The Fair City part 3: Aesthetic Order & Criminal Justice

The following considers how varying aesthetic valuations of urban order and disorder have influenced U.S. urban policy. The history I trace here focuses on one salient case: the “broken windows” perspective of urban disorder and its implementation through policing practices by the New York City Police Department. Broken windows theory began as an academic discourse proposing a causal connection between visible neighborhood disorder (i.e. litter, graffiti, and the eponymous “broken windows). As such, this perspective effectively criminalized low-income and economically disinvested city communities. The perspective was enthusiastically adopted by New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who implemented a sweeping “Quality of Life” initiative in the 1990s that purported to put the broken windows principles into practice. This history is significant for the consideration of urban aesthetics and justice that is the theme of this essay. The history of the broken windows theory’s pathologizing perspective and eventual transformation into policy application demonstrates how aesthetic judgments about urban spaces have served as the foundation for regimes of policing and law enforcement.

The broken windows theory of urban disorder was a significant influence on urban sociology and criminology for decades, and the implications of its approach to disorder can be seen today. In an article titled “The Urban Unease” (1968), J.Q. Wilson reacted to the U.S. urban riots of the 1960s with a view of cities rooted in the tensions between order and disorder. In one example, Wilson suggested that “the process whereby neighborhoods […] have been formed in the large cities might be thought of as one in which order arose out of chaos to return in time to a new form of disorder” (p. 32). Wilson offers a pragmatic understanding of community buttressed by appeals to rationality, stating “concern for community” is less about the need for belonging “than the concerns of any rationally self-interested person with a normal but not compulsive interest in the environment of himself and his family” (p. 27). The behaviors inspired by rational concern for community, Wilson argues, should not be interpreted as conformity or prejudice, but rather as the development of “a range of sanctions to employ against others” in order to “regulate the external consequences of private behavior” (p. 29).

Wilson eventually developed these ideas of neighborhood disorder into the broken windows theory, first outlined in an article written with collaborator George Kelling (1982). The authors encapsulate the broken windows perspective by stating “if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken” (p. 2, emphasis in original). As with broken windows that go unrepaired, the authors argue, “’untended’ behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls” (p. 3). Wilson and Kelling are not exclusively interested physical manifestations of disorder such as litter, graffiti, and buildings in disrepair, but present a larger argument that visible disorder (whether stemming from the built environment or from individuals inhabiting it), if left unchecked, will spread throughout a neighborhood. In the broken windows article, the “urban unease” of Wilson’s earlier essay develops from a general anxiety into pronounced fear. Wilson and Kelling  posit a connection between disorderliness, fear, and crime. Visible disorder on the streets will cause neighborhood residents to “think that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise, and they will modify their behavior accordingly” (p. 3). As a response to this fear of crime, they argue, “people avoid one another, weakening controls” (p. 4) and allowing the spread of disorder. The avoidance of others and the neglect of disorder in the neighborhood necessitate intervention from outside of the community, and for Wilson and Kelling that intervention must come from the police, as the authors state that “[although] citizens can do a great deal, the police are plainly the key to order-maintenance” (p. 9).

Prashan Ranasinghe has persuasively argued that Jane Jacobs’ writing on urban space and city life significantly influenced the development of Wilson and Kelling’s theory. In tracing an intellectual history of how Jacobs’ ideas have “traveled” across scholarly and policy discourses, Ranasinghe cites an increased interest in public disorder among crimonologists in the late 1970s, after the U.S. urban race riots and shortly before the appearance of broken windows theory. Concern with visible disorder had previously appeared in other scholarly theories and texts, including Jacobs’ landmark book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs emphasized the importance of both interpersonal connection and a plentitude of strangers in contributing to the safety of a neighborhood. The presence of diverse groups of people on the sidewalks, and thus “eyes and ears on the street,” contributes to a culture of “casual surveillance” that discourages visible disorder and criminal activity, increasing both the perceived and actual safety of the neighborhood. Jacobs’ notions of “casual surveillance” and the self-regulating activities among community members have significant parallels with Wilson and Kelling’s theories of  Indeed, Kelling has said that his interest in studying disorderly behavior and conditions was directly inspired by reading Jacobs’ book, and stated in correspondence with Ranasinghe that “Broken Window[s] stands in a historical train of thought, the indebtedness of which to Jacobs becomes more clear over time” (p. 69). In Ranasinghe’s analysis, the “fundamental point of departure between Jacobs and Wilson and Kelling revolves around the reclamation of civility” (p. 74). As mentioned before, Wilson and Kelling considered police to be “the key to order maintenance,” capable of implementing the necessary sanctions and interventions beyond the capabilities of neighborhood residents. Jacobs presents a counter perspective in Death and Life, writing: “No amount of police can enforce civilization where the normal, casual enforcement of it has broken down” (p. 40).

