The complex taxonomy of security provision in future cities

22 December 2015

How will security in cities be understood in the future? For whom will it be provided? What are the ways by which urban security provision will be governed? And, what impact will violence and order in cities have on the processes of state building in fragile contexts in the future?

These questions are on the uppermost mind of policy makers and academics. A growing body of evidence underlines the heterogeneity of security processes and outcomes, both within and between, cities. Notwithstanding these recent advances, contemporary paradigms of urban development do not substantively account for the ways in which the social, political, economic and physical aspects of urban form interact and shape the mechanics of security provision in cities.

There is a perceptible gap in development policy, compromising the manner in which international donors, multilateral agencies, national and subnational policy makers respond to urban challenges today. Part of this gap is due to the separation between development theory or urban planning on the one hand, and issues of fragility due to conflict and violence on the other. These have usually been different epistemic and operational domains, to the detriment of a comprehensive approach to either analysis of fragility and violence or effective approaches to security provision.

A recent IDS study on ‘Cities, Violence and Order’ employs ‘foresighting’ to envisage what the main drivers of change might look like in cities in 2040, and how today’s policies and programmes stack up to these challenges.

Foresighting cityscapes in 2040

A group of urban experts and leading thinkers representing a broad range disciplinary perspectives identified over 50 potential drivers of change that might characterise cities in 2040. These were then distilled into 8 slider-scales as shown in the figure below. Care was taken to not reduce any one scale to a simplistic value judgement – i.e. ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ or ‘positive’ versus ‘negative’. Instead, the ends of each scale signify a nuanced calibration (to maximum or zero effect) of the identified drivers of change. 

8 slider-scales for potential drivers of change

Varying combinations of these slider scales are used to produce future ‘Cityscapes’ – characterisations of what cities might look like in the future. Foresight techniques are not meant to predict the future. Rather, they produce potential cityscapes that can be used as heuristic tools to help consider the nature of challenges in the future, and the types of policy response, both today and in the future, these might necessitate. 

Key findings

By applying the predominant development practices and paradigms in use today to the potential challenges identified in future cities, we find that:

  1. There are multiple and overlapping forms of violence, and the ways these interact have important consequences for understanding violence and order in future cities;
  2. Violence is likely to be both a positive and negative stimulus for governance institutions at the city- and national level;
  3. The imposition of order in cities affects people differently and requires asking "security for whom" in order to achieve universally inclusive outcomes;
  4. Some of the most fragile and conflict affected countries today are projected to be mostly urban in the near future. Segmentation in the treatment of issues of security and order in cities, will debilitate comprehensive interventions as well as macro understandings of the processes of state building in fragile contexts;
  5. More than half of the world’s urban population will reside in relatively small towns and cities with fewer than 500,000 inhabitants. Some of these towns will rapidly grow into large cities. However, the current evidence base on the lived experiences of violence and order on the one hand, and the mechanics of security provision on the other, from these locations continues to be relatively thin;
  6. Blindspots related to safety in cities include the issue of non-state providers of security, lived experiences of security, and learning from counterfactuals.

Dimensions of cities relevant for future thinking on cities, violence and order

Three dimensions of urban formApproaches to development that are city-focused should be foregrounded by three dimensions of cities, namely:

‘Grid’ – focussing on spatial/physical design, layout and planning of cities as shaped by economic, political, technological, social and gendered factors;

‘Governance’ – focussing on the processes and structures that form the institutions through which people are excluded and included; and

‘Ephemerality’ – focussing on the shifting uses and identities of spaces, as well as the fluidity of governance structures.

Policy implications of adopting a city-focused approach to development

We identify three overarching implications for the ways in which donors and other stakeholders engage on issues of violence, everyday security and order in cities:

  1. Cities are central to the processes of state consolidation, transformation and erosion. Some of the most fragile and conflict-affected countries are projected to have a majority of their populations residing in urban areas. This makes it vital to include spatially relevant and city-specific thinking in the wider paradigms of peace-building and political settlements.
  2. The importance of maintaining focus on different typologies of violence remains central, particularly in the face of the varied nature of the lived experiences of violence and “everyday insecurity” for city dwellers. Violence might occur “on cities” (as in cities coming under siege). But it might also occur “in cities” (where violence is located in urban settings, but almost by circumstance), or it may be “inherent to cities” (where the type and modalities of violence are specifically urban in nature; and even become ingrained in the everyday fabric of urban life). The three levels are deeply interconnected (through the cross cutting theme of gender, for instance), but they also present significantly different challenges in terms of entry points for violence mitigation strategies.
  3. Planning, policy, or design interventions that misinterpret ‘ordered cities’ as synonymous with ‘planned’, ‘smart’, or even ‘charter’ cities, are likely to create insecurity, not reduce it. Urban order can also be repressive and exclusionary, and these processes can occur over very long periods of time. As such, ‘order and security for whom?’ continues to be the operative question that significantly impacts outcomes.

What does this mean for future research on cities?

The predominant view in the literature on urban violence is that the state is one of several actors involved in the processes and actions that produce or mitigate everyday violence, alongside local, non-state and other sovereign groups. The focus has therefore shifted away from a singular understanding of the role of the state, and moved towards processes of governance and multiple sovereignties that come together to produce outcomes of violence and order.

In this context, we identify two significant research gaps that presently limit policymaking:

1. Evidence from small but growing towns: more than half of the world´s urban population currently live in small towns of less than 500,000 people. Some of these towns will grow into large cities in the near future. While some of these growing agglomerations, such as Juba (South Sudan) or Buenaventura (Brazil), already feature in the research agendas on violence and order, others such as Lubango (Angola), Heart (Afghanistan), Pokhara (Nepal) or Muzaffarpur (India), however, continue to be hidden from view. A richer evidence base from these locations is required to enable comprehensive planning with timely interventions. 

2. Deep knowledge of municipal functioning: as everyday violence and fragility goes beyond simple statistics of violent crime, future studies should explicitly include the differently governed or non-state governed spaces that the statistics identify. This also includes the destabilising factors that urban pressure can bring on the one hand to national politics, and the positive element that this might have on forcing greater accountability on political elites.

And on the other, we might have ‘pirate’ cities in regards to how citizens have created their own service systems, which reflect the ways in which governance failures have an impact on local communities. A critical area where further research in this regard continues to be required is on the day-to-day functioning of municipal governance, entering into the black box of how local officials and front line staff function and make decisions in practice. As municipalities will continue to be on the frontlines of how urban security provision is conceptualised and delivered, the importance of understanding how municipal authorities operate can hardly be stressed more strongly.

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