Home > General > Rebuilding communities one pothole at a time

Rebuilding communities one pothole at a time

They say that you eat an elephant one bite at a time. Often we look at huge problems and are overwhelmed because we feel that they are insurmountable. We cannot see a way out and we think that we need to throw a lot of money at them. The Mayor of New York took a theory called ‘Broken Windows’ and applied to New York and ten years later the city now boasts of the lowest murder rate since 1963. Murders came down from 2801 in 1994 to 537 in 2003, just nine years later.

Downtown Harare, Zimbabwe

Image via Wikipedia

The Broken Window The “The Broken Windows posits that something as simple as a broken window signals abandonment and a lax attitude towards property and therefore an absence of respect for the law”. The broken window is the first signal of decline and deterioration. If a window remains broken for more than six months, onlookers have a sense that there is either no one living in that home or the people living there have a lax attitude towards their property. It doesn’t end there. It also says something about the neighborhood as a whole. If there are several houses in the neighborhood with broken windows, this further gives the impression that the neighborhood itself has a lax attitude and people do not care about their surroundings or really anything that is going on around there. The result of this phenomenon is that gangs begin to hang around those homes with broken windows. Drugs dealers and all sorts of criminals begin to loiter around. This now brings crime into the street. A perfectly normal street can go to ruin in a few months because of the impression that is given by a few broken windows, graffiti and broken down cars. If left unchecked, deterioration continues until the neighborhood is no longer safe.

When a community takes pride in their surroundings and homes, criminal activities are curbed and the community as a whole becomes a better place for everyone. The Mayor of New York tackled the problems in New York, by fixing small things like broken down windows. Gradually a change began to take place as gangster realized that their presence was no longer welcome in the streets. Years down the line, murders have been reduced. An ordered and clean environment sends the signal that this is a place which is monitored and people here conform to the common norms of non-criminal behavior. A disordered environment which is littered, vandalized, and not maintained sends the opposite signal: this is a place where people do as they please and get away with it without being detected. Therefore, as people tend to act the way they think others act, they are more likely to act “disorderly” in the disordered environment.

First impressions are always powerful. When travelling between Zimbabwe and South Africa I see a stark contrasts between the two countries. The Zimbabwe border at Beightbridge has an abandoned look about it. The immigration offices are just not fit for the day and age that we live in; the area is often overgrown and dirty, with lots of rubbish everywhere. It is so different to the South African side of the border which is organized, ordered, clean and neat, showing that great care is given to the area. All the way up to Harare, the road is terrible, there are no services, no toilets and it is like you have just driven into a forgotten place. If I was a business person, looking to invest in Zimbabwe, I would be put off. Without even investing in paint and tiles, we can contribute by taking out our own litter to the bin and picking up on litter wherever we find any. If we have an attitude that it is not my job or someone else is paid to do that job we shoot ourselves in the foot. I often ask people why they throw litter around and cause a big mess and the response is usually, “If I don’t throw this litter on the ground, that cleaner won’t have a job to go to tomorrow. So I am doing it so that she can have something to do and so she doesn’t get fired.” As if they are actually sincere. By throwing litter around we make our streets look abandoned and give and impression we do not care about our surroundings. This invites thieves, prostitutes, drug Lords and delinquents to move in and take over. Instead, repair the broken windows within a short time, say, a day or a week, and the tendency is that vandals are much less likely to break more windows or do further damage. Clean up the sidewalk every day, and the tendency is for litter not to accumulate (or for the rate of littering to be much less). Problems do not escalate and thus respectable residents do not flee a neighborhood. We need to take responsibility of our surroundings because this affects so much more than we think.

Let us change the things that are in our control. Investors get a glimpse into our nation and make decisions based on what they see on the ground. We cannot promise to give them a return on their investment when we cannot even keep our streets clean. When investors see ’broken windows’, they will not want to invest. Let us take control of our world and not wait for the authorities to do something first. We can change the world we live in if we all take responsibilities. There are small things that we can do to turn around our cities picking up rubbish, fixing broken windows and cleaning the sidewalk.

 One example of disorder, like graffiti or littering, can indeed encourage another, like stealing.

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Categories: General
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