DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

The Impact of Social and Physical Disorder on Urban Neighborhoods

                                                               Darius Muñiz

                                                          New York University














Disorder manifests itself both physically and socially and both can have devastating effects on an urban community. Physical disorder is marked by the decay of neighborhood structures from streets to buildings and social disorder is marked by the decay of established social norms usually protected by residents and law enforcement alike. When collective efficacy of a community fails and the broken window effect takes over, the established social and physical order of a neighborhood begins to breakdown. This breakdown of social and physical order marks the beginning of the downward spiral of an area turning from a close knit community into what numerous social scientists have described as an urban “Ghetto”.

            Key Words: Social & Physical disorder, collective efficacy, broken windows effect, neighborhood decay, normative behavior & practices













                        The Impact of Social and Physical Disorder on Urban Neighborhoods

            Disorder is a real and major problem in urban neighborhoods that can affect the congruency of its inhabitants leading to the breakdown of social norms and practices that serve as the foundation of acceptable social behavior within the neighborhood. Kelling and Wilson (1982) define disorder as the breakdown of formal and informal rules put in place by Law enforcement and “regulars” or neighborhood residents to keep a level of order for the mutual safety of neighborhood residents and businesses. It’s this collaboration between residential and institutional actors that provide a map of what is considered deviant, anti-social behavior tearing at the fabric of social order or what is considered acceptable behavior reinforcing the social fabric and norms of the neighborhood. Disorder can take on two forms within the environmental confines of a neighborhood and can manifest itself as either physical; social, or both.

Sampson, Morenoff, and Rowley (2002) believed that to better understand neighborhood effects we must look beyond traditional variables such as poverty and look more into ecological variables such as social interaction, neighborhood ties, and institutional mechanisms to shed light on the occurrence of urban disorder problems like delinquency, violence, depression, and high risk behaviors that plague urban neighborhoods. To most of us social disorder is usually attributed to violent people or more specifically criminals, but also can be committed by dishonest, disruptive, or unpredictable people such as panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, or the mentally disturbed (Kelling, & Wilson, 1982). Any individual or group of individuals that go against the established norm within the neighborhood whose behavior induces feelings of fear among the residential population and who will often be considered deviant and destructive of the social order.

Sampson and Raudenbush (1999) found that Disorder and crime alike were found to stem from certain neighborhood structural characteristics. Physical disorder is represented by the decay of neighborhood structures that can lower the morale and overall sense of well being that a neighborhood resident will establish by reacting to such physical cues. Physical disorder can take on the form of trash on the streets and littered around residences and shopping areas; the prevalence of liquor stores and other businesses that are primarily synonymous with high poverty and high crime areas; abandoned houses and other structures that people associate with the lack of care plaguing urban ghettos; or graffiti and vandalism sending cues to residents that there is a lack of respect for property also leading to the breakdown of neighborhood congruency and citizenship.

Broken Window Effect

The broken windows theory is a criminological theory of the norm setting effect of urban disorder and vandalism on provoking additional crime and anti-social behavior. The theory states that monitoring and maintaining urban environments in a well-ordered condition may stop further vandalism and escalation into more serious crime (Zimbardo, 1969). Zimbardo (1969) suggests that Untended property becomes fair game for people out for fun or plunder and even for people who ordinarily would not dream of doing such things and who probably consider themselves law-abiding. In his 1969 study he found that if the community life of a certain area where social order and mutual respect has broken down then the frequency with which cars are abandoned and things are stolen or broken; the past experience of no one caring; that vandalism begins much more quickly than it does in an area where people have come to believe that private possessions are cared for, and that mischievous behavior is costly. Zimbardo (1969) also points out that vandalism can occur anywhere once communal barriers, the sense of mutual regard, and the obligations of civility are lowered by actions of people creating social disorder that seem to signal that "no one cares."

