BRIDGE’s final conference – How to locally prevent polarisation?

May 2021 – Concluding two and a half years of work, the BRIDGE project on “building resilience to reduce polarisation and growing extremism” held (online) its final conference on 31 May to exchange recommendations and lessons learned on how to locally prevent and mitigate polarisation. Strengthening  social cohesion as an antidote to polarisation was the main theme of the event, with four keynote speakers who shared insights and concrete tools on how to foster  and measure the impact of social cohesion.

European practices to strengthen social cohesion and prevent polarisation

Mette Gundersen, member of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe and City Councillor of Kristiansand, Norway, Lies Baarendse and Werner Van Herle from the City of Mechelen in Belgium, and BRIDGE expert Markus Pausch presented practices aimed at strengthening social cohesion and thus preventing or mitigating polarisation at the local and regional level. 

Reducing inequalities 

Ms Gundersen noted that this year marks the tenth  anniversary of the 22 July 2011 far-right terrorist attacks in Oslo and Utøya in Norway that killed 77 people, many of whom were teenagers. Since then, Norway has dedicated much work to countering polarisation, radicalisation and extremism. Ms Gundersen pointed out that a key tool in the prevention or mitigation of such phenomena is the enhancement of social cohesion, and that this is a priority not only for Norway but also for the Congress. Indeed, one of the Congress’ five thematic priorities for the coming years is precisely “Cohesive societies: Reducing inequalities in the field”. “Cohesion is not merely the lack of hate and violence, it also means a society where all have equal rights to participate in the political and public life,” she said.  

A strong social fabric

Among the means for fostering social cohesion and countering polarisation Ms Gundersen stressed the need for a strong social fabric based on shared community and mutual exchange, as it enables democracies to flourish and be resilient to the phenomena of polarisation, radicalisation and violent extremism. Bringing all actors together, from local authorities to civil society, is also an important way of uniting citizens and promoting exchange, communication and cooperation across social lines. However, such an approach requires the prevention and mitigation of systematic discrimination and inequality, whether against women, people of colour, ethnic and religious minorities, LGBT+ people, etc. Ms Gundersen mentioned in particular the Roma/Traveller community as one of the groups that are the most discriminated against in Europe and called European communities to come together to support them and counter discriminatory violence against them. She said that local authorities, as the level of governance closest to citizens, must lead the way in this process and promote tolerance, respect and a sense of togetherness. 

Local governments on the frontline

Ms Gundersen pointed out that cooperation with organisations like Efus is more important than ever. “We are living through difficult times for our democracies, she said. Mounting populism and extremist political parties are questioning  our democratic values. Racism and discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation are on the rise across the continent. Phenomena like hate speech, whether online or in person, also pose an enormous danger to the foundations of our human rights-based system. This is why it is important that we do not fall into the trap of divisive rhetoric for political purposes. Local governments are on the frontline. They are the first to suffer the effects of divided and agitated societies. They are directly impacted by terror attacks, street harassment and insecurity. The local and regional levels are crucial to future-proof our democracies and to overcome the challenges posed by polarisation and extremism.”

A set of tools to measure the impact of social cohesion on urban security 

Werner Van Herle, representative of the City of Mechelen (BE), outlined a set of tools to measure the impact of social cohesion on urban security and citizens’  feeling of security. 

These tools are currently being tested as part of Action 5 of the Partnership on Security in Public Spaces of the Urban Agenda for the EU (which is co-led by the cities of Nice and Madrid and Efus). The first phase consists in mapping  local policies and initiatives with the help of the “Prevention Pyramid” tool. The Pyramid allows local and regional authorities to visualise integrated crime prevention policies and the coherence between social cohesion and problem-oriented actions. This tool facilitates the detection of gaps in existing approaches and thus fosters and facilitates the development of new evidence-based targeted actions. Besides Mechelen, four volunteer cities took part in this exercise: Leuven, Munich, Cologne and Madrid. The City of Mechelen provided them with a manual on how to use  the Pyramid in order to facilitate the mapping exercise.

Evaluation tools

The second phase consists in evaluating  a mapped, concrete policy. The QUALIPREV tool can be  used for this. Developed by European Crime Prevention Network in 2016, it includes indicators to analyse and evaluate specific, concrete crime prevention projects and social cohesion initiatives. 

Subsequent to the mapping and evaluation activities, the City of Mechelen and their research partners looked into the potentials and opportunities of the Collective Impact Model, which is a cross-sectoral, community-based approach to solving complex societal problems on a large scale. It can be used in contexts that are characterised by a multitude of players, a lack of coordination, gaps and silos in the system, multiple root causes, the need for new policies or significant policy change, and the need for innovation or new solutions.

In the framework of the Urban Agenda for the EU, the City of Mechelen will publish a green paper on the Collective Impact Model, exploring its potential use in the domain of urban security and outlining conditions and concrete steps to implement it.

BRIDGE Expert Markus Pausch, who worked with  the City of Mechelen on the implementation of Action 5, pointed out that polarisation can damage our societies and our democracies and that social cohesion is crucial to preventing such harm. The Prevention Pyramid integrates the interdependent relationship between social cohesion, polarisation and urban security: this makes it a crucial tool, but one which may be further developed and refined. 

Taking action at the local level – pitches of BRIDGE partner cities

All the BRIDGE local partners highlighted the importance of local actions to be taken both in the short and long term to tackle polarisation. In the BRIDGE project, the partner cities adopted different approaches when developing and implementing their pilot activities, which were based on the results of their local polarisation audit. Several partners pointed out that the continuous assessment and monitoring of polarisation is crucial (e.g. via dedicated surveys, dialogue sessions and advanced research). Also, many cities mentioned that sustainable strategies to address polarisation require the establishment of trust between citizens and local or regional authorities and the creation of safe environments that allow for open dialogue. 

> For more recommendations and lessons learned we invite all interested peer cities and regions to consult the final publication of the BRIDGE project, a handbook that will soon be available in English and French.
> The results of the BRIDGE project will be presented and discussed at the international Security, Democracy and Cities conference in Nice (20-22 October)
> More information on the BRIDGE project