Collingwood’s Broken Windows

Cold patch on Collingwood streets
Just one of the many, typically bad, crumbling patches on west end street in Collingwood; a lazy, ineffective process repeated endlessly year after year without actually repairing the problem.

NB. This post was first published on Dec. 9, 2021

If I sometimes seem to complain in a picayune manner, harping on the same signs of scruffiness and neglect that we seem to see more often around town these days, there’s a reason for it. Mostly it’s because I care about my community and it deeply bothers me when others — especially those elected to do so — don’t. But it’s also because I believe that even small signs of neglect reflect a larger problem, not just declining morale and ineptness in townhall.

Contrary to the popular saying, the small stuff matters. We should sweat it. This is what people see and experience every day. No one sees inquiry reports or processes or codes of conduct. Nor do most people care about them: they care about the condition of the sidewalks and streets; they care whether the parks are safe and well-maintained; they care if there’s litter and graffiti everywhere.

Every pothole untended, every tree planted by the town then left to die, every broken sidewalk, every bit of graffiti on a bus stop, every missing or overgrown heritage plate, every poorly-patched street, or overflowing waste bin downtown or in a park is a sign that no one in town hall cares. Not just among the staff; not giving a damn for our community seems endemic among our council. And it’s they and our lacklustre mayor who set the example for staff to follow by caring only about themselves.

Every sign of neglect, of oversight, of broken infrastructure, of decay and rot, is a metaphorical “broken window” that advertises the state of the municipality and its political leadership to residents and visitors alike. And pretty soon the whole town reflects it.

The “broken windows theory” was first proposed in the early 1980s by American psychologist  Philip Zimbardo. It was described in an article in Atlantic magazine by George Kelling and James Wilson in 1982. The theory suggests that “visible indicators of disorder, such as vandalism, loitering, and broken windows, invite criminal activity.” The authors went on to build a case where ” broken windows (hence, the name of the theory) vandalism, loitering, public drinking, jaywalking, and transportation fare evasion, create an urban environment that promotes even more crime and disorder.”

I don’t want to pursue the metaphor too far because the whole idea went off the rails in the ’90s when American cities started using it to police poor neighbourhoods and prosecute people for minor neglect. It became a tool for discrimination and oppression of both the poor and racial communities in the hands of the authorities. Yet it was a valuable contribution to municipal governance theories. Here’s how the theory was seen (from Simply Psychology):

In a typical urban environment, social norms and monitoring are not clearly known. As a result, individuals will look for certain signs and signals that provide both insight into the social norms of the area as well as the risk of getting caught violating those norms.

Those who support the broken windows theory argue that one of those signals is the area’s general appearance. In other words, an ordered environment, one that is safe and has very little lawlessness, sends the message that this neighborhood is routinely monitored and criminal acts are not tolerated.

On the other hand, a disordered environment, one that is not as safe and contains visible acts of lawlessness (such as broken windows, graffiti, and litter), sends the message that this neighborhood is not routinely monitored and individuals would be much more likely to get away with committing a crime…

In neighborhoods that do have a strong sense of social cohesion among its residents, these broken windows are fixed (both literally and figuratively), giving these areas a sense of control over their communities.

The theory got a makeover (post-2000, I believe; it was circulating when I was the council rep on our own BIA) when it was applied to how empty storefronts negatively affected downtowns and variations of it continue to surface, as it did recently in Toronto). The idea was that empty (and usually poorly-maintained) storefronts were a sign that no one cared to run a business downtown. Other businesses would see it as an indicator that the downtown was dying, and would also leave. So attempts were made to fill the empty stores, or at least disguise them to look attractive, not abandoned.

The essential part of the idea is that small signs of neglect have a cascade effect that leads to bigger problems. If municipalities ignore the “small stuff” such as their park benches, potholes, or bus-stop graffiti, it signals acceptance of the decay, which in turn leads to escalating vandalism and more neglect. That’s more in keeping with what I think the theory addresses.

…when these broken windows are not fixed, it also symbolizes a lack of informal social control. Informal social control refers to the actions that regulate behavior, such as conforming to social norms and intervening as a bystander when a crime is committed, that are independent of the law.

Look around your own neighbourhood. Most homes and gardens are well-kept, tidy, and clean. But in many neighbourhoods you can find one or two houses — sometimes, but not always rental properties — that stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. Garbage bins don’t get put back for days, vehicles parked on the lawn or driveway in various states of work-in-progress, debris piled up, snow that never gets cleared from driveways or walkways, dogs chained up and never walked, grass not cut… and the property values of their immediate neighbours are often lower than those further away. That’s one part of the cascade effect.

[Jane] Jacobs can be considered one of the original pioneers of the broken windows theory. One of her most famous books, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, describes how local businesses and stores provide a necessary sense of having “eyes on the street” which promotes safety and helps to regulate crime (Jacobs, 1961).

It behooves the municipality (and by association, the council) to set the standard by keeping up appearances, to set the example for others to follow. If the town doesn’t attend to the small stuff, then homeowners get the message that they needn’t bother with it on their property, either.

Many years ago, when I was first on council, I sat with Sonny Foley, who would often go around town looking at the state of the boulevards and parks. It was rumoured that he even used his own riding lawnmower to cut town grass he thought had grown too long and shaggy. I guffawed at him then, but realize now that, while he was sometimes hyperbolic in his descriptions, he had the right idea: councillors SHOULD be monitoring the state of the town to make sure that standards are being maintained. Not for public shaming, but to be able to keep the CAO and managerial staff informed and engaged so they are inspired to do that maintenance. And for our council to see for themselves what is going on. They might even talk to residents while they walk around. And in doing so, they would see the “broken windows” that other residents and visitors see here.

Unlike today, councillors back then felt they had a responsibility to the community to go out into it and observe, participate, engage, and communicate; not simply sit at home and participate reluctantly in a Zoom meeting (often behaving abysmally as Coun. Madigan has done). And, of course, that sort of puerile behaviour is a poor sort of example our council has set for the rest of us (along with the much-disliked mayor’s one-trick-pony platform of chasing his $10 million-plus personal vendetta at the taxpayers’ expense).

Perhaps my notion that councillors should be active in their roles and engage in the community is antiquated and being a mere rubber stamp, a passive actor and a sycophant is a more desirable role today. Perhaps the idea that councillors should actually CARE about the community they allegedly represent is equally atavistic. Yet I cling to the notion that small gestures matter, and we would be better off if our council and staff paid attention to them instead of wasting their time and energy pursuing their own pay raises or sycophantically riding the coattails of Saunderson’s myopic obsession.

Collingwood deserves better.

~~~~~

PS. This piece was written in early Dec. 2021, and originally published that month. However, it was deleted in late December when my abysmally bad host server, Godaddy, broke my blog through technical incompetence. I am in the process of trying to restore as many lost posts as possible. Some posts are being reconstructed from drafts and may not be identical to the original posts. Some may never be recovered. My apologies to subscribers who received and read this piece previously and I welcome any recommendations for a more reliable and competent server.

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