Saturday, 16 March 2013

Pom-Poms for Peace

The police in Leicester, England have taken to yarn bombing in an effort to prevent crime. They've hung pom-poms in the trees in Bede Park and Great Central Way, Leicester, and hope that by making the area look more pleasant and fun that they can encourage more residents to feel safer, take more pride, and participate more actively in these areas.

Some residents are saying they don't understand how woollen balls are going to fix anything, but it seems to me that tactics like this are quite worth trying. For one thing, a project like this requires a very small investment of time and money, and certainly can't make matters worse, so why not try it? And there is some precedent and social science research that supports the belief that it might work, such as that associated with the broken windows theory.

In a real life example of the broken windows theory, after the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, Mayor-Commissioner Walter Washington ordered Washington, D.C. city maintenance crews to clean up the damage immediately on the theory that people who wake up to clean, cared-for neighbourhoods are more likely to leave them that way. There's no way to know whether or how much this helped the situation. It certainly wasn't a magical solution. The riots in Washington continued for four days and devastated the inner city area. However, Walter Washington went on to become the city's first elected mayor, which suggests that his methods of dealing with the violence at least earned him widespread respect and trust in the city he governed.

Another possible argument in favour of the pom-poms is that I think people tend to underestimate the cumulative power of small, purposeful, and intelligently made changes. Just hanging up pom-poms in some trees is not going to revolutionize Leicester. But I doubt those who are working to make Leicester safer are planning to stop there. There are other small, inexpensive measures that can be used to prevent crime. In Mansfield, England, the Layton Burroughs Residents Association installed bright pink lighting in an underpass to discourage loiterers. It seems to have helped. The teenagers who formerly hung out there saw the lighting as uncool and didn't care at all for the way it highlighted their acne. Some public transit stations, including Toronto's Kennedy subway station, have tried playing classical music over their PA systems to deter gangbangers from gathering there. Again, it's no cure-all, but it is considered effective.

I don't mean to suggest that aesthetic changes to an environment will solve all society's ills. They will be next to useless if not supported by other, more far-reaching measures. The idea of an aesthetic-only approach makes me think of a former friend of mine who was in an abusive relationship and a dead-end job she hated and who in her late thirties had no savings to speak of. She was making no progress at all in dealing with these issues, but she would spend a lot of time talking about how she wanted to get breast implants, or cut off half her hair and dye it blond, or about how much she needed to go shopping in a way that seemed to equate such actions with major life changes. She'd, say, buy a top with a wild print, because it "looked rebellious and she felt rebellious!" Given that this was a woman who was already very well-groomed and attractive, I wanted to snap at her that if she didn't like her life, why the hell didn't she make some meaningful changes instead of taking things out on her hair or buying more clothes she'd only stuff into her already packed closets and hardly ever wear? In her case focusing more on her appearance than she already did was a misdirection and waste of resources.

It is very important to maintain appearances at the societal as well as the individual level, but other measures such as sound fiscal management, effective policing and regulation, and improving access to social programs, medical care, education, and good housing, are even more important, and will go a long way towards improving the conditions that lead to crime. A holistic and balanced approach to problem-solving is best.

But for now, there are bright fluffy pom-poms in the trees in Leicester, and it will be interesting to see what effect they have, and what Leicester does next to improve itself.

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