New York City is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. For the latter part of the 20th century, the city was plagued by social and environmental problems. However, since they were instituted in the 1990s and 2000s, decisive measures to reduce crime and pollution have led to a significant improvement in the quality of life for New York City residents.
“Broken Windows” Policy
The second half of the 20th century was tumultuous for New York City. The city was torn by racial tensions and the emergence of new markets that pushed industry out of the United States and into developing countries. These issues, among other factors, contributed to growing crime rates across the country, by which large cities were particularly affected. In New York City specifically, the Urban Renewal program had left many of the ghetto dwellers crammed into overcrowded houses without access to proper health care or education. This crisis of inequality resulted in many people, especially undereducated minorities, entering a life of crime. The existing tensions were further aggravated by corporations moving their production to the developing world, which left many low-skilled workers with few employment opportunities. Without any options left, many fell into poverty and turned to crime.
The New York City police had been powerless to stop the crime wave until the 1990s. In 1993, William J. Bratton was hired as the New York City police commissioner, and he brought with him a radically different approach to handling crime. Instead of ignoring petty crimes in favor of more serious transgressions, Bratton implemented the so-called “broken windows” policy. Introduced in 1982 by sociologists James Wilson and George Kelling, this theory posits that the existence of small transgressions leads to more serious crime. The scientists discovered that if petty violations of the law go unpunished, the atmosphere in the community can lead people to go as far as burglary and murder (Wilson & Kelling, p. 2).
In an earlier study, another social scientist named Philip Zimbardo found that even socially secure and respectable individuals can be drawn to criminal activities if they are not judged by society (Zimbardo, p. 15). Thus, research shows that people may view the lack of punishment for petty crimes as a mandate to commit them and other more impactful violations of the law. Newly appointed Commissioner Bratton incorporated this social science research into his policies and initiated an operation to significantly reduce smaller, less impactful crimes. He ordered officers to stop ignoring graffiti artists, vandals, and young delinquents. He also instituted improvements to police procedure that allowed for quicker arrestee processing and higher efficiency overall. With these two changes in effect, the crime rate in the city started to decline. By the end of the 1990s, Bratton’s ambitious project had succeeded, as the number of murders in New York City was three times lower.
Studies undertaken at the start of the new millennium indicate that the city’s reduced crime rate can be attributed to the application of the broken windows theory (Francis, par. 7). However, some scientists argue that the economic growth of the end of the 20th century contributed more to the city’s reduction in crime than did the changes or improvements in police procedure. Regardless of the cause, one effect of the broken windows policy is undeniable: by arresting and working with small-time criminals, the police undoubtedly stopped many people from committing more severe crimes. The new policy made more people truly understand that breaking the law is punishable. While improved economic prospects must have also contributed to the reduced crime rate, Bratton’s innovative approach increased both public security and the quality of life in New York City.
Battle for Clean Air
For the leadership of huge cities, ecology is a constant headache. Overpopulation increases the need for power plants and cars. Industry contributes to the pollution levels while residents produce litter and waste in overwhelming quantities. Until recently, New York City had been suffering from high air pollution levels. An especially acute problem was pollution from particulate matter, which enters human lungs as people breathe and can cause lung cancer and various cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Amongst the most common effects of poor air quality are chronic bronchitis and asthma; New York City used to have a hospitalization rate for children’s asthma two times higher than the national average. These potential health problems are especially threatening for infants and pregnant women, as poor air quality is known to cause miscarriage and developmental issues. Moreover, pollution causes discomfort for residents and negatively affects their productivity. Many studies have also shown that pollution negatively affects the environment on a more global level. In fact, air particles are the one of largest contributors to climate change, second only to carbon dioxide (Bond & Sun p. 5923). Clearly this issue had a severely negative effect on the quality of life in New York City.
In recent years, however, Mayor Bloomberg managed to implement a set of measures to reduce the city’s particle pollution. The project started after researchers from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) discovered that no. 4 and no. 6 heating oils contribute to particle pollution more than all of the cars and trucks in the city combined (Environmental Defense Fund p. 2). Due to their high concentrations of sulfur, these oils produce an extremely high number of particles when burned. This unexpected discovery led the New York City local government to alter their priorities since previously, vehicles had been considered the primary cause of air pollution in the city.
After the study was published, the administration started the NYC Clean Heat Project in 2012. The program helped some 2,700 buildings convert their heating systems and start using cleaner fuels, which led to a significant improvement in the air quality even just one year later in 2013. Compared to 2008 levels, the sulfur concentration has declined by the 69% and the nickel concentration by 37% (Darrell, par. 3). This effect is comparable to removing 800,000 vehicles from New York City streets. This change illustrates how a seemingly minor sustainable development project administration can drastically improve public health and well-being in a major city. Now the EDF is seeking to implement similar projects in other cities across the United States, using the New York City results as a proof of their efficiency.
Large cities necessarily draw complex societal and environmental issues. For New York City, the last half of the 20th century was a difficult time, filled with economic issues and racial tensions. Air pollution enshrouded the streets in smoke and caused a decline in public health. However, the city’s administration managed to alleviate both problems. By utilizing innovative approaches and working with NGOs, New York City government officials addressed two of the most pressing concerns affecting public safety and well-being. While the issues of crime and air pollution are not completely eradicated, the quality of life in the city has improved significantly over the last two decades.
Bond, T & Sun, H 2005 ‘Can Reducing Black Carbon Emissions Counteract Global Warming?’ Environmental Science and Technology, vol. 39, pp. 5921-5926.
Darrell, A 2013, Air quality improvements are saving lives in New York City, Web.
Environmental Defense Fund 2009, The Bottom of the Barrel, Web.
Francis, D 2002, What Reduced the Crime in New York City, Web.
Wilson, J & Kelling, G 1982, ‘Broken Windows’, The Atlantic, p. 1-10.
Zimbardo, P 2007, The Lucifer Effect, Random House, New York, NY.