• Opinion
  • October 28, 2019
  • 11 minutes
  • 0

The safe city is built on inclusive urban governance

Local government can make or break the cycle of violence

This article was written by Juma Assiago, Coordinator for the Safer Cities Programme at UN-Habitat.


Violence in cities has been a deadly problem throughout most of human history. Densely populated, urban areas provide ample opportunity for conflicts. Some will argue that it is human nature to fight. But can we make cities safe?

Building on the collective experience gathered through UN-Habitat Safer Cities Programme over the past 25 years, we now know more than we ever did before about how to successfully prevent and reduce violence.

This work has been pioneered over the past two and three decades by local governments, that have come up with innovative practices prevent and reduce urban violence. They have done this by applying both public health and criminology perspectives to identify the causes of violence and to identify the social and policy changes that might make a difference.

Governments began taking a new approach to violence in the 1990’s, as policies gradually shifted from repression, authoritarianism and neglect in dealing with the main challenges of rapid urbanisation, to more comprehensive and participatory approaches.

These were committed to involving local civil authorities and community based organisations in the progressive implementation of the prevention of urban crime and violence that include law enforcement as well as social and situational prevention strategies.

Urban hardships

Today, local authorities and urban planners understand that urban crime and violence prevention and reduction is best attained by addressing citizen’s need for social inclusion, security and safety, and by involving them directly in improving their neighborhood.

Some cities stand out as leaders in this space. Many of these are located in Colombia, where violence was once epidemic, but has today been tackled through smart and holistic policies.

In Cali, Colombia’s second-largest city, a public health approach focusing on gun possession and alcohol abuse, effectively reduced annual homicides from 124 people per 100,000 residents in 1994 to 86 per 100,000 residents in just three short years.

In Bogotá, the capital and the largest city in the country, former Mayor Antanas Mockus applied and improved on this strategy, increasing the police budget 10-fold, and improving police education about violent crime, developing temporary detention centers for minor offenders and creating a government position of subsecretary of violence prevention and more. This led to a steep drop in homicide rates from 59 murders per 100,000 people in 1995 to 25 in 2003.

Reducing violence is a process of behavioural change, and that takes time

Medellin has achieved a similar success through it’s “social urbanism” approach, whereby cultural activities and sports, improved housing, health facilities, public education and libraries are joined together for peaceful conflict resolution.

Outside of Colombia, another shining example is the Dutch city of Rotterdam which is using data to fight crime in its Neighbourhood Safety Profiling Initiative.

No one-size-fits-all

Several new lessons have emerged from the successful violence prevention policies that have been pioneered over the last few decades in Colombia and elsewhere.

Firstly, we now know that local government is a crucial piece of the puzzle. And in order for local government to address urban violence, strong political buy-in and leadership from mayors is needed. This is because the necessary policies are often contentious and frequently requires policy makers to do things they would rather not do, such as making necessary but unpopular decisions to close bars or ban firearms. Conversely, corruption and bad urban management is strongly linked to an increase of urban violence.

Leadership from mayors to change the attitude of public officers, nurturing a mindset where citizens are engaged as coproducers of safety, is a big step in the right direction.

Second, we have to realise that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to address urban violence. For instance, we can’t necessarily apply the same epidemiological or criminological methods to social issues because cities and countries have different risk factors. Data-driven observation is needed in each situation to guide public officials.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is not poverty itself, but rather disparities between social groups and between neighbourhoods that can lead to frustration, which may in turn lead to violence

Third, reducing violence is a process of behavioural change, and that takes time. Building a culture of prevention is slow work, and also takes considerable resources. In this perspective, the sustainability of local government interventions across changing mayoral administrations has been a challenge and requires more focus going forward.

Lastly, as urban violence has the biggest impacts on the urban poor, it must be approached through both socio-economic and spatial investments. These should seek to enhance social inclusion and integration through better urban planning, management, legislation and financing. Violence prevention must therefore be a priority for the realisation of sustainable urban development.

Delivering on violence prevention

So how do you apply these insights in practice? Four major elements stand out:

The intervention must consider, firstly, the necessity to strengthen social cohesion. Social cohesion encompasses a myriad of dimensions such as the celebration of diversity, a sense of belonging and a shared future, as well as empathy, solidarity, and confidence between citizens. Atomised societies, where each individual’s sense of self-worth and community crumbles, are more inclined to tolerate violence.

Secondly, the intervention should include a method for addressing the urban divide. Perhaps surprisingly, it is not poverty itself, but rather disparities between social groups and between neighbourhoods that can lead to frustration, which may in turn lead to violence. Disparities and inequalities can refer to incomes, access to basic services, and participation in political decisions. Cities in Africa and Latin America are especially vulnerable to this. Even though there are exceptions, there is a strong correlation between urban disparities and criminal violence.

A third way is to consider the effects that the urban environment has on citizens. The size, the morphology and the structure of cities can encourage violence, incivilities and deviant behaviours. Simply put, some cities are more soothing than others, have more attractive public spaces, more lively streets and experience less segregation. A deleterious environment, characterised, for instance, by insufficient lighting and the destruction of public spaces, increases the risk of crime, according to research conducted by UN-Habitat.

Most importantly, it becomes considerably easier to incorporate violence prevention into urban development when it is accepted that urban planning is not only a technical matter, but a core issue of local governance, i.e., the political management of the city.

In a city, priorities regarding the issues of development and safety cannot simply be established. They need to be understood, agreed upon, sanctioned, and followed. This takes leadership and capacity. And that is a process that involves numerous actors, also outside of government. Understood in this fashion, local governance, based on solid and accurate information, makes it possible, for instance, to deliver better services, promote community life, develop effective public transports, and organise a better policing. Negotiation, steering and joint initiatives, in turn, support a long-term vision to construct urban safety and constitute thereby the core of responsible urban management.

The red thread

All these approaches have one thing in common: they all require holistic approaches that recognise that urban violence prevention is not just the responsibility of public health or criminology experts.

It is necessary to keep empowering the communities that are the victims of crime and violence, by providing educational, cultural, and sportive services, contributing to creating decent jobs, and promoting a non-violent resolution of conflicts. Their resilience must be strengthened, and their vulnerability kept at bay, especially for unemployed youth and women. It is also necessary to keep improving the physical space, with proper street illumination, accessible bus stations and markets, adequate public spaces — just to mention a few examples.

The bulk of these tasks, however, can only be pursued through a carefully crafted process of steering that involves all the social actors that have a stake, whether they know or ignore it, in preventing urban violence and building urban safety. This could be done mastering that tool that will become crucial to face our inexorable urban future: inclusive urban governance. Juma Assiago

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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