My neighborhood is awash with holiday decorations. Actually, awash may be somewhat of an exaggeration, however there is most definitely enough Christmas paraphernalia to remind me that the big day is almost upon us.
Lately, as I’ve been driving through my neighborhood and observing the appearance of new decorations, my thoughts have turned to research on how decorating our properties can contribute to feelings of security and social cohesion (Foster et. al., 2010).
Personalized decorations, such as an inflatable Santa Claus or a garden gnome, have been described as territorial markers, a signal of ownership and attachment to one’s property, as well as an indicator of residents’ vigilance (Brown & Altman, 1983). Displays of personalized decorations may strengthen neighborhood attachment, enhance feelings of safety and deter criminal activity. For example, non-burglarized homes have been found to differ from burglarized homes in that the former often have markers of individuality and occupancy, such as welcome mats, toys strewn about, and cars in the driveway (Brown & Altman, 1983).
Features of the neighborhood that can influence resident perceptions of crime include incivilities such as litter, vandalism, dilapidated exteriors, abandoned buildings and unkempt vacant lots. The “broken windows” theory suggests that incivilities within the neighbourhood can instigate fear and community mistrust, weakening social control in such a way that disorder can escalate into more serious crime (Skogan, 1990).
I can’t profess to live in an affluent area and there are many unkempt gardens. I admit there have been occasions I’ve felt uncomfortable walking around my neighbourhood, so it does not surprise me to find research linking a high level of neighborhood upkeep to greater feelings of safety and social capital (Wood et. al., 2008).
That being said, I’ve also noticed Christmas lights and statues of Santa peering out from some of the most neglected gardens. Seeing these decorations has elicited feelings of comfort and security, again reinforcing research that territorial markers can strengthen attachment to our communities and feelings of social cohesion. Not only have residents who display holiday decorations been found to feel more attached to their neighborhood and more involved with their neighbors, but they have also been perceived as friendlier and more socially cohesive by strangers – an opinion formed purely on the basis of the homes’ exterior (Werner et. al., 1989)!
The same study found that residents who were less socially active but still displayed holiday decorations often wanted to make new friends, and used the decorations as cues for communicating their accessibility. Moreover, residents who place decorations near the entrance of their home may have more friends and be more optimistic than those who place decorations away from the entrance (Werner et. al., 1989).
When it comes to personalizing my home with holiday decorations, I have to admit that in previous years, my attempts at celebrating the festive season have been “uninspired”, to say the least. Prior to the birth of my children, I didn’t even own a Christmas tree. However, now that my eldest child is reaching an age where he is conscious of Christmas and all it entails, I feel a certain responsibility to embrace the season and its many traditions and provide my children with happy memories of their holidays.
Seeing my son’s excitement as we pass houses lit up with Christmas lights, I have felt a newfound appreciation for holiday decorations and the neighbors who make the time to decorate their homes for the benefit of both their families and communities.
And while I’m not yet willing to invest in an abundance of lights and inflatable Santas, I have found myself extending our Christmas budget this year to include a door wreath and some fairy lights. Here’s hoping they contribute to a little Christmas cheer!
Foster, S., Giles-Corti, B., & Knuiman, M. (2011) Creating safe walkable streetscapes: Does house design and upkeep discourage incivilities in suburban neighbourhoods? Journal of Environmental Psychology, 31(1):79-88.
Brown, B., & Altman, I. (1983) Territoriality, defensible space and residential burglary: An environmental analysis. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 3:203-220.
Skogan, W. (1990) Disorder and decline: Crime and the spiral of decay in American neighborhoods. New York: The Free Press.
Wood, L., Shannon, T., Bulsara, M., Pikora, T., McCormack, G., & Giles-Corti, B. (2008). The anatomy of the safe and social suburb: An exploratory study of the built environment, social capital and residents' percpetions of safety. Health & Place, 14:15-31.
Werner, C., Peterson-Lewis, S. & Brown, B. (1989). Inferences about Homeowners’ sociability: Impact of Christmas decorations and other cues. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 9:279-296.