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Systematic Social Observation of Public Spaces: A New Look at Disorder in Urban Neighborhoods1

University of Chicago and American Bar FoundationUniversity of Michigan

This article assesses the sources and consequences of public disorder. Based on the videotaping and systematic rating of more than 23,000 street segments in Chicago, highly reliable scales of social and physical disorder for 196 neighborhoods are constructed. Census data, police records, and an independent survey of more than 3,500 residents are then integrated to test a theory of collective efficacy and structural constraints. Defined as cohesion among residents combined with shared expectations for the social control of public space, collective efficacy explains lower rates of crime and observed disorder after controlling neighborhood structural characteristics. Collective efficacy is also linked to lower rates of violent crime after accounting for disorder and the reciprocal effects of violence. Contrary to the "broken windows" theory, however, the relationship between public disorder and crime is spurious except perhaps for robbery.