Mixed Salad of Thoughts

Sunday, May 14, 2006

A tipping point?

I took a college course on Italian Art History from the 1400s-1600s several years ago, and as many interesting things as I learned about artists, and frescos, and technique, nothing stuck with me as much as the idea of the values of an Italian city. The city was formed and held three important positions: it provided protection, it provided city services (roads, water, etc.) and it provided for the beauty of the city. A city's pride was based on it's beauty and you could not get permission to construct something new without first having a panel of people evaluate the plans and agree that it would add to the beauty of the city. It was believed that the beauty of a city would lead it to greater peace and prosperity. I have felt since then that this is an overlooked aspect of urban planning and city government. I have always hated people who disrespect the environment around them by littering or defacing property. I have believed that the more rundown a place looks, the more people will treat it disrespectfully and believed in the value of art to elevate a place and the people that use that place. I've often thought government implemented mixed income housing must be so much more successful than low-income housing in single structures, or that is all grouped together; and it seems they are moving in this direction. Although it was often the city that got the blame for poor maintenance of public housing, I think it had more to do with the "tipping point" at which a certain amount of decline in the facilities (which could occur for any number of reasons) became a dramatic factor in the lack of pride or respect that people had in/for that property and led to an exponential decline in the safety, cleanliness, and livability of those areas.

I just listened to (an abridged version) of Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point and found it very interesting. In the book Gladwell talks about how epidemics are started--epidemics of style, thought, crime, and disease. He talks about how a single, or a small number of factors can become the "tipping point" that allows an epidemic to break out and spread more rapidly than anyone looking at one of those individual factors would ever imagine.

He discussed how New York City's crime rate in the transit system took a dramatic turn for the better when they began diligently removing grafitti and cracking down on farejumpers. Although those small factors seemed incredibly unimportant and a waste of time to many of the transit police at the time, changing the way they handled it and the seriousness with which they took it led to a change in the way people saw transit stations, trains and transit police, and the way they subsequently treated and acted in the system. These changes led to changes in the overall policing of the city, and eventually to dramatic drop in the murder rate in NYC.

Although it seems amazing that removing grafitti could contribute to a drop in murder rates, it is a definite contributor to the end result. We tend to put certain "logical" and "big picture" things much higher on the list when thinking about creating change, but more often than we realize it is the small changes that make the difference between something spreading one-by-one and something spreading exponentially.

These ideas are so interesting to me, and I've been cycling through different ideas that fit within this model, and thinking about change and how it works/can work. Expect a few more posts on this subject when I get those thoughts collected. :)

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