What we’re about and where we’re headed
Why is it that some ideas catch fire and change the world but others die in darkness?
Both of us have spent most of our professional lives thinking about public safety. In our field, the most significant idea to escape from academia to live and thrive in the streets — whether you love it or hate it — has been the broken windows theory. First made popular in the pages of The Atlantic in 1982, George Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s theory would soon develop into one of the bedrocks of American policing.
“Broken windows” has now become shorthand for flood-the-zone policing that emphasizes the aggressive enforcement of low-level offenses. But re-reading the essay today is surprising because the actual text conveys something quite different. Wilson and Kelling argued that social norms get bent out of shape, and not for the better, once the first stone is thrown. In their telling, a broken window can encourage squatters, which can create an environment for drug dealing and which can, eventually, lead to more serious crimes. They did not endorse the kind of unconstitutional stop-and-frisk tactics that ultimately resulted in almost 700,000 stops in a single year in New York City, almost entirely of young men of color.
As the sociologist Eric Klinenberg has pointed out, this amounted to a tragic missed opportunity. Instead of interpreting the broken windows theory as a means to restrict the free movement of hundreds of thousands of people, New York and other cities could have seized on the idea to improve the physical spaces where crime occurs. As we have learned from numerous randomized controlled trials, doing this could have helped reduce crime without the corrosive effects of over-policing.
How do you find good ideas and translate them into action? These are the questions that animate everything we do at Vital City.
We take some lessons from the broken windows story. The idea caught fire because it had a common-sense, if disputed, logic and a brilliant framing, including simple iconography — the broken window — that summed up a complicated set of ideas in a single image. But broken windows would only be of interest to a handful of academics today had it not been operationalized and institutionalized by the largest police force in the country. While the NYPD’s embrace of broken windows ensured its relevance, it also profoundly shaped the public understanding of the concept. Today, many people abhor broken windows but have very little familiarity with the ideas articulated in Kelling and Wilson’s article.
This story has cautions but also lessons: How do you find good ideas and translate them into action? These are the questions that animate everything we do at Vital City. We hope to advance a set of concrete, actionable ideas that will produce a better life for city dwellers.
At Vital City, we believe in the strength of the social fabric. There is a tight connection between civic vitality and public safety. Experience and decades of research teach us that there is more to safety than the absence of crime — and more to reducing crime than the deployment of police.
Our safety depends upon our connections to one another and the places where we live. Those connections are a million gossamer threads of family, neighbors and institutions that form our social networks and help maintain commonly accepted, informal rules of behavior.
But it is not just human connections that regulate our conduct — it is also the physical world around us: the lighting of our streets, the care of our parks, the maintenance of our housing. We still have much to learn, of course, but we can say this with a fair degree of confidence: When street lights are turned on, crime goes down. When lots are remediated, crime goes down. When summer youth employment opportunities are made available, incarceration, and stunningly, mortality go down.
There is a tight connection between civic vitality and public safety. There is more to safety than the absence of crime — and more to reducing crime than the deployment of police.
Policing has a role to play in this constellation, but it is a limited one, of necessity in a democratic society. The causes of crime are many. So, it should be no surprise that the solutions are more varied than the solitary use of force. Police should be at the table, but they should not run the table.
Many, many people think as we do. They can be found in academia, in government, in journalism and in nonprofits, among other places. They are turned off by our increasingly polarized political debates, requiring a kind of orthodoxy of thought and speech, whether left or right. They want the best ideas to be translated into practice on the ground. And they long for policy to be guided by data rather than bumper-sticker slogans.
At Vital City, we seek to connect these people to one another and to create a community of thinkers and doers dedicated to strengthening the social fabric of cities.
We have a ways to go. We admit that no one is going to the barricades yelling “social fabric.” “Turn on the lights” doesn’t (yet!) have the resonance of “send in the police.”
Connecting ideas to governance is always a challenge. But it is doable. Inevitably, this will sometimes mean starting in bits and pieces, working incrementally, while sometimes taking bolder action. But, whether piece by piece or all at once, genuine transformation is possible. We can in fact create cities with diverse, vibrant and healthy neighborhoods where the rhythm of everyday life is sustained primarily by a strong social network instead of the daily presence of the criminal justice system. We believe this vision is the antidote to the increasingly dire portraits of urban life that activists on both the right and the left paint these days, in which people either cower in fear in their apartments or feel like they live in a police state with armed officers on every corner.
We seek to supply ideas about how to enhance urban vitality and improve governance —– and to convey these ideas in a way that is comprehensible and usable by the people who make and influence decisions.
We are working to shift the frame of the public debate about safety, from one that defaults, first and foremost, to the police as the answer to everything that ails us, to one that integrates police into a larger frame involving a broad range of civic actors (residents, of course, but also schools, businesses, social service providers and more) oriented towards a common goal. We seek to supply ideas about how to enhance urban vitality and improve governance — and to convey these ideas in a way that is comprehensible and usable by the people who make and influence decisions. And we seek to increase access to data so that the public can understand how things are working (or not).
We have been encouraged by our progress to date. Over the past 18 months, we have published four issues in print and online, with another on the way shortly. In our issues and in running online commentary, we have attracted a diverse array of contributors and advisors, including award-winning researchers, city planners, neighborhood activists and leading journalists. We have signed up an impressive team of contributing writers, including Vishaan Chakrabarti, Errol Louis and Harry Siegel. And, thanks in large part to our managing editor, Josh Greenman, we have published a range of provocative essays, from ruminations on the Jordan Neely tragedy to a deep dive into New York City’s fiscal situation to a review of 70 years’ worth of research on how to prevent crime. Our contributors have offered pragmatic solutions for a range of urgent problems, including how to drive down transit costs and root out rats.
Pieces and data from Vital City have been cited in an array of New York outlets as well as The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. Essays from Vital City have been co-published in numerous other periodicals, including the New York Daily News, Next City, Crain’s, The Crime Report and City & State. NPR’s Brian Lehrer Show has featured us several times. We have attracted new investments from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and the Charles Revson Foundation. You can now buy our journal at independent bookstores like McNally Jackson and Books Are Magic. Jeez, New York City Comptroller Brad Lander was even spotted wearing our merch.
But ultimately, we measure success less by clicks or likes and more by whether our ideas get into the drinking water and improve the lives of city residents. One strand of our work has focused on the escalating crises in New York City’s jails, where 27 people have died since January of last year. Working with a broad group of partners, we have helped bring a new idea into the public square — the appointment of a federal receiver with the power and freedom to break through the decades of structural dysfunction in the jails. This idea, which was seen as a non-starter a year ago, is now actively being considered by the federal court responsible for overseeing the Rikers Island consent decree.
We have just gotten started. Over the course of the next year, we will continue to identify and disseminate new ideas for promoting urban vitality. We will double down on our commitment to great writing, beautiful design and illuminating data. And we will launch new efforts to translate academic research so that it can be used by policymakers and to advance new ways of thinking about how to measure the health of urban communities.
We look forward to your feedback — and to working with you in the days ahead to improve life in New York and other cities.