The Evolution and Challenges of Security within Cities

By Vanderschueren, Franz | UN Chronicle, July 2013 | Go to article overview

The Evolution and Challenges of Security within Cities


Vanderschueren, Franz, UN Chronicle


Urban security, understood as the absence of a serious threat with regards to criminality and the subjective perception of protection, today depends on various structural and local factors.

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Urbanization worldwide has reached more than half of the world's population and has become one of the first structural aspects that influence cities and their security. Since this trend will increase, criminality will be mainly urban and increasingly polymorphous, complex and difficult to contain 1 through the spontaneous social control which characterizes rural areas and small towns.

In addition, the rise of megalopolises, comprising more than 10 million inhabitants, as centres of power have a sphere of influence that span over various cities; therefore, delinquency will become even more complex for the interaction among cities. This has an impact on certain forms of criminality, such as organized crime, kidnapping and human trafficking. As urbanization grows, the cities become globalized and crime increases in complexity. This evolution forces us to reinvent the co-production of security in new contexts, with the participation of both state and local actors such as civil society.

The type of urban growth which has taken place, particularly in developing countries, implies an uncontrollable sprawl that leads to fragmented cities with low levels of social cohesion, with unequal access to social and urban services, and with heterogeneous values and processes of socialization among youth. In addition, the migratory process entails the coexistence of diverse cultures within cities and highlights the challenge of managing these differences and the conflicts they provoke. Consequently, the types of criminality vary by urban areas, reaching in some cases to lawless neighbourhoods.

Even the speculative business in housing has increased on a great scale in the last decade, as was highlighted by the crisis in 2008, where urban segregation as well as social exclusion rose. Thus, it has become a source of national and global crisis. Consequently, the control of the real estate market will be a challenge for urban management, which looks to avoid an economic and social crisis, reduce inequality and prevent money-laundering.

A second relevant aspect for urban security derives from the evolution of criminality between the 1960s and the 1990s, when an exponential increase of criminality in the world took place. (1) As mentioned by the sociologist Sergio Adorno, "in a span of 30 years we have gone from a chronicle of crime as an exception to a chronicle of everyday crime and ... images of innocence are replaced by permanent and imminent danger". (2) Around 1995, the level of criminality in developed countries stabilized and in the past decade has even declined. Nevertheless, in the majority of developing countries, delinquency has continued to either grow or stabilize, albeit with a higher level of violence.

The exponential rise between the 1960s and the 1990s was characterized by a phase of economic expansion in industrialized countries, which countered the theory that poverty is the principal cause of crime. There is no correlation between crime and poverty. The phenomenon of urban crime is multi-causal and derives from different variables depending on the urban context. In effect, it is the social fabric and the institutional and historical dimension of each city that explains the variation of crime rates in a determined period. Nevertheless, it is crucial to recognize that different forms of crime have specific explanations; for example, the cause of gender violence is not the same as the causes of theft, white-collar crimes, drug trafficking or gang-related violence.

A third relevant aspect to urban security is the evolution of the institutions of socialization, such as the family, the school and the neighbourhood. For example, there is a coexistence of family structures that is different and culturally legitimated. …

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