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Broken windows

By Michael Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 05:34:00 01/12/2011

LATELY I have been encountering the term “broken windows hypothesis” quite
regularly in American newspapers, mainly in relation to efforts of various cities to
reverse urban decay. It’s a simple proposition: if you don’t repair a broken window in
your home, you invite vandals or thieves to break more windows. Soon, your neighbors
are victimized too and if they neglect to repair the damage in their homes, you end up
with a large number of broken windows—and the community deteriorates.

The hypothesis struck me because last August, I began a new administrative job at the
University of the Philippines and was shocked to discover the extent of deterioration in
the buildings I had to handle, including the much beloved “AS” or Palma Hall. Name it,
we had it, from leaking roofs to an antiquated electrical system about ready to explode.

There were no broken windows, fortunately, but I was intrigued by what the hypothesis
might mean for my new work. I did more research and found that the term dates back to
1982, when two Harvard professors, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, published an
article in the Atlantic Monthly analyzing urban problems and the role of law enforcement
in responding to those problems.

Wilson and Kelling explained that each broken window is a signal. The broken window
is telling people: “Hey, you’re in a neighborhood where we don’t care too much about
our homes.” The signal in effect invites more vandalism and when you get a few more
broken windows, you’re actually setting a new negative norm.


When I walk through a run-down office (often government), I think of the hypothesis and
lately I’ve wondered if it should be called a syndrome instead. Like medical syndromes,
what we have here is a complex cluster of signs and symptoms pointing to deeper
problems of neglect, of irresponsibility, of not caring for other people. In other cases,
there might even be incompetence and corruption.

With syndromes, every small symptom is important because they amplify each other. For
example, over the Christmas break, as I took a leisurely walk around one of the buildings,
I realized the bulletin boards had all kinds of very old notices still posted on them. The
college directory was the most shocking: from the names of the administrators on the list,
it had to be at least six years old, maybe even older. It was dirty and faded and I was extra
careful taking it down, imagining tetanus from the rusty thumb tacks.

It’s not trivial. When you leave old notices on a bulletin board, you’re telling your
constituency, whether office workers or students, that you don’t care. Benign neglect
turns into collective apathy. I keep telling my staff when we review these problems that
there should be no finger-pointing here, except to think that our apathy as individuals
adds to the problem.

The “norm-setting” aspect is important. Because everything is in such bad shape, we

begin to see the problems as normal. I realized this with one building (UP alumni will
remember the historic Greenhouse), which had a window whose screens were torn, ready
to fall off but just hanging there like some festering wound with the skin about to peel
off. Even before I became college administrator, I had noticed the window but had
shrugged it off as part of the realities of UP’s small budget. Even after I began my new
job, I would continue to walk past it, and think again, oh, I can repair it with next year’s

Then during the Christmas break during my informal inspection, amid the silence and
serenity of a campus on break, the full impact of the broken screen struck me. It wasn’t
just ugly but was also a glaring expression of disrespect, to our students, faculty,
administrative staff, janitors. “Binabastos” in Filipino, especially because, I realized, it
had been there so long and yet it would only cost a few hundred pesos to replace the

As I walked around the Greenhouse, I found graffiti on one of the adjoining posts which
wasn’t there before the Christmas break. I am certain the broken screen had invited the

Syndromes are taken seriously in medicine because the different signs and symptoms
show the body’s systems are failing, even fighting each other. One of my line staff, when
shown the outdated directory, immediately noticed that it had been slashed at several
points with a razor blade. I wondered if it was just random vandalism, or some student
angry and frustrated with this symbol of an uncaring bureaucracy.

Respect, pride

Wilson and Kelling’s article on broken windows had a strong impact on public policies in
the United States. Wilson was tapped by several cities to work on reversing urban decay.
He was actually controversial, advocating a zero-tolerance policy on so-called “quality of
life crimes,” which includes acts like graffiti, urinating in the streets, vandalism. Like
broken windows, vandals and vandalism invite more of their kind.

The zero-tolerance policy has not been without critics, who say this approach only deals
with symptoms of the problem, i.e., urban decay is due to poverty, deprivation, etc.

I can understand the negative criticism but when it comes to offices and institutions, it all
becomes a cop-out to blame financial difficulties. Quite often, there are budgets, however
small, and it becomes an investment when prompt repairs and timely maintenance keep
potential vandals out.

More importantly, these measures boost the morale of people in the office or institution,
giving them pride in their work, in their institution. On my first day of work, it was one
of the security guards who pointed out a leaking roof from which rainwater was gushing
out like a mini-waterfall. In Filipino, he asked, almost with shyness, “Maybe, sir, we can
repair this?”

I was almost ashamed, realizing I had seen the “falls” many times and had come to accept
it as just another part of life at UP, but I was encouraged, too, knowing that I was going
to be working with a team who did care about the students and the campus grounds.

When last month student activists spray-painted slogans and protest images on the façade
of Palma Hall during a rally, one of my associate deans, Neil Santillan, acted quickly
with Norman Boro, our all-around administrative person who has become my right-hand
man on these matters. They told the spray “artists” to buy paint and come back and repair
what they did. The students sent the paint the next day, but didn’t keep their promise to
help repaint the wall. The staff pushed through on their own, eager to get Christmas
decorations up in place.

No doubt, one can be “too successful” at times, with people then raising their
expectations on what can be done, but that’s fine with me. Other times, the staff can
become “too efficient.” Several times now, I have wanted to take “before” and “after”
photographs of our problems, but Norman is just so efficient that the screens get repaired,
the leaking roofs plugged, the graffiti painted over before I can take photographs.

Countering the broken windows syndrome, there is a positive cluster too that we can
build, in our neighborhoods and our work places, of efficiency, responsibility, pride and
respect, each reinforcing the other.