Returning to Uruguay and the broken window


Leandro Castelluccio

In this note I would like to reflect on a fact that struck me when I returned to Uruguay after a year living in the United Kingdom. In a way I perceived something similar in other places of Europe that I had the opportunity to visit. After a while living surrounded by a certain urban aesthetic, a lot of green space and I would say a great homogeneity in public areas, I was struck by finding myself distinguishing things from the urbanity of Montevideo that were previously overlooked by myself, probably by custom, but I think the contrast made all these stand out. Something similar happened in Europe, and probably the vast majority of people have seen it in their own neighborhoods, but what I want to point out here is the contrast and how we live accustomed to certain aesthetics that end up going unnoticed. What I mean is graffiti on the public streets and the general care of urbanity (garbage, breaks, etc.).

The change becomes noticeable in certain contexts, perhaps it is a hasty generalization, but daily experience seems to confirm it: contexts or poorer neighborhoods tend to have less care spaces and where graffiti is more present. Not the artistic graffiti, but the stripes, phrases and signatures. This reminds us of the broken window theory, where it is perceived that neglected or “transgressed” spaces, so to speak, are associated with higher levels of crime and diverse problems or contexts of greater poverty (see next paragraphs). It could be argued whether there is a question of causality here, to think that transgression and dirty spaces with graffiti generates a propensity to crime and poverty. Many will argue that in reality the context is prior and the one that generates such visual manifestations in urbanity and not the other way around (correlation does not mean causality). Probably that is true, but I think the truth is even more accurate is that both things occur, perhaps with a predominance of the latter. That is, the context generates the presence of such manifestations, but the same ones in turn can get to promote certain attitudes of transgression in people.

An interesting hypothesis is that such influence of transgressed public spaces in people occurs in an unconscious way. It could even be glimpsed the attitude and general character of a community by what the public space looks like. And in Montevideo there is a prominent amount of neglect of urbanity, it is observed in the enormous amount of graffiti or in the garbage and general neglect of the sidewalks and streets. And to what extent does the idiosyncrasy and character of the Montevideo or the Uruguayan in general play a role in all this? Sometimes it is said that the Uruguayan is somewhat dull and pessimistic, melancholic or careless in how he looks in front of others. Can all these translate to the way people care what surrounds them? Without going into excessive conjectures, let us say that this gives us at least some thought and reflection about how we behave in public spaces and how we take care of them, and how it influences other things, but we need to put things in context.

As Wilson and Kelling (1982) reflect, during the mid-1970s, in the state of New Jersey in the United States, a program designed to improve the quality of community life in different cities was implemented, consisting of greater numbers of policemen on foot a cross different neighborhoods. The program was met with some skepticism from various people, including academics and police officers. After five years of implementation, an evaluation was carried out based on a carefully controlled experiment, concluding that the program failed to reduce crime rates. However, residents of neighborhoods with police officers tended to believe that the crime had reduced, and what is more, they seemed to take fewer precautions to protect themselves from crime. These residents also had a more favorable opinion of the police, and the latter had a better opinion of themselves and of the residents of the neighborhoods where they worked (Wilson & Kelling, 1982). This is an interesting fact that encourages us to take certain things into account. On the one hand, one thing is the perception of criminality and another thing the real criminality. In Uruguay this fact has been misrepresented in the public domain, although it is true that one thing is perception and another is real crime, it has often been affirmed that people have a sense of insecurity (“it’s a sensation”) while observing a real statistical increase in crime rates, so that both facts were not dissociated. On the other hand, more police personnel are observed in different areas of Montevideo in different corners, even in the late hours of the night and dawn, which, as was observed in the previous study, does not necessarily have an impact on the decrease in crime, and what is more, can lead people to be less careful about crime. And we must be cautious if any conclusion based on the presence of officers on foot is affirmed in the public domain. It is worth reflecting that such presence of officers also improves opinion about the police, which is not bad, but also we must take into account the results, and the cost-benefit ratio of crime.

