Bogotá’s ‘broken windows’

With the mayoral election coming up, it's as relevant as ever .  Right, it might be a question of where do we start with this one. Applying the broken windows theory to Bogotá might seem futile.

Right, it might be a question of where do we start with this one. Applying the broken windows theory to Bogotá might seem futile. In brief, this is the idea that if a window is broken and left in such a state in a neighbourhood, this gives off a signal to others that nobody cares about the place. Thus, more windows are broken and a sense of disorder and lawlessness soon spreads throughout the area. In other words, the premise is that when trying to implement law and order, small, seemingly minor transgressions matter in a big way.

It is this thinking in operation that is credited by many in overseeing the dramatic reduction in crime levels in New York City in the late 1980s and ‘90s. For much of the 80s the city was going through one of the worst crime epidemics in its history. But by coming down hard on what appeared petty, insignificant unlawful behaviour in comparison to the daily homicides that were occurring at the time – a policy that started on the subway before later being introduced on the streets under the guise of ‘zero-tolerance’ – the city’s crime levels plummeted.

So looking at Bogotá in this light, there are plenty of ‘broken windows’ – in the literal sense and otherwise – which the authorities there could start making a concerted effort to fix. Below some of the most common ones are examined:
    
Faeces on the streets
A good practice if you’re walking the streets of Bogotá is to do so with your eyes firmly on the ground so as to avoid the ubiquitous dog poo. However it’s not only dog excrement you have to avoid; there’s human, too.

Yes, most of the latter faeces are the product of the homeless, but perhaps the introduction of some basic public toilets for these guys and gentle persuasion not to ‘decorate’ the streets with their waste would be a start.

As for the dogs, fine owners that are caught not cleaning up after their canine’s mess, simple as. The unaccounted for street dogs? Round them up.
 
Aggressive beggars
In a city where a big number live well below the poverty line, beggars are a sad fact of reality. When there is a lack of any meaningful social programme to help them it’s difficult to be critical. However the in-your-face, give-me-money-now types need to be systematically tackled – it’s a thin line to cross from aggressively asking for money to aggressively taking it. Fining these types is obviously a waste of time but setting up some sort of community scheme where they are housed and put to work might be one solution.

Transmilenio delinquents
It was on New York’s subway where broken windows first hit, tackling fare-beaters for one. When these offenders were apprehended, it was often found that many of them were carrying weapons or had previous convictions. There are plenty of abusers of Bogotá’s main public transport system, the Transmilenio, who no doubt would fall into the same category. Deal with them. Of course to help in this you need a streamlined system where these crimes are punished quickly and effectively – in a country such as Colombia that could be the downfall.

Rubbish
This just adds to the overall environment of carelessness, and there’s plenty of it to be found blowing around the capital’s centre. Inadequate public bins, poor storage facilities for waste yet to be collected, a lack of litter awareness among the populace and homeless people who tare open rubbish bags looking for hidden ‘delights’ are all parts of the problem. Outgoing Mayor Gustavo Pertro’s coveted ‘Basura Cero’ (‘Zero Rubbish’) programme has a long way to go.

Infrastructure issues, neglected buildings
Footpaths and roads in perpetual states of incompleteness and/or disrepair, ‘new’ buildings not finished or older ones lying decrepit, again like the rubbish and the broken windows themselves, these send out negative signals. It’s not just faeces that you have to avoid on Bogotá’s streets but also the risk of falling down a manhole – it’s normal for the covers of these to go missing and then rarely replaced. This goes for the highways and the pavements. At best some thoughtful person might place a stick protruding out of the hole to act as a warning. It’s a start anyway.

Graffiti
Another ‘crime’ that came in for heavy treatment on New York’s subway, for many of course it’s just an expression of art. From that point-of-view, Bogotá has plenty of interesting, impressive murals that are now tourist attractions. So when graffiti brightens up an area and has a story to tell then its fine. But vandalising protected public buildings or transport with paint is not art – this is where heads should roll.

It must be pointed out that this isn’t a call for an overzealous police state. Broken windows should be about implementing an attitude change. Therefore, to set an example you may have to be strict and unwavering at first, but over time people should come to know what’s acceptable and what’s not. Some, though, take longer than others to learn.

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