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Urban Security Key Trends

European cities face significant challenges, including terrorism and organised crime, but also incivilities, petty crime and most recently, public health risks, which all affect citizens’ feelings of safety. These challenges undermine the vibrancy and security of urban public spaces and threaten the well-being of European urban populations.

The last 30 years have seen considerable developments and advances in our understanding of urban security and the effectiveness or prevention strategies in European cities, from which we can identify a number of broad, cross-cutting developments over time.

Browse the key Trends, Tensions, Lessons and Knowledge Gaps in the field of urban security below.

Tensions, here, refer to enduring fault-lines, recurring issues and conflicting pressures that persist across time with regard to urban security and crime prevention.

Lessons, here, refer to the research-informed insights and learning derived from the knowledge base through the application and evaluation of urban security practices and interventions.

Compared to the field of healthcare and medicine, the urban security evidence base remains embryonic. While much has been learnt about the effectiveness and efficacy of urban security interventions over the past 30 years, there remain persistent knowledge gaps and uncertainties in the face of technological and social change. In the field of urban security where risks and harms are continuously changing, moving and evolving in dynamic fashion, there are both ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’. Here, we focus on the former.

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Trends, here, refer to major shifts and changes over time across the period of the last 30 years.

Key Trends - The Concept of Urban Security

Internationally declining crime rates

The significant decline in aggregate crime rates – notably in traditional offences - and the fact that this is mirrored across jurisdictions and therefore not country-specific in terms of causes.

The paradox of success

Prevention has played a significant role in the decrease in aggregate crime rates in relation to traditional property and public crimes. Despite this ‘success’, crime prevention remains under-resourced and poorly implemented

The harm concentration effect

Despite an overall decline in levels of crime, there is growing evidence of a concentration of victimisation and offending amongst certain groups in the population and within certain (geographical) areas and neighbourhoods in ways that compound disadvantages. The unequal distribution and impacts of crime, risk and vulnerability have thus become more marked and entrenched.

The broader conceptualisation of urban security, incorporating public perceptions

A shift from a narrow focus on crime reduction to community safety, ‘urban security’ and harm minimisation that incorporate public perceptions of insecurities, well-being and lived experiences, as well as public trust in authorities – in part stimulated by victimisation survey data.

Recourse to non-police information about crime, victimisation and insecurity

The greater importance of victimisation surveys as an alternative (and often more robust) source of information about the nature and extent of crime and harm, which disrupts the erstwhile monopoly of the police as gatekeepers of crime data.

Focus on the concentration of victimisation and harm

The growing focus on victims rather than offences and offenders has highlighted the concentration of harm (through multiple and repeat victimisation as opposed to the prevalence or incidence of crime) and provides an effective and socially justifiable way of directing crime prevention efforts by integrating it with victim support.

The blurring of administrative/civil and criminal orders and regulations

A growing resort to administrative regulation and civil laws (or quasi-civil laws such as anti-social behaviour regulation in the UK), as means of effecting and implementing crime prevention and urban security – in part recognition of the relative impotency and inadequacies of punitive criminal responses.

The criminalising effects of formal responses to crime

A greater awareness of the harmful effects of criminal justice responses and interactions with police and penal institutions, particularly for young people, which has encouraged forms of diversion.

The strength of the informal

Recognition of the effectiveness of informal responses that enlist community engagement and citizens’ capacity for self-regulation through persuasion and voluntary compliance – and the corresponding limits of ‘commandand-control’ based sanctions.

The flattening of the youth crime curve

Significant declines in the numbers of young people drawn into the criminal justice systems and in youth offending, as well as young people engaging in other behaviours – i.e. drinking, drug-use and smoking.

Early childhood development

Increased acknowledgement of the importance of early childhood development, adverse childhood experiences and trauma in influencing subsequent individual behaviour and future trajectories of vulnerability, victimisation and offending, as well as lifelong health and wellbeing.

Understanding theories of change

The growing importance of identifying the theories of change that inform how specific mechanisms trigger the anticipated outcomes; to provide a better understanding of how an intervention works or is intended to work.

Multiple causes and their interactions

A shift from a focus on identifying single causal factors, and the mechanisms designed to address these, to the more complex interactions and interdependencies between multiple factors and mechanisms.

Multi-systemic approaches

An analogous shift towards combining proximate or ‘near’ (situational) causes with more distant or ‘deep’ (environmental, social and structural) causes as well as multi-systemic interventions that combine individual, family, peer and community levels.

Key Trends - Context

Problem-based process models

A gradual recognition of the importance of applying ‘process models’ of problem-solving methods that tailor responses to the context of local problems and populations rather than ‘off the shelf’ universal solutions.

Obtaining information on how things worked and in what context, have driven the form of evaluation

A trend beyond ‘what works’ evaluation design that sought to register successful outcome effects – through the conjunction of mechanisms with outcomes – towards an investigation of why particular interventions work, for whom and under what circumstances, with greater regard accorded to effects of implementation and account taken of contextual factors.

The salience of locality and place

Despite globalisation, locality, ‘place’ and context have become more, not less, important. Global forces and the salience of locality have become increasingly mutually interdependent.

The challenges of policing cyberspace

The shift and migration of crime from physical space to cyberspace presents new challenges given that potential victims are more abundant (easier to find given the reach of the internet) and policing/law enforcement remains territorial.

Key Trends - Design

A preventive design mentality

The growing awareness of ‘up-stream’ design thinking and early interventions that seek to anticipate harm and preempt criminal opportunities by effecting social and technological change rather than retrofitting solutions after the event.

Situational prevention

Recognition that the incidence of crime can be effected by situational measures through modifications to the immediate physical environment in which crimes occur.

Crime prevention through environmental design

The growing recognition that design modifications to the built environment can foster reductions in the incidence and fear of crime - notably the influence of the principles of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) of: natural surveillance; natural access control; territorial reinforcement; maintenance and management

Naturalisation of design features

Appreciation that overly crude environmental design and ‘defensible space’ with overt surveillance as deterrence, pay insufficient regard to aesthetics and the impact on public perceptions, hastening a trend towards a ‘process of naturalisation’, whereby regulation becomes embedded into the physical infrastructure and social routines in ways that are less noticeable or threatening.

Key Trends - Implementation

A partnership approach

The recognition that in its design and implementation urban security demands collaboration through multistakeholder responses and that the police alone cannot prevent crime.

Citizens as the co-producers of urban security

Increased recognition of the need to engage populations that are the targets of interventions as active coproducers and agents of change rather than as passive recipients of services.

Evaluation for accountability, development and learning

The increasing appreciation of the need for rigorous evaluation of interventions, as a mechanism of accountability, to help strengthen institutional development and to inform accumulated knowledge and evidence.

Key Trends – Ethical Considerations

The principle of ‘do no harm’

A recognition that unintended consequences can arise from well-intentioned interventions. Hence, the need to ensure the parsimony of interventions and the guiding principle of ‘do no harm’.

The (en)gendering of urban security

The growing importance of gender in framing urban security in terms of both the lived experiences of security and the production of safety, notably in relation to the use and quality of public spaces and domestic abuse as a community issue. In many ways, the prevention of juvenile delinquency has been dominated by the treatment and study of masculine behaviours.

Children and young people’s rights

The growing emphasis on the rights of children and young people and ensuring international standards and safeguards to ensure the application of those rights.