Wilson and Kelling’s broken windows article proved very influential, and is credited with inspiring the implementation of policing practices implemented in cities throughout the United States. These policing programs have been referred to as “broken windows policing,” “zero tolerance policing,” and also, using Wilson and Kelling’s preferred term, “order maintenance policing”. In the 1990s, order maintenance policies based on broken windows theory were implemented by the New York City Police Department under police commissioner William Bratton and mayor Rudolph Giuliani. These policies were adopted as part of the city’s broader “Quality of Life” initiatives. During this period crime rates in the city decreased, and New York gained a reputation as one of the safest large cities in the country. 

In a 1998 address titled “The Next Phase of Quality of Life: Creating a More Civil Society,” mayor Giuliani praised the benefits of broken windows theory and zero tolerance policing, saying “broken windows theory works”. Describing the theory as the view that “the little things matter,” Giuliani called broken windows theory “an integral part of our law enforcement strategy”. As an illustration of the policy’s effectiveness, Giuliani relayed an anecdote wherein NYPD officers saw a man “acting suspiciously,” then followed the man “for a time” until they witnessed him “recklessly jaywalking”. After serving the man a summons for the jaywalking offense, the officers learned that the man was wanted in connection with several robberies. This story, Giuliani says, is representative of the “continuum of disorder”:

People who insist on romanticizing the disorder of the past should realize that the reason they have the luxury of this nostalgia is that today things have improved. We didn’t become the City people most want to live in and visit by encouraging an atmosphere of disorder and disrespect for the rights of others. […] There’s a continuum of disorder. Obviously, murder and graffiti are two vastly different crimes. But they are part of the same continuum, and a climate that tolerates one is more likely to tolerate the other.

Bernard Harcourt has been among the most vocal and persistent critics of broken windows theory. His book Illusion of Order (2001) presents a sustained refutation of the theory’s empirical underpinnings, application in policy initiatives, and ideological implications. Harcourt calls the empirical support for the success of broken windows policing into question, and suggests that factors other than policing practices were responsible for New York City’s crime drop. Harcourt’s theoretical critique of broken windows is explicitly Foucauldian, highlighting the problems of subject creation. The broken windows approach, Harcourt suggests, “fails to pay enough attention to the ways that social meaning may construct the subject and to how our understanding of the subject fosters certain disciplinary strategies” (p. 180). More recently, the broken windows approach and zero tolerance policing have been heavily criticized in relation to the NYPD’s controversial “stop and frisk” policy, and the 2014 death of Eric Garner during an encounter with NYPD officers.

The preceding history of broken windows policing is presented to demonstrate a connection between urban aesthetics and justice. This example shows how the privileging of certain aesthetic attributes over others has been used as the basis for policing and criminalizing urban populations. The era of the Giuliani mayoral administration is popularly associated with the “Disneyfication” of New York City, a range of transformations exemplified by the removal of sex shops and “red light district” elements from Times Square, and their replacement by corporate entertainment and retail centers. A less well known but equally significant outcome of these  policies was the aggressive removal of homeless people from the public spaces in Manhattan. The “quality of life” and “zero tolerance” initiatives were deployed to systematically eliminate visible homelessness, a condition that was rhetorically equated with “visible disorder.” The connection between removing certain pathologized populations in the pursuit of a more aesthetically pleasing city is further demonstrated by the current trend of gentrification and displacement in U.S. cities.


Ranasinghe, Prashan. Jane Jacobs’ Framing of Public Disorder and Its Relation to the ‘broken Windows’ Theory. Theoretical criminology 16, no. 1 (2012): 63–84.

Wilson, J.Q. (1968). The urban unease: Community vs. city. The Public Interest, 12 (Summer), 25-39.

Wilson, J.Q. & Kelling, G.L. (1982). Broken windows: The police and neighborhood safety. Atlantic Monthly, 249(3), 29-38. PDF version retrieved from

Wilson, J.Q. & Kelling, G.L. (2006). A quarter century of broken windows. The American Interest, 2(1). Retrieved from

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