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Urban Security

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.

Key Tensions – The Concept of Urban Security

Urban security is about more than crime reduction

Urban security concerns factors that extend beyond crime reduction to incorporate public perceptions of insecurities, well-being and lived experiences. Reductions in crime may not foster or lead to reductions in insecurity and may relate to public (dis)trust in formal institutions’ capacity to ensure safety.

The punitive paradox

Despite a greater recognition that the levers of crime and prevention lie outside of the criminal justice system and punitive approaches, criminal justice responses continue to dominate policy and investments in resources.

Wider insecurities, social cohesion and trust in formal Institutions

Urban security may be intimately related to wider forces of economic insecurity, uncertainty, social polarisation and distrust in political institutions.

Securitisation versus other public goods and values

Security is but one imperative that sometimes collides with other public goods or private pursuits. There has been a tendency to over prioritise security against other benefits, uses and values of public spaces – social, cultural, environmental, educational and health-related – resulting in the over-securitisation of public spaces.

The aesthetics of security

Aesthetics and public sensibilities matter, given that security interventions can foster insecurity rather than public reassurance. One of the ironies of such quests for security is that in their implementation they may foster perceptions of insecurities by alerting citizens to risks, heightening sensibilities

The paradox of non-implementation of a problem-oriented Approach

Despite all the organisational and technological developments, which should have enabled greater progress, a problem-oriented approach (first elaborated in relation to policing by Herman Goldstein in the late 1970s) remains stubbornly unfulfilled.

Key Tensions - Context

The volatility of political commitment to urban security

An uneven trajectory in the political fortunes of crime prevention influenced by exceptional events and the vagaries of political priorities, which has seen the ebb and flow of investments in prevention with political changes and a shifting focus as priorities change

Fragmentation and central-local tensions

An integrated approach to urban security is weakened by tensions between national and municipal authorities with regard to jurisdiction, competencies and responsibilities, as well as by conflicts – ‘turf wars’ between central government departments operating as silos.

The quest for ‘silver bullets’

There remain enduring and entrenched (political) demands for uniform and eye-catching solutions – ‘silver bullets’ encouraged by the rhetoric of ‘what works’ – that can be applied, almost regardless of context or the nature of the specific problem.

The crime and security ‘arms race’

Crime and security problems are not static or constant, but rather innovate and evolve in response to social and technological change.

The narrow focus of research evidence to the exclusion of contextual factors

A central challenge in synthesising the knowledge base is that most of the research is written by researchers for other researchers and tends to focus on exploring narrow questions of internal validity, often to the exclusion of wider contextual factors (external validity) that are of interest and value to policy-makers and practitioners.

Key Tensions – Implementation

The collaboration paradox

Urban security demands the engagement of multiple stakeholders where advantage derives not simply in the combination of perspectives, resources and skills, but also in framing and shaping problems and methods differently, nonetheless where these same differing cultures, values, interests and working practices can foster conflicts.

Wide-angled but tunnelled vision

Enduring challenges pertain to the pursuit of multistakeholder urban security networks through horizontal exchanges of shared information, knowledge, resources or other transactions that cut across vertical intraorganisational priorities, which pay scant regard to the task of managing inter-organisational relations.

Obstacles to data sharing

Data sharing and data linkage remain some of the most intractable and contentious aspects of urban security practice. A pervasive and deeply ingrained reluctance to share information between agencies persists, informed by technological, legal, organisational and cultural barriers to data exchange.

Trust as a vital ingredient in implementation

Inter-organisational and inter-personal trust relations as well as public trust in authorities are vital to ensure the effective implementation of urban security interventions. Trust in authorities, organisations, people and systems - including security technologies - is fragile, easily broken and hard to renew or generate afresh.

The measurement paradox

There are evident difficulties associated with evaluating prevention as a ‘non-event’. It is both difficult to evaluate a non-event (except in so far as comparisons can be drawn with a control sample that has not benefited from the intervention) and difficult to communicate the success of prevention (i.e. something that did not happen).

The under-investment in the evaluation of outcomes

Evaluation of the effects and impacts of preventive interventions remain patchy, limited in rigour and frequently under-resourced. This contrasts with the relatively greater evaluation of offender-oriented, tertiary, treatment programmes.

Disentangling multiple mechanisms and effects

The reported outcome from interventions operating