Addressing Public Nuisances


This report seeks to identify and discuss various theories of criminology that explain graffiti and vandalism. Ultimately, it identifies defensive space and physical design as major strategies that can be used to address graffiti and vandalism in public places such as public transport, schools, public housing, and telephone booths.

Bennet (1986) argues that not all graffiti is ill-motivated, and that some of them are used as tools for propaganda meant to advertise for a course. For instance, people may use graffiti for anti-smoking campaigns, to criticize the consumer society, or politicians. On the other hand, Blaber (1979) points out that similar to graffiti, vandalism may also occur not as an antisocial practice but as an opportunistic character, whereby the environment’s poor design cannot accommodate the wear and tear demands put on it, and therefore people tend to vandalize to make the environment work better for them. Therefore, offenders of opportunistic vandalism may not have done it intentionally, yet others view the act as vandalism.


Opportunistic vandalism may typically occur in the form of damage of flimsy doors on places of heavy human traffic, shortcuts across fences and lawns, damage of park chairs, children breaking doors due to curiosity, or bicycles leaned against windows due to lack of proper areas to lean them (Chalfant et al, 1987). Broadly, most of these problems can been prevented through better planning and design.

According to Cohen (1972), one solution for opportunistic damage is by taking a situational approach, i.e. by reducing or eliminating the opportunities for graffitists and vandals to offend. Ideally, this may be achieved by changing the operational environment for offenders rather than addressing the offenders’ motivation or character.

The Rational Choice Theory

Factually, the situational approach to vandalism applies the rational choice theory. This theory posits that offenses such as vandalism and graffiti are committed by the offender’s choice to actively and freely engage in the act of crime, and that they commit these crimes as a response to the immediate situation or circumstances to which the crime is committed (Cooper & Chalfant, 1984). To expound further, according to Gearson et al (1988), believers in the rational choice theory suggest that vandals and graffitists depend on the costs and benefits of their actions rather than the fact that they are predisposed to the crimes.

Therefore, to address opportunistic vandalism and graffiti, police and other stakeholders can concentrate on addressing issues that directly relate to the criminal act, as opposed to concentrating on the criminal’s environment or background issues ( e.g. poor education, poverty, or poor socialization) that cause their involvement with the crime (Jeffery, 1971).

According to Kennedy (1986), a major advantage of the situational approach is that it provides a short-term solution to vandalism and graffiti as the authorities try to find long-term solutions. Nonetheless, some examples of situational approaches to graffiti and vandalism include better lighting and design to expose the vandals during the acts, constant security patrols, community surveillance or electronic surveillance (e.g. CCTV cameras) (Jeffery, 1971).

Important to note, some acts of vandalism such as soccer hooliganism, damages caused by street gangs, and damages caused on public transport such as trains are premeditated (Geason et al, 1988). According to Bennet (1986), eradicating premeditated crimes requires more complex approaches compared to opportunistic crimes and therefore long-term solutions are most appropriate for them.

In the meantime, according to Levy-Leboyer (1984), some of the longer-term solutions for graffiti and vandalism include initiating programs and activities that divert the offender’s attention by keeping them occupied. These initiatives may include those that raise their conscious and self-esteem raising programs, school and community education, and other programs that enhance a sense of personal responsibility towards ownership of community facilities and resources.

Vandalism and graffiti have a long history; and there is no guarantee that they can be completely eliminated from society. Rather, scholars have developed various theories that can be used to reduce them in the long-run. According to Blaber (1979), the aim is to mix situational solution strategies with long-term solution strategies to holistically address the problems. Some of the theories used in providing long-term solutions are discussed below:

The Theory of Defensible Space

Coined by Oscar Newman in 1972, the theory of defensible space holds that crime rates are high in areas where high rise buildings, fire escapes lifts, roofs and hallways are isolated and out of public glare (Gearson et al, 1988). Hence, the theorist’s solution was to design residential buildings in a manner that such areas are under an all-time surveillance.

One of the components of the defensible space theory is territorial surveillance. According to Levy-Leboyer (1984), territorial surveillance denotes developing a sense of ownership whereby people defend their own home turf. It also entails the development of defensible spaces architecture by declaring and announcing the spaces that are private, which ones are public and which ones are shared. According to Bennet (1986), this encourages monitoring of and semi-public spaces, while discouraging vandals and graffitists who do not belong to a particular turf.

The Theory of Kinetic Management

Coined by Marcus Felson in 1987, this theory advocates for a manipulation of the environment to divert offenders away from their target, or to restrict them within a specific area for easier monitoring. A typical example of this strategy is constraining offenders through various means of social control such as reducing the number of students in a class to reduce vandalism, banning the sale of paint sprays to younger kids, or restricting sale of risk factors such as alcohol to juveniles or football fans (Gearson et al, 1988).

In conclusion, vandalism and graffiti may emerge as a result of the offenders’ pursuit for negative or positive intentions. A careful identification and application of strategies can help in reducing offenses of vandalism or graffiti, regardless of whether they are negatively or positively motivated. This can be actualized through various theories of crime management such as the situational approach, kinetic management or defensible space. The police and other stakeholders are therefore advised to apply these strategies in managing vandalism or graffiti.

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  • Crime Prevention: From Theory into Practice, eds Kevin Heal & Gloria Laycock, HMSO, London, pp. 41-52.
  • Blaber, Ann 1979, "The Cunningham Road Scheme", in Sykes.
  • Canter, D. 1984, "Vandalism: Overview and Prospect", in Clarke, Ronald, & Felson, Marcus 1988, unpublished document on situational crime prevention.
  • Chalfant, Henry and Prigoff, James 1987. Spraycan Art. Thames & Hudson, New York, NY.
  • Cohen, S. 1972, "Vandalism: Its Politics and Nature", in Juvenile Delinquency, the Family and the Social Group, ed. J.B. Mays, Longmans, London.
  • Cooper, M. & Chalfant, Henry, 1984. Subway Art. Thames & Hudson, London.
  • Jeffery, C.R. 1971, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, Sage Publications, Beverly Hills, CA.
  • Kenney, Dennis Jay 1986, "Crime on the Subways: Measuring the Effectiveness of the Guardian Angels", Justice Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 4. December.
  • Levy-Leboyer, Claude, (ed.) 1984 Vandalism: Behaviour and Motivations, Elsevier, Amsterdam.

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