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The Garbage in the Parking Lot

Ruth Haag • Oct 22, 2013 at 3:00 PM

It all started with a donation box in a parking lot.  The box said that it takes only clothing, but someone had some parts of a sectional couch that they no longer wanted, so they dropped them off.  Another sectional couch soon arrived.  A few days later there were 8 mattress sections, followed by a bookshelf and a TV.  The most obvious question I had for myself was, "Where does someone store 8 mattress pieces,” and then, “How do they haul them to this parking lot?”  If they go to the effort to haul them to the parking lot, “Why not just journey on to the landfill?”  As I write this, another mattress has arrived.

This phenomenon is not new to me.  Haag Environmental Company often had to deal with regular trash on the same sites that had hazardous waste.  One project that we had was to secure a remote site for our client, so that random dumping would not occur, and at the same time dispose of lots of railroad ties, the piles of which most likely had encouraged the dumping.  It came to us that we could make fences out of the railroad ties, which we did, thus “disposing” of the ties and securing the site.  In the process we had a roll-off container at the site for several days.  Each morning our crew found new things in the roll-off, a blue couch and a long dead cat were among the most memorable.  

The Broken Window Theory explains how this works.  In 1969 Phillip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist did an experiment.  . He left a car in the Bronx, New York and another in Palo Alto, California.  The car in the Bronx was immediately vandalized.  Zimbardo found that the car in California was not immediately vandalized, so he smashed a window.  Sure enough, from that point on, the car was smashed and smashed, by others and parts were removed.

This experiment can easily translate from a car to windows in a building or to furniture left by a clothing donation bin.  The Broken Window Theory, named by social scientists James Wilson and George Killing, demonstrates that a city needs to take care of small vandalism problems quickly in order to not create an atmosphere where vandals feel they have free reign.

We all now have an imagination of what the person or people who take part in random vandalism and random dumping look like.  Zimbardo observed the people who came to his car experiment and they were mostly well-dressed white people, sometimes families.

When Bob and I lived in New York City, we were amazed by the speed with which an abandoned car would be stripped of its valuable parts.  But we were also amazed at how safe the street that we lived on was.  One evening in the summer, when we were sitting out on the front porch with our landlord, and my visiting parents, my father explained to me why our street was so safe.  Each evening all of the adults in the neighborhood went out to sit on their “stoop.”  All of the teenagers went into the street to play.  The teenagers, who in other cities might be tempted to petty vandalism, had a street full of adult watchers.  Anyone who did not belong on the street would also be watched by the adults.  This very activity is one of the tenets of another concept: Crime Prevention through Environmental Design, or CPTED.

CPTED stresses that the way a city or street is designed will increase or decrease criminal behavior.  The logic is that if more of the residents are able to view the street and are out in the public areas, there will be less chance for criminal activity.  CPTED encourages residents to keep their drapes open.  It discourages things like cyclone fencing with razor-wire, which communicates that no people are around to watch the area.  It encourages public common areas with trees and seating to attract larger numbers of local residents outside.

Clean up refuse, fix broken windows, tow abandoned cars and sit outside in the summer; do you think it would work?

For good descriptions of these theories, here are some Wikipedia articles, but be aware that Wikipedia feels these articles are not scientifically written:



Here are some other related websites:



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