Updated: Mar 2, 2020
There are many ways you can calculate the cost of something negative that happens. Financially is the most understandable for the general public, but if you speak with a politician, city worker, or a marketing department, financials can be the least of the worries. They know there are budgets in place for graffiti removal on city properties and they’re expected to use these budgets, not cut them.
The larger costs of graffiti on a city are the underlying qualitative measurements that lead to quantitative measurements.
Tourism is a great example to start with. People go on holidays and report back to their friends and family when they get home from a holiday about what it was like in the city they went to. They’ll describe their feelings of a city, but not their speculations on the cities budget allocations or anything to do with financials within the city. These opinions have a huge impact on their friends. I’m sure everyone has said “My friend went there one time and said it wasn’t that nice.” This is how humans work. We don’t dig deeper into our friends opinions on trivial things we don’t have our own opinions on, but as a human survival skill, we’ll remember when we hear something bad about a place that we should avoid. This sounds like a trail of paranoia streaming out to make the importance of graffiti removal the most important thing in your city, but this is only the tourism angle.
The reason people say they feel something from a city is because they might not know exactly what it is they’re basing their feeling on. Otherwise, they might say “It’s a beautiful city, but the restaurants weren’t very good”. I’d still go see that city more so than if they simply say “It feels creepy there”. So the important part of this is to eliminate the subliminally negative features of a city to positively increase the ‘feel’ of a city. Even if there aren’t any events, beaches, historical markers, museums, and great restaurants, there’s a better chance that people will say “It’s nice there” than “It’s not great”.
Ok, enough of me guessing at the psychology of tourists, but hopefully you agree with the point of view.
Safety is an important emotion that police and city employees try to promote. As I just mentioned, tourist will feel and report this once they arrive back home, but it’s the actual safety of the locals that can take the biggest hit from visible graffiti. I’m sure you’ve heard of the Broken Window Theory, but to recap, it’s when one window is broken and not fixed right away. This attracts people to do more crime because it is seen as something that isn’t punished in the area. If you’re a criminal, why wouldn’t you do your criminal activities in an area that appears to not care, or in an area that has other criminals taking up the police’s time. Graffiti is a major part of this problem because it’s seen as a victimless crime by those doing it, but the general public view it as a much worse criminal issue for a neighbourhood. If people don’t feel safe, they may not walk over to a restaurant, movie theatre, pub, park, or store. That feeling of fear multiplied over 30,000 people in a section of a city could be the difference between a coffee shop making it or having to close the doors. Who wants to walk to a coffee shop, sit on it’s patio, and look at a neighbourhood that feels dangerous to be in? Things start to look different when graffiti is in the backdrop. An innocent exchange of secondhand goods from an online meet up can start to look suspicious. Safety is a humans top priority from an evolutionary perspective, so even if people can’t put into words why they feel unsafe, they’re going to trust the feeling and it’ll start to show in the local economy. This is only the safety angle...there's more.
Property managers, realtors, developers, and the local property tax department also have a major stake in what is happening to a neighbourhood. If half of the buildings or stores on a block have graffiti on them, property rental value is going to be lower than if the block looks cared for. Leaving a retail store empty for 24 months can be devastating for the owner, versus only 2 months in a safe looking neighbourhood. There’s also a good chance the rent will be lower for the 24 month vacant building now too because there will be more negotiating room by a tentative tenant. This lost rent is money that isn’t entering the economy and there’s a good chance the business isn’t going to be as busy as if they’d rented in a safer looking area. Developers will be less likely to look at properties in areas were good tenants might be hard to find. Realtors might not put as much time into selling a building that is priced higher than what the market wants to pay and over the years, property value, which is taxed, will equate lower income for the city. Budgets will get relocated and some departments will end up seeing cuts. This might not be the most important thing in your city, but this is angle from the real estate industry having to deal with graffiti.
Now that graffiti appears to be the problem for every department of your city, I can let you know that there are cost effective solutions. Bylaws are actually a great way to deal with graffiti. Most cities have a bylaw that says graffiti must be removed in X number of days, or it will be removed and the bill will be added to your property taxes. This is rarely enforced, but it is typically dealt with on a reactive basis. If you call in graffiti to any city or bylaw office, it’ll probably be dealt with quicker than you’d expect. This does mean that someone has to pay for it, but over time and with the likelihood of it growing if it isn’t cleaned up, it’s cheaper to just pay for it and get it removed asap. People tell me all the time “Well if I clean it up, it’s just going to get hit again.” This isn’t true. It’s hard imagine, but once you look at the statistics of reoccurring graffiti, it drops off when it’s not tolerated. Graffiti attracts graffiti and other criminal activities, so getting people to deal with it is the best solution by a kilometre.
In the 1990’s, New York city implemented a zero tolerance for graffiti and all misdemeanour activities. Arrests increased and there was zero tolerance for graffiti, so if a subway car was hit with graffiti, it was immediately removed and cleaned. Crimes dropped by 56%. There’s a lot of variables involved with the Broken Window Theory, but it all comes down to being proactive to reduce crime. Next time you watch an old movie filmed in New York, notice the era and look at the amount of graffiti. It’s an easy solution that you can implement with huge success in your own community.