Safe in the City: Urban spaces are the new frontier for international security

Major cities of the world will increasingly play a large role in the 21st century distribution of global power. Public policy decisions of city-level governments will affect major transnational issues such as climate change policies and global financial and trade developments, as well as issues related to global security, poverty, and social advancement patterns. In some cases, the impact of policy choices by global cities may have stronger domestic and international impacts than decisions of national governments. As urbanization continues to intensify, more than 70 percent of the world’s population will soon live in urban spaces.

More than ever, the state’s governing capacity and legitimacy will be shaped by how the state manages public security, suppresses insecurity and crime, and what kind of order it delivers in urban spaces. Indeed, how urban public safety is handled in the 21st century will determine citizens’ perceptions of the accountability and effectiveness of the state in upholding the social contract with its citizens.

Layers of insecurity

The nature and patterns of urban violence vary widely around the globe, with urban security having many dimensions. All cities need to address issues of street crime—the very fundamental basis of public safety—as well as organized crime, which includes extortion and contraband smuggling in slums and in city centers. 

Both of these types of criminality can at times be intertwined with homicides. Indeed, the first and inescapable element of public security provision is to reduce homicides as much as possible, since high homicide rates destroy social fabric and undermine social capital. Homicide rates of 10 or more per 100,000 residents tend to be classified as epidemic levels. As homicide rates rise to epidemic levels, effective prosecution falters, and social controls and law enforcement deterrence capacity weaken. In those circumstances, all kinds of crimes tend to rise.

Other public security challenges include:

Terrorism, increasingly affecting a broader spectrum of cities across the world; 
Other forms of militancy, such as insurgency in urban spaces; 
The vulnerability of urban infrastructure, including of electric grids, distribution networks of potable water, or Internet connectivity; and 
Natural catastrophes, such as floods, earth quakes, and rising sea levels. 

Have’s and have not’s

Yet in many of the world’s major cities, neither public safety provision—including through law enforcement but also beyond—nor social development have kept up with the pace of urbanization and the threats that urban spaces experience. Instead, the state has at times either yielded or sometimes purposefully outsourced the delivery of order and public goods to non-state actors. Sometimes these actors are benevolent (such as legal businesses, public-private partnerships, non-government groups, and religious authorities), and sometimes they are dangerous and malevolent (such as criminal and militant groups). In the latter case, the abdication of state responsibility fundamentally undermines the bonds between the citizens and the state and can fuel militancy. However, order and public goods delivery, including of security, by criminal and militant groups often outcompetes the provision of such public goods by the state. Thus, non-state actors acquire political capital with local populations. Local populations often prefer a criminal or militant order to intense violence, persisting violent contestation, or marginalization and neglect by the state.

How urban public safety is handled in the 21st century will determine citizens’ perceptions of the accountability and effectiveness of the state in upholding the social contract with its citizens.

Many global cities are experiencing a deep and growing bifurcation between developed and reasonably safe city sectors of economic growth and social advancement, on the one hand, and vast urban slums stuck in a trap of poverty, marginalization, and violence on the other. Karachi, Jakarta, Lagos, Nairobi, Mexico City, Medellín, Rio de Janeiro are prominent examples. Such bifurcation is also present in many U.S. and European cities—be they Paris, Brussels, Birmingham, Los Angeles, or Baltimore, even though the schism is often less extreme. Addressing violence and lifting the slums and poor areas from this trap is among the major challenges for many governments. 

Responses and trade-offs

Securing global cities thus involves a panoply of policies. Security and anti-crime policies alone are neither sufficient nor appropriate for responding to all threats and vulnerabilities. Other policies, such as socio-economic approaches to responding to crime and militancy, resilient measures for infrastructure failures, and enhancing first-responder capabilities (including to natural disasters), are just some of the necessary tools. 

Security and anti-crime policies alone are neither sufficient nor appropriate for responding to all threats and vulnerabilities.

At the same time, security and anti-crime policies are needed in every city. They need to be de-conflicted and ideally harmonized with one another. Tensions often emerge among security policies designed to respond to different threats: Aggressive preemptive anti-terrorism policies based on intense policing of particular communities and de facto fishing for potential militants can, in the short term, avert some terrorist attacks, for instance. But they can easily clash with basic community policing principles and thus augment alienation, crime, and even incidence of terrorism itself in the medium term. Similarly, aggressive enforcement of anti-immigration policies can easily produce negative side-effects by weakening anti-crime policies as a result of diminished intelligence flows, thus augmenting the power of organized crime. A failure to politically, socially, and economically integrate migrant communities—paired with a failure to provide them with adequate rule of law and public safety—can produce spaces rife with crime and militant recruitment. 

In war zones, the harmonization challenge is one of transitioning from policing defined as counterinsurgency to effective anti-crime policing—the latter is necessary for the functioning of a legal economy and an effective and legitimate state. Soldiers do not tend to make good policemen, though governments in warzones and in countries with high levels of violence and police corruption tend to resort militaries for basic policing. And the international community is not well set up to deliver effective policing assistance: With expeditionary police forces absent, outside soldiers are sent to teach policing techniques (or rather their vague approximations), and police reform programs rarely succeed. 

Context, context, context

These are merely some of the challenges—both in terms of threats and in terms of policy responses—that city administrations, national governments, and the international community will need to grapple with. 

One policy does not fit all. There are a myriad of security threats, issues, and vulnerabilities that cities need to address, and all urban spaces are different. While being informed by best practices as well as the lessons from policy failures from across the world, an effective policy will need to be tailored to specific challenges and to specific institutional, developmental, and cultural contexts.