A New Urban Agenda for creating safe and secure cities?

Published on 22 July 2016

Jaideep Gupte

Research Fellow

With a sudden spate in gruesome urban attacks, from Orlando to Nice, the stakes are high to get our paradigms of analysis and response right to the rising levels of urban violence.

Though the police bear the burden of first-response, they have little control over the root causes of violent crime – severe inequalities, disenfranchisement, and an erosion of the social contract. Securing (not “securitising”) our cities is an integrated challenge that involves more actors than the police. The Development Studies Association Study Group on Urbanisation and Development recently held a day-long workshop on ‘Interrogating the New Urban Agenda’ at the Institute of Development Studies. Drawing from discussions at the workshop, this blog explores how the New Urban Agenda is picking up on these challenges.

What is the New Urban Agenda?

The New Urban Agenda is the outcome document that will be agreed upon at the Habitat III conference in Quito later this year. It is important as it will guide the efforts around urbanisation of a wide range of actors, including governance institutions and leaders at the regional, national, and city level, international development funders, United Nations programmes, as well as civil society — for the next 20 years.

How does it relate to outcomes of safety or violence mitigation interventions in cities?

Violence is a defining characteristic of urban living in both conflict and non-conflict settings. Of the world’s 31 most fragile and conflict-affected countries, 23 are projected to be significantly urban in the near future. At the same time, fatalities due to armed violence in non-war settings far outweigh war-related deaths, and much of this violence is located in cities. Implementing effective violence mitigation strategies therefore requires stakeholders to acknowledge varying types of urban violence, to understand how these interact with the mechanics of security provision, and thereby bring spatially relevant, city-specific thinking to the arrangements by which political power is organised and exercised.

The current draft of the New Urban Agenda uses the word ‘safe’ more than 20 times, in relation to housing, public services, roads and mobility systems, and even culture and identity. ‘Safe’ and ‘safety’ are equated with reduced violence on the one hand, and on the other, with reduced uncertainty. In some instances it goes further to suggest an association with the desire to make cities supportive of economic growth. This translates into unclear policy objectives, and leaves the draft open to criticism.

How can the New Urban Agenda engage the problem of urban violence head-on?

One document cannot do everything. Nevertheless, the moment is opportune for the New Urban Agenda to take strong and articulate stand in its opposition to strategies that rely on heightened militarisation or weaponisation of urban police forces. Such strategies have not been successful in the long run. The tense situation across cities in the US where protests over police shootings are currently spilling out onto streets, and in turn the police are responding with a level of militarisation never seen before, stand as testimony to the impasse created by hard-nosed approaches crime prevention in cities. Across Indian cities with over a million residents where crime is increasing, IDS research on juvenile offenders shows that if correctional systems lay their emphasis on punitive measures rather than on supportive counselling, they can inadvertently crystalise feelings of entitlement in youth, and thereby increase the risk of recidivism.

The first zero draft of the urban agenda, urged us to ‘investigate, prosecute and punish the perpetrators of violence against women and girls’. Though this may well be an approach suited to efficient, well-functioning and non-partisan police and judicial systems found in some developed nations, in the majority of the developing world, such an approach is likely to be taken out of context to justify heavy-handed policing, applied without the prior strengthening of the judicial system, and in turn can lead to an overburdening of the correctional facilities or worse, a miscarriage of justice.

It is interesting to note that this paragraph has been modified in the June draft, and this is step in the right direction in that it refrains from being prescriptive about a policy arena that rife with complexities requiring city-specific thinking, or even hotspot level ‘micro-policing’.

Giving voice to locally-rooted solutions to urban violence will be key

For safe cities, the real bite in the New Urban Agenda is in calling for the integration of crime prevention strategies into all urban planning efforts. Paragraph 87 of the June draft commits signatory states and cities to ‘integrate measures for urban safety and violence, and crime prevention into all urban planning efforts, including in informal areas, and pay particular attention to vulnerability and cultural factors in the development of public security policies, including by eliminating the stigmatization of certain groups as security threats’. To stakeholders in the safe-cities space, this paragraph is important because:

  1. it lays emphasis on data (“measures”) that is vitally important in understanding the aggregate and disaggregated picture;
  2. it draws attention to the 863 million slum dwellers that live in informal settlements;
  3. it calls for cultural sensitivity in developing local solutions; and
  4. it calls for the breaking down of the notion that ‘criminals’, ‘offenders’ and ‘perpetrators’ are static categories predetermined by an individual’s or group’s identity.

One such notion is that ‘idle youth’ are often to blame for endemic urban violence. This is a fallacy that is not supported by empirical evidence. Just as youth might be involved in the perpetration of violence, they are just as likely to be the victims and as a group they also have immense capacities to effectively prevent violence.

The importance of calling for the integration of crime prevention into all urban planning should not go unnoticed. Neither should the New Urban Agenda be half measured in this regard. The document should underline that this implies inviting the police, an oft-maligned group who face their own limitations in terms of resources and capacities, to the table. While this may be straightforward in Chicago or London, it is a different kettle of fish in a Karachi or Kinshasa. In many cities of the developing world, this would imply dialoguing with armed non-state groups, and informal providers of security. To reiterate, the real bite in the New Urban Agenda will be if, as the current draft suggest, it creates the space for dialogue with vigilantes, gangs, and youth groups, who are often the source of the most credible and accessible modes of security city dwellers have access to.

Creating safe and secure cities is not a linear or a fast-track process. By giving voice to locally rooted solutions to urban violence, the Habitat III conference in Quito will be an important step in a long struggle.


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