New York, USA, April 2021 – Efus participated in a ‘high level debate’ organised by the United Nations on 22 April on ‘urban safety, security and good governance: making crime prevention a priority for all’. Held both online and at the UN headquarters in New York City, the debate was centred on urban violence, the various forms it takes and how to prevent it at a time when over half of the planet’s population live in urban areas – a proportion that is projected to reach 70% by 2050 –, thus placing city-level governments at the forefront of the fight against crime.
It gathered, besides Efus, representatives of UN-Habitat, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the United States’ National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice, the Geneva-based Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding, and the Igarapé Institute.
The speakers highlighted and agreed on four main points, which we can summarize as follows:
- crime prevention requires multi-stakeholder partnerships at the local, national and international level;
- it must tackle the root causes of crime, in particular increasing and deep-seated inequalities;
- it needs ears on the ground and granular intervention at the local level in order to deconstruct the link between global challenges and the individual stories of those who are tempted by violence;
- all the stakeholders must be involved in finding solutions and repairing harms, including the perpetrators and victims.
Understanding the impact of crime at the city level
Introducing and moderating the debate, Jean-Luc Lemahieu, Director of Policy Affairs at UNODC, said that “individual cities face increasingly acute security challenges as a result of local vulnerabilities heightened by the activities of criminal gangs and groups. These phenomena undermine good governance and the rule of law and directly affect the security of citizens. Understanding the impact of crime at the city level is becoming more important than ever.”
Strengthening partnerships at the local, national and international level
The Executive Director of UN-Habitat, Maimunah Mohd Sharif, who is also Mayor of the City Council of Penang Island, Malaysia, mainly insisted on two points: the need for cities to work in partnership at the local, national and international level, and the benefits of security by design.
“Partnerships are a key driver, we cannot do it alone,” she said. “We need both vertical and horizontal partnerships: global, national, sub-national and local partnerships on the one hand, and partnerships with local communities, the private sector, NGOs, etc., on the other. We need effective multi-level governance, this is essential.” She mentioned a number of international networks, such as the UN-Habitat Safer Cities programme and the Global Parliament of Mayors (whose Advisory Committee includes Elizabeth Johnston, Efus Executive Director). How to make such partnerships work on the ground? This is the key question. “The goal is to build a participatory vision of urban security and for this, we need public engagement. Citizens are the key factor,” said Ms Mohd Sharif.
She also emphasized the importance of security by design, an approach that embeds security features within the design and planning of public and other urban spaces. She said that “better urban planning and design can strengthen security” and is a cost-effective prevention approach. Here again, citizen participation is essential to ensure their needs are taken into account when managing, building or renovating urban developments.
Cities confronted to youth violence
Speaking after UN-Habitat, Elizabeth Johnston first recalled that Efus has had a long-standing partnership with this organisation as well as with UNODC. She highlighted the issue of youth group violence, a cyclical phenomenon which has flared up recently in several European cities and is a major cause for concern for city councils throughout Europe. “It’s not a new issue, but it takes new forms and shapes. It’s very difficult to predict and to properly respond to it.”
She said that city leaders as well as the crime prevention community are well aware that global issues have a direct impact on local crime. “We know that the root causes of violence, whether youth or other types of violence, are deep seated inequalities, injustice that is both felt and real, questions of identity… all very deep questions. The difficulty for cities is how to address such fundamental questions while addressing day-to-day issues. This requires investing in long term solutions and to be both very active in the short term and proactive in the long term.”
Ears on the ground…
Ms Johnston also highlighted the need to have “ears on the ground”. She said public authorities need to learn to work jointly with civil society. At the local level, this means that city councils must associate young people, families, parents, neighbours and other local stakeholders such as NGOs in crime prevention approaches and actions. “The challenge is to ensure that day-to-day youth violence is not instrumentalised and hardened by global, radical phenomena.” In this sense, local authorities have already proven they can successfully “deconstruct the link between global challenges and individual stories.”
… both in the physical and digital space
A third point on which Ms Johnston insisted is the need to consider that the digital space is a continuation of the physical space because everybody, including criminals, now lives in both spaces. Even though public authorities, notably at the local level, are well aware of this, they remain by and large more focused on traditional, physical responses and need to fully embrace the digital world.
Priorities for cities in the post-pandemic recovery
Robert Muggah, co-founder and Research and Innovation Director at the Igarapé Institute, talked about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on urban crime and how cities can best manage the post-pandemic recovery phase. The only way out, he said, is an inclusive recovery. Cities should have three priorities: 1) ensure their recovery strategies do not do more harm (such as, for example, increasing inequalities); 2) focus on these areas/neighbourhoods that are the most violent and under-serviced; 3) focus on crime prevention through environmental design because it is cost efficient.
Thomas Abt, Director of the National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice (Washington D.C.), intervened on law enforcement. “Urban and community violence is typically perpetrated by young men without any opportunity,” he said. To respond to that, policing shouldn’t be repressive but, on the contrary, based on trust and cooperation with the local community.
Achhim Wennmann, Advisor to the Director and Senior Researcher at the Geneva-based Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding, which is specialised in conflict mediation, emphasised the need for “a multidimensional approach” that includes all the parties involved in a conflict, including in some cases the perpetrators and victims of crime. “The emphasis must be on platforms, on mutual understanding between different sectors because problems are fundamentally, systemically integrated,” he said.
> Watch the video of the debate here
> Efus and the French Forum for Urban Security are organising a web conference series on group violence among youths