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Four ways fragile cities can avoid becoming failed cities

Originally published in Sin Miedos

By Robert Muggah

joven desempleo

Second part of a series on fragile cities

Owing to unprecedented migrations to cities in the South, managing urban crime and violence is becoming one of the most significant public policy challenges of our times. The happiness and quality of life of literally billions of citizens – their health, their education and their personal safety – depends on getting this right.

In our previous post we noted how urban growth is giving rise to fragile cities that risk becoming failed cities. In this one, we explore what works to make cities safer.

Although urban fragility can be stopped and in some cases reversed, its impacts are far-reaching. The consequences are both social and spatial, including the segmentation of public and private urban space, the erosion of social capital and cohesion between neighborhoods and neighbors, and the perpetuation of insecurity and fear. Real and perceived insecurity can quite literally reshape the environment in fragile cities.

Urban decay and disorder need not imply that cities cannot rebound and ultimately transform for the better. But comparatively little is known about how fragile cities are able to cope or rebound from shocks and chronic violence. The manner in which both formal and informal urban systems are able to provide basic services – including law and order, health and education – in fragile settings is under-researched, as are the livelihood strategies adopted by residents within them. Indeed, a closer inspection of the resilience of fragile cities, much like living organisms adapting to a new ecosystems, can yield profound insights into how fragility might eventually be arrested.

Reversing fragility will require a conversation between cities about their shared problems. Mayors like Enrique Peñalosa in Bogota (1998-2001), Rodrigo Guerrero of Cali (1992-1994, 2012-2015) and Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles (2005-2013) offer examples of how a radical change is possible. They borrowed ideas and practices from around the world and worked with different layers of government to design integrated violence prevention strategies.

There are encouraging examples across North America and Latin America and the Caribbean of mayors that open channels to communicate with violence-plagued communities. Their goals are on the one hand to interrupt gang violence, but also to introduce social policies addressing crime-affected areas, under-serviced communities and households, and extreme wealth inequality. This dialogue is essential to develop shared priorities and ensure scarce resources are deployed effectively.

So how can we bring about this needed transformation?

Focus on problem areas and problem people: One of the most powerful ways to counter fragility in cities is by focusing on ‘hot spots’. Hot spot policing requires investing in real time data collection and problem-oriented law enforcement. What is more, the displacement effects of hot spot policing are not significant – crime does not simply move down the street or to neighboring communities. Given the surveillance implied by such approaches, however, there are also growing concerns about how predictive analytics and Compstat-style systems can potentially curb individual privacy.

Reversing city fragility also requires devoting more resources to mitigating violence committed by ‘hot people‘. Young unemployed males with a criminal record are statistically more likely to be repeat offenders. Indeed, about 0.5% of people generally account for up to 75% of homicidal violence in major cities. And a hot person´s community can be influential in preventing violence. Mediation to interrupt violence between rival gangs, targeted education and recreation projects, and counselling for single-parent or caretaker households are all proven remedies.

Invest in shared public spaces: The most successful and sustainable strategy to promoting safer cities involves investing in inclusive public spaces, social cohesion, and mobility. City planners and private investors must avoid the temptation to reproduce social exclusion, gated communities and cities of walls. They should insist that the public good prevails over the private interest. Investments in predictable public transportation, open public spaces such as parks and pro-poor social policies and cities that build-in equality can generate real dividends in terms of safety.

Arguably the most stunning case of how to design-out crime is Medellin. During the 1990s, Medellin was the murder capital of the world. But a succession of mayors turned things around by devoting more attention to tackling the poorest and most dangerous comunas, or neighborhoods. The slums were deliberately connected with middle-class areas by a network of cable cars, bus transport systems and first-class infrastructure. And while other factors also contributed, homicidal violence declined by almost 80 per cent and Medellin was declared the city of the year in 2012 beating out New York and Tel Aviv.

Medellin teleferico

Harness technology and innovation: Internet penetration and information communication technologies are already closing the digital divide between and within cities. The investment in and availability of new technologies in cities is attracting talent and consolidating their place as hubs of innovation, creativity and connectivity. Law enforcement agencies are likewise harnessing predictive analytics, remote sensing and body cameras to positive effect – targeting specific locations, times of the week, and individuals. And activists and hackers are already beginning to crowd source their security solutions. Although there are invariably dilemmas associated with making cities more intelligent, smarter cities are safer cities.

Twinning: One way to spur on positive transformation is by bringing fragile cities together with healthier and wealthier ones. Since at least the 1950s, “twinning” projects have inspired solidarity and exchange, including between North American and European cities demolished during the Second World War. Big foundations are also getting into the act contributing to the Millennium Towns and Cities Campaign, the New Cities Foundation, the United Cities and Local Governments network and a new Global Parliament of Mayors among others.

Moving forward

Cities are re-emerging center-stage in debates on crime prevention and development in the South. Urban settings are being recast as sites of engagement whose density, vulnerability and unpredictability demand new paradigms of intervention. Some academic critics are justly concerned with the tendency to “secure” cities and their wealthy suburbs for the exclusive benefit of the elite and middle class against the urban poor. There is comparatively less focus in policy and practice on addressing structural factors that give rise to fragility, not least questions of urbanization, youth bulges, inequality and impunity.

If fragile cities are to be turned around, public authorities, businesses and civic groups need to get to grips with the key risks, but also the many available solutions. This means starting a conversation about what works – and what does not – when it comes to promoting healthy cities. The dramatic surge of the world´s population to cities during the past century and the current one is one of the most stunning demographic reversals in history. The fight for security and development, however defined, will be won or lost in fragile cities of the South. Successful mayors will be the ones who harvest lessons from around the globe of ways to reverse fragility.

Photo credits: Flickr CC Dlógenes, Marilin Gonzalo,

For more information

TED Talk on fragile cities: http://www.ted.com/talks/robert_muggah_how_to_protect_fast_growing_cities_from_failing

Foreign Affairs article on fragile cities: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/142760/robert-muggah/fixing-fragile-cities

Guardian article on fragile cities on 26 January 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/jan/26/fragile-cities-stability-development-robert-muggah

Guardian article on fragile cities on 1 November 2014: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/nov/01/murder-capitals-world-city-violence

Revista article on fragile cities on 12 November 2014: http://www.revistaenie.clarin.com/ideas/fragiles-territorio-guerra_0_1244875515.html

Dr. Robert Muggah is a specialist in security and development and oversees research at the Igarapé Institute as well as the SecDev Foundation. He is also affiliated with the University of Oxford, the Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs Institute, as well as the Center for Conflict, Development and Peace at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, in Switzerland. In 2013 he was named one of the top 100 most influential people in violence reduction and his work on new technology has been featured in the Atlantic, BBC, CBC, CNN, Guardian, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Vice, and Wired. You can watch his TED talk on fragile cities.

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