Effects of Social Disorder

Kelling and Wilson (1982) suggest that "untended" behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls. A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other's children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders will provide reinforcement of community ties and social order. Through the gradual change of residents by the influx of different people can alter in a few years or even a few months the entire social fabric and norms that have been established by “regular” residents to an inhospitable and frightening landscape that is no longer nurturing to their needs. This leads to property being abandoned, neighborhood structures not being cared for, property being damaged, a sense of community among adults dwindling and disruptive children not being disciplined, and finally the children becoming more disruptive to the social order.

This breakdown of the previously established social and physical order will lead to Families moving out and indifferent adults moving in. Kelling and Wilson (1982) believe that Such an area is now vulnerable to criminal invasion. Though it is not inevitable, it is more likely that here, rather than in places where people are confident they can regulate public behavior by informal controls, crime will occur with more frequency leading to the eventual impoverishment of the urban neighborhood and the increase of fear and ill feelings among community members. Moore and Trojanowicz (1988) trace the important long-run consequence of this distribution of fear produced by social disorder for the economic development of our cities: if the inner-city populations are afraid of crime, then commerce and investment essentially disappear, and with them, the chance for upward social mobility. This occurs when the defensive reactions of individuals essentially compromise community life, or when they intensify the inequalities between rich and poor by relying too much on private rather than public security (Moore & Trojanowicz, 1988).

Perceived Social Disorder

Kelling and Wilson (1982) believe that At this point it is not inevitable that serious crime will flourish or violent attacks on strangers will occur. But many residents will think that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise, and they will modify their behavior accordingly. They will use the streets less often, and when on the streets will stay apart from their neighbors. For some residents, the growing normative behavior and thought pattern of not to get involved will become their way of thinking and acting because the neighborhood has taken on less of the meaning that this is their home and more of a meaning of this is just the place where they live. But it will matter greatly to other people, whose lives derive meaning and satisfaction from local involvement, for them, the neighborhood will cease to exist and will now be defined and limited to just a few reliable friends and family.

            With this occurring, Moore and Trojanowicz (1988) believe that Fear produces a lack of community that is a more or less rational response to crime and communal indifference. It produces social consequences through two different mechanisms. First, people are uncomfortable emotionally and instead of feeling comfortable in the peace and safety of their homes, they feel vulnerable and isolated. Instead of feeling comfortable taking trips to school, grocery stores, and work, they feel anxious and afraid. Since these are less happy conditions than feeling secure, fear produces an immediate loss in personal wellbeing.

Collective efficacy is defined as cohesion among neighborhood residents combined with shared expectations for informal social control of public space. This is also proposed as a major social process inhibiting both crime and disorder. The informal social control mechanism of collective efficacy (and the broken windows thesis as well) focuses on what is visible in public places (Sampson & Raudenbush, 1999) and In neighborhoods where collective efficacy was strong, rates of violence were low in the amount of social and physical disorder observed. Sampson and Raudenbush (1999) demonstrate how collective efficacy also appears to deter disorder: Where it was strong, observed levels of physical and social disorder were low, and residents’ perceptions of how much crime and disorder there was in the neighborhood was viewed as being minimal.


            The unity and community ties that people of a neighborhood feel are being compromised by certain physical and social cues that will eventually perpetuate the breakdown of physical and social order. If order is not maintained by key actors within the community such as law enforcement and neighborhood residences alike, the collective efficacy of the community is greatly diminished to a point of not caring. This lack of connection to ones community allows for disorder to manifest itself both socially and physically further depleting valuable social, economic, and physical resources within the community. This then allows communities to be taken over by crime, physical decay, mass indifference, and eventually a complete uprooting of the quality of life most families seek out as necessary for their well being. Till finally the neighborhood is no longer a place where people want to live, but a place where people have to live when presented with financial restraints and the lack of choices. Without the presence and maintenance of social and physical order the neighborhood environment is reduced to an urban jungle and the inhabitants living like animals.




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DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.