Making urban public spaces safer and more inclusive

February 2023 – Our cities’ public spaces, such as squares, historic sites, pedestrian zones and leisure areas are where we connect with others and feel we belong to a place. Public spaces define a city, its look and its vibe. 

Because they are by nature open and accessible to all, they are vulnerable to a wide range of threats. How to render public spaces more secure while preserving their open nature? This is a key question for urban authorities in Europe.

Representatives from several European local and regional authorities gathered for a conference in Brussels to discuss this issue, on 23-24 November 2022. They adopted a common Declaration (the Brussels Declaration) calling for more direct support from the European Union. 

Recommendations for safer and more inclusive public spaces

Drawing on the European Forum for Urban Security’s (Efus) long-standing experience in the protection of urban public spaces, the Brussels Declaration develops six main points. It encapsulates Efus’ position on this issue, which it has developed over the years through multiple exchanges with its member cities, as well as with partners and experts and through EU-funded projects such as PACTESUR, IcARUS, Secu4All, and PRoTECT

Efus’ position is notably expressed in its Security, Democracy and Cities Manifesto. Efus recommends considering the various ways in which public spaces are used, based on objective and subjective data, as well as involving the public in co-producing security policies, and maintaining a healthy balance between the use of security technologies and the respect of fundamental rights.

1. Protecting public spaces: a complex challenge for cities  

Public spaces are places for exchange, culture, trade, leisure, and political expression, all activities that are (arguably) quintessentially urban. In this sense, they play an important role in strengthening social cohesion in a city or a neighbourhood. Conversely, when they are neglected or badly managed, they can generate more exclusion and marginalisation, which can weaken perceived and real security.

How to plan, design, manage, and protect public spaces while respecting fundamental freedoms? This is a complex challenge for local and regional authorities, which are striving to embed security in the design and management of such spaces in partnership with local communities.

2. Local authorities play a leading role 

Since the early 2000s, the European Union has increasingly acknowledged the key role of local and regional authorities in protecting public spaces, affirming that “alongside national governments and international organisations and agencies, [they] have a clear responsibility to protect their citizens against terrorist attacks and threats to a democratic way of life.”

This reflects a broader evolution over the past two decades whereby cities and their mayors are emerging as an increasingly relevant and powerful level of governance to cater to the security needs of citizens. Indeed, they are the level of governance closest to citizens on the ground. Their role is increasingly recognised by national governments and European institutions

The Brussels Declaration thus affirms that cities (and other types of local authorities) “play a central role in the development and implementation of cross-cutting security policies based on a global and integrated approach to the protection of public spaces.” 

3. The need to regularly assess fast-evolving threats

The security threats that affect urban public spaces evolve constantly and require adapted responses. Over the past few years, terrorists have adapted their modus operandi to avoid detection, for example by using everyday vehicles such as commercial vans or lorries to ram through crowds, or acting alone with knives rather than guns. Other types of threats affecting public spaces have emerged, notably those linked to climate change

This requires that local authorities be capable of correctly and regularly assessing the vulnerabilities of their public spaces. How? The EU and EU-funded projects such as those mentioned above have developed practical toolkits and guidance for local authorities to help them detect and assess such vulnerabilities. 

4. Technologies and equipment should be part of a global prevention strategy 

Many cities are tempted to resort to surveillance technologies and protective equipment to better safeguard their public spaces. Efus believes that technologies should never be a response in and of themselves. The danger is to transform public spaces into fortresses and to infringe on citizens’ right to privacy and fundamental freedoms. 

Efus promotes a carefully considered use of security technologies in the framework of an overall security strategy. The Brussels Declaration advocates “a comprehensive and integrated security approach, which considers the installation of equipment as an additional element that is part of a general security policy for the protection of public spaces.” 

5. Strengthening the inclusivity of public spaces 

Different groups of people (women, elderly people, ethnic minorities…) use public spaces differently. Whatever their background, all citizens deserve to have access to these areas without fearing for their safety or feeling trapped and surveilled. Ensuring and strengthening the inclusivity of public spaces is also key to making them more secure. 

Local authorities have plenty of margin to implement soft measures aimed at encouraging citizens to appropriate such spaces through art, the design itself of these spaces, or the involvement of local businesses and civil society organisations. The Brussels Declaration affirms local authorities’ commitment to “encourage civil society initiatives by promoting solutions that are creative, add an artistic or cultural value, or are seamlessly integrated into the urban landscape, and by paying particular attention to solutions that have an impact on attractiveness, accessibility and openness.”

6. The importance of local partnerships

In the words of Efus’ Executive Director, Elizabeth Johnston, “the Brussels Declaration suggests several ways in which local and regional authorities can intervene to better protect their public spaces, which all rely on multi-stakeholder partnerships, i.e., the involvement of all relevant local stakeholders, whether the local police, local businesses, the creative sector, or, above all, citizens themselves.” These partnerships should include urban planners, first responders, mobility services, local businesses, academia and civil society. Establishing and managing such partnerships and ensuring seamless cooperation among all its members is not an easy task for a local authority. But it’s also a tested and proven approach towards stronger local security. 

> This article is based in part on the publication produced by Efus as a result of the PACTESUR EU-funded project led by the city of Nice (France) and in which Efus was a partner. Titled Safe and inclusive public spaces: European cities share their experience, this publication features numerous practices and case studies. You can read it here.

> Read the Brussels Declaration

> More information on Efus’ work on public spaces 

> More information on the PACTESUR European project