Place Pulse at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is betting on yes.
Can it validate the “Broken Windows” theory? Perhaps.
“Cities are not just collections of demographics, but places that people experience,” the site says, explaining its purpose. “Urban environments are known to elicit strong evaluative responses, and there is evidence and theories suggesting that these responses may affect criminal and health behaviors. Yet, we lack good quantitative data on the responses elicited by urban environments. Place Pulse is an effort to help collect quantitative data of urban perception to help advance these research efforts and open new avenues of research.”
The Place Pulse premise is deceptively simple: You choose between two images and click to answer which looks safer, livelier, more boring, wealthier, more depressing, or more beautiful. Answers are, of course, subjective. Which is more beautiful—a park along a lake, surrounded by trees, or a really cool urban streetscape? Both are beautiful, but as choices go, there can be only one. So make it and move on.
An algorithm powered by each click assigns a geographic area score from 1 to 10 to each attribute. These determine the rankings of cities from London (No. 1) to hapless Gabarone, the capital of Botswana (No. 56).
As of the evening of September 2nd, three U.S. cities were in the top 10: Washington, D.C. (No. 3), New York City (No. 6), and Boston (No. 9), with San Francisco and Chicago knocking on the door at Nos. 11 and 12, respectively. Keeping Gabarone company is Houston, Texas, at No. 54.
Place Pulse offers a chance to test the widely cited “Broken Windows” theory of crime famously (or infamously) put forward in 1982 by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in the The Atlantic Monthly. While this theory—broken windows signal no one cares, and so open the gate to more crime and social disorder—has gained credence (Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg in NYC believed in it, among others), it’s never really been tested with any rigor. Several researchers have questioned whether there is a straight line between social disorder and crime, or whether the “zero tolerance” policing policies that sprang from it were the true reason for declines in crime. And disorder is subjective; looking at a graffiti-stained wall, my visible disorder may be your art signaling a spontaneous voice crying out from the wilderness.
But Place Pulse may be a vector to hard data that could prove or disprove the theory. Larry Hardesty of the MIT News Office takes it home (emphasis added):
In the experiments… volunteers ranked the neighborhoods depicted in the images according to how safe they looked, how “upper-class,” and how “unique”—an attribute selected in the hope that it would not be strongly correlated with the other two. The researchers found that the scores for the U.S. cities selected for the study—New York and Boston—showed greater disparity between the extremes for both class and safety than did those for the two Austrian cities selected, Linz and Salzburg. They also found that, controlled for income, area, and population, the perceived-safety scores for neighborhoods in New York correlated very well with incidence of violent crime.
Finally, while there really aren’t many reasons to watch CNN these days, this panel discussion led by Fareed Zakaria is one of them (hat-tip to The Urbanophile). Watch Joel Kotkin, “The Metropolitan Revolution” co-authors Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, and Leigh Gallagher, whose new book, “The End of the Suburbs,” is a quick must-read that encapsulates the growing shift toward urbanism and offers some sobering conclusions for the resilience of sprawl-stricken regions.