What is certain is that Wilson and Kelling (1982) conclude that what the police managed to achieve was to raise the level of public order in the neighborhoods. At the community level, the authors suggest that, based on certain studies, social disorder and crime are often intimately connected, for example, we have the case of Philip Zimbardo’s experiment, in which both an abandoned car in a poorer neighborhood and a neighborhood of high socio-economic level are vandalized by people perceived as “good” and not simply criminals, this occurs when a window of the car breaks down and perception of abandonment is generated, and “no one cares anymore”, and that is like a free path to generate more damage (Wilson & Kelling, 1982). However, as we previously commented, the perception of criminality and criminality itself do not necessarily go hand in hand, but maintaining public order is something valued by the community, not necessarily maintaining order against criminals, but as Wilson and Kelling (1982) point out, against small offenders, so to speak, alcoholic people, drug addicts, small groups of teenagers annoying other people, and so on.

Now, authors such as Sampson and Raudenbush (2004), conclude that while observed order predicts perceived disorder, the racial and economic context of a community is more relevant, in the sense that as minority group concentration and poverty increases, the residents of the community, of various types, perceive a greater disorder, even after taking into account an extensive series of personal characteristics and neighborhood conditions independently observed. It is concluded that to see disorder is linked to notions or meanings that go beyond what certain theories affirm, and that it is connected with self-reinforcing processes that perpetuate urban racial inequality (Sampson & Raudenbush, 2004). And in a certain way we can confuse the factor of poverty or criminality with that of disorder or transgression of public space, as indicated by Zimbardo’s experiment, in the neighborhood of a high socio-economic context the process of transgression was also present in front of a perception of disorder and abandonment.

However, there are many criticisms of the theory of the broken window that call for reconsideration (example: Gau & Pratt, 2008). Again, perceived disorder is not the same as physical disorder, apparently there would be a personal individual construction, or as it is also called, “social.” Hinkle and Yang (2014) found little correspondence between community residents’ perceptions and researchers’ observations of social disorder, suggesting a different way of forming perceptions on the subject. The results also suggest that people of different experiential backgrounds may perceive the same social environment in different ways. In turn, contrary to what we might say intuitively, disorder promotes greater fear than crime. Also worth noting is that fear and perceived quality of life are significant predictors of citizen satisfaction with the police (Xu, Fiedler & Flaming, 2005).

What should we conclude from all this? First of all, caution in making hasty conclusions, to prevent our first impressions of things from molding our judgment. The truth is that there is a whole series of things about the urbanity of Montevideo that call us to reflection, things that are not usually regularly treated in the media, and that may have different repercussions, but we must place them in the appropriate context.

Finally, I refer here to an interesting recent news-study (link here), where the results of the annual welfare survey on a certain item of it is observed in regions of the west coast and north of Scotland in its highest levels, even when we take into account the crude climate that is lived there in different times of the year. Later studies seem to rectify that the highest happiness rates are observed in regions of the countryside, near areas with sea, ocean or lakes, and in general, far from the city. How can we relate this to urbanity and public disorder? It is also a reason to reflect, but above all, if welfare rates increase as we move away from urban space (although this is not always and necessarily), we should take care of public and urban space even more, making it the best possible place, given what is, to be inhabited in a satisfactory way.


Gau, J. M., & Pratt, T. C. (2008). Broken windows or window dressing? Citizens'(in) ability to tell the difference between disorder and crime. Criminology & Public Policy7(2), 163-194.

Hinkle, J. C., & Yang, S. M. (2014). A new look into broken windows: What shapes individuals’ perceptions of social disorder?. Journal of Criminal Justice42(1), 26-35.

Sampson, R. J., & Raudenbush, S. W. (2004). Seeing disorder: Neighborhood stigma and the social construction of “broken windows”. Social psychology quarterly67(4), 319-342.

Wilson, J. Q., & Kelling, G. L. (1982). The police and neighborhood safety: Broken windows. Atlantic monthly127(2), 29-38.

Xu, Y., Fiedler, M. L., & Flaming, K. H. (2005). Discovering the impact of community policing: The broken windows thesis, collective efficacy, and citizens’ judgment. Journal of Research in crime and Delinquency42(2), 147-186.

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