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Most people are familiar with the “Broken Windows” theory of solving social problems. In a nutshell, it says to pay attention to little problems because they are a precursor to bigger problems. If a broken window is left unrepaired, then passersby will conclude nobody cares. Over time, more serious things will happen.
This theory originated in the writings of George Kelling and James Q. Wilson. They wrote in a 1982 essay in The Atlantic Monthly that disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani made the theory famous when he focused on eliminating graffiti, public drinking, public urination and toll-jumping in the New York City subway system. In effect, Giuliani said that if we can’t fix the little things, how could we fix the big things? The violent crime rate dropped by 56 percent during his two terms as mayor. Murder, robbery and aggravated assault rates all fell dramatically.
While many argue Giuliani’s policies were not the cause of these improvements, I think the theory poses interesting questions for community leaders and elected officials in Utah. What broken windows are we overlooking in our attempt to become a more prosperous state?
In my view, there are some little and big things we can do to show we care about our state and the communities we live in. Consistent with the broken window theory, we have to avoid even the appearance of disorder. Here’s my list:
These are just some potential “broken window” issues for Utah leaders to consider. What does your list look like?
We should hold ourselves, and the civic institutions we create, to higher standards. Intimidation from panhandlers is not OK, nor is it right to have motorists zoom by a crosswalk with a pedestrian ready to cross. Cyclists should obey the law just like motorists. Selling drugs is not acceptable in our society, and it’s even worse when conducted in our neighborhoods. Lastly, we can make our freeways look better.
Next time you see a broken window literally or metaphorically, take note. If we solve the easy things we just may be able to solve the really hard things.
Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.