Monday, February 7, 2011

Greenwashing Broken Windows

Like most of Canada this week, Ottawa is heavy with snow. All this mucking about in the fluff and flurry got me thinking about green things...and things that pretend to be green.

The City of Ottawa's graffiti management strategy aims to "eradicate" graffiti, framing it as an environmental problem: Graffiti is presented as 'garbage' and a potential 'risk' to the cleanliness (and security) of the city. Most criminologists would recognize this approach as an environmental spin - or a greenwashing - of the 'Broken Windows Thesis'.

'Broken Windows' is a 1980s theory about crime with all the charms of a Rick Astley cassette left in the sun on the front dash of a Ford Pinto. It assumes that if a neighbourhood looks run down it will invite street crime. So the thinking goes: 'broken windows' signal the 'bad guys' into a neighbourhood; keep your windows clean, and the 'bad guys' stay 'some place else'. In practice, it is a way to avoid dealing with social inequalities by sending it out of town (for example, see this approach to solving homelessness).

Funny enough, nobody ever seems to worry about high rise glass windows facilitating 'corporate crime' [which research has shown to be far more deadly and costly to the average Canadian than  'street crime' (for example, see Boyd, Chun & Menzies, 2001)]

Broken Windows is a problematic thesis, particularly if your purpose is to "eradicate" a particular social group. In all fairness, though, we haven't tested this thesis on corporate 'bad guys' and skyscraper windows yet. 

The strategy assumes  WHAT is written, and the PEOPLE who write it, are a 'risky contamination' to city security and vibrancy. This fiction relies - at least in part - on the fact that most folk in our city don't get to see writers at work.

A stone's throw from Ottawa is one of the 29 legal walls in Gatineau (Que) stretching for a kilometre or so along a bike path where people stop and watch local writers work. It continues along the Ottawa River, unfolding under bridges, bringing funk to the shadow of Ottawa's Parliament Hill. The day I was there taking photos, there was no evidence of fear on the faces of walkers and skiers moving through the long corridors of colour. There was appreciation, though.

Ottawa has only 3 legal walls. One of the largest is hidden under a bridge unseen by most city residents. The other is a board erected at a skate park, which counsellors and police have discussed removing.

Arguably, when writers are out of sites/sight, it makes the fiction of 'graffiti as a contaminant' more plausible in the minds of some voters & business owners.

Take a walk through the Westboro & Mechanicville area of Ottawa. Many businesses - such as Heaven to Betsy (with a Mopes & Red5 production) and The Cube Gallery (with work by Grype) - have invited local writers to contribute to the aesthetic of their businesses and neighbourhood. Simply put: these businesses (run by citizens) would not support such productions if it resulted in increased 'street crime' and decreased security for their customers.

For now, I will take that a positive sign for potential growth in the landscape of this urban concrete coloured environment.

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