly. Their theory states that keeping an eye on and continuously caring for urban environments prevents vandalism and crime. More specifically, it states that property damage can be kept in check by fixing problems when they are small.

The classic example: A kid throws a rock through the window of an old building, and nobody bothers to fix it. "So another kid comes along and sees that no one does anything, so he does the same thing," Biederman said, until eventually not only are all the windows busted out, but scofflaws are also climbing through them and committing vandalism and other crimes inside the building.

"It's like a chain reaction. It's like nobody cares anymore, so it just breeds on itself," agreed Levi Conner, who worked full time fighting graffiti and vandalism for the Boise Parks and Recreation department in Idaho for several years before his recent promotion to crew chief of sports fields. Had the window been repaired quickly, the theory goes, it's much less likely that further damage would have occurred.

The Broken Window Theory isn't just about windows; an area that tolerates a small amount of litter can eventually turn into the town dump. In urban areas, metaphorical "broken windows" can include persistent foul odors, rundown playground equipment and dilapidated public restrooms. Bryant Park in the 1970s was a hotbed of drug crime amid unkempt vegetation, bent and broken play equipment, park benches with slats missing and graffiti galore. Oil drums were being used as trash cans, sending the wrong message about the park's intended occupants and uses.

Under Biederman's leadership, these problems were all addressed, and efforts to maintain the beauty of the painstakingly restored park have consistently kept vandals and other criminals at bay.

Act Fast to Stop Graffiti

Whether or not they've heard of the Window Theory, most law enforcement and municipal workers who have dealt with graffiti agree that it needs to be stamped out as soon as it pops up. Studies show that rapid removal within 24 to 48 hours usually thwarts repeat incidents in the same spot, perhaps because graffiti "artists" can't stand when their work is erased before it attracts a satisfying amount of attention.

"It's all about having fame. If their friends don't see it, it's kind of a letdown for them," said retired highway patrol officer Randy Campbell, president and executive director of the Nograf Network (www.nograffiti.com), a nonprofit clearinghouse of graffiti prevention and abatement information.

Rapid response requires community involvement. Cities should educate the public about the impact of graffiti and provide an easy way for them to report it such as an 800 number, a dedicated telephone line or a mobile-friendly Web site.

In Boise, "We try to make the property owners responsible for abatement," Conner said. A law being considered by the city council would give owners 72 hours to respond compared to the 24-hour response time required for public property.

But though rapid removal is a key means of preventing graffiti, "if all you're doing is painting over or cleaning up graffiti and nothing more, you're not really stopping it," Campbell said. "If you spend $100,000 a year to remove graffiti, what do you expect to spend next year and the year after that? Your costs just continue, and removal becomes a line item on your annual budget. You need to take a more proactive approach to actually catch the vandals and prosecute them."