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29.3.2017 : 3:19 : +0200

Reducing urban insecurity


The damaged window of a bank following violent protests in Rio de Janeiro, June 2013. © Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg/Getty Images

As states gather in Quito for the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) on 17–20 October 2016, the majority of the world’s population resides in urban centres (UN DESA, 2015, p. 1). Cities are also at the crossroads of several global policy agendas, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, the Sendai Disaster Risk Reduction Framework 2015–30, and the New Urban Agenda (UNGA, 2015; UNGA, 2016; UNISDR, 2015; UN-Habitat, 2016).

Ensuring the safety and security of urban residents is a common concern of these global agendas. Implementing them effectively will require working across sectors, enhancing planning, design, and management of urbanization, and formulating policies that favour participation and social inclusion.

Urban security: what do we know?

Cities have taken centre stage with respect to population growth, employment, and economic activity. They are also of strategic importance regarding the access to resources, power, and economic gain. As a consequence, cities can be disproportionately affected by
insecurity and violence, be it in conflict or non-conflict settings.

Urban insecurity takes many forms, from gang violence and organized crime, to community or political violence, to interpersonal and domestic violence. In Mexico, urban violence claims a disproportionate number of lives: the 28 municipalities with the highest homicide rates accounted for almost half (44 per cent) of all killings in 2012, even though they represented only 13 per cent of the national population (Geneva Declaration Secretariat, 2015, pp. 141–42).

Risk factors for urban insecurity include rapid and unruly urbanization, especially when accompanied by high social and economic inequality, and power vacuums in which political, ethnic, and criminal groups compete for control of resources and power. Karachi, Pakistan, is a case in point: in the years leading up to 2013, the city witnessed a steady rise in lethal violence (see Figure 1). This increase has been partially attributed to rapid and uncontrolled urbanization and political tensions. Starting in 2014, the security sector responded with sweeping crackdowns on suspected criminals; by 2015, levels of violent deaths had dropped by more than 60 per cent, but the figures seem to have levelled out in the first half of 2016 (CRSS, 2016).

Figure 1 Number of violent deaths in Karachi, Pakistan, 2010–15

Source: Small Arms Survey, n.d.

The availability of firearms also represents a key risk factor in some urban areas, such as Chicago. The use of firearms in homicides is particularly elevated in Chicago compared to the US national average. In January–August 2016, 425 people were fatally shot—‘accounting for 91% of the total murders in the city’—a substantial increase compared to 2015, when 86 per cent of homicides (424 of 493) involved the use of firearms (Mahtani, 2016). These rates significantly exceed the US national rate for 2010–15, during which an average of 69 per cent of homicides were committed with firearms (Small Arms Survey, n.d.).

The way forward

The New Urban Agenda recognizes safety as a prerequisite for, and an integral part of, the global vision for tomorrow’s cities and human settlements. Specifically, the Agenda encourages the implementation of ‘inclusive measures for urban safety, and crime and violence prevention’ (UN-Habitat, 2016, para. 103). These types of measures can include community policing and other violence reduction programming (Frost and Nowak, 2014, p. 5). As victims and perpetrators of violent crime tend to be young and male, these populations could usefully be involved in the design of such programmes.

Comprehensive data can allow for accurate diagnoses of security risk factors, the formulation of effective urban violence-prevention and -reduction policies, and consistent impact monitoring. In this context, the New Urban Agenda calls for ‘geographically-based, community-collected, high-quality, timely and reliable data’, while emphasizing science-policy interfaces and participatory data platforms (UN-Habitat, 2016, paras. 157, 160).

To ensure that data on crime and violence is comparable, data-collecting bodies and organizations—primarily law enforcement and public health agencies—should ensure they apply the same district boundaries and standards for geographic disaggregation. Meaningful analysis of such data also requires adequate population data (Geneva Declaration Secretariat, 2015, p. 134).

Data that is disaggregated by location, type of crime, date and time, demographic characteristics of victims and perpetrators, weapons used, and community assets (such as the distribution of police stations and hospitals) allows for spatial data analysis. Geospatial mapping can be used in identifying risk factors and directing resources to the most-affected areas. In the case of Chicago, such mapping highlights that the city’s South, Far South, and West Sides not only report the highest murder rates, but also contain the most segregated neighbourhoods (Fessenden and Park, 2016; see Figure 2).

Figure 2 Distribution of homicide by community area and segregation level by census block, Chicago, 2015

Source: Fessenden and Park (2016)

By combining the latest knowledge on risk factors, lessons learned by other cities that have reduced insecurity, and reliable data on the particular issues they face, cities have the ability to design policies that will make urban residents safer and their communities more inclusive.


CRSS (Center for Research and Security Studies). 2016. Pakistan Security Report: April–June 2016. Islamabad: CRSS.

Fessenden, Ford and Haeyoun Park. 2016. ‘Chicago’s Murder Problem.’ New York Times. 15 May.

Frost, Emilia and Matthias Nowak. 2014. ‘Inclusive Security, Inclusive Cities.’ Policy Paper 1. Geneva: Geneva Declaration Secretariat. March.

Geneva Declaration Secretariat. 2015. Global Burden of Armed Violence 2015: Every Body Counts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mahtani, Shibani. 2016. ‘Chicago’s Shooting Deaths Top 2015 Total.’ Wall Street Journal, 31 August.

Small Arms Survey. n.d. Database on Violent Deaths. As of 1 August 2016.

UN DESA (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs). 2015. World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision. ST/ESA/SER.A/366. New York: UNDESA.

UNGA (United Nations General Assembly). 2015. Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Resolution 70/1 of 25 September. A7RES/70/49 of 21 October.

—. 2016. Outcome of the World Humanitarian Summit. A/71/353 of 23 August.

UNISDR (United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction). 2015. Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030. Geneva: UNISDR.

UN-Habitat (United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development). 2016. New Urban Agenda: Draft Outcome Document for Adoption in Quito, October 2016. 10 September.

Useful resources

Frost, Emilia and Matthias Nowak. 2014. ‘Inclusive Security, Inclusive Cities.’ Policy Paper 1. Geneva: Geneva Declaration Secretariat. March.

Geneva Declaration Secretariat. 2015. Global Burden of Armed Violence 2015: Every Body Counts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jütersonke, Oliver and Hannah Dönges. 2015. ‘Digging for Trouble: Violence and Frontier Urbanization.’ Small Arms Survey 2015: Weapons and the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 36–57.

Lyew-Ayee, Parris and Lisa-Gaye Greene. 2013. ‘Geospatial Technologies and Crime: The Jamaican Experience.’ Armed VIolence Issue Brief 3. Geneva: Small Arms Survey. October.

Nowak, Matthias. 2012. ‘Urban Armed Violence.’ Research Note 23. Geneva: Small Arms Survey. November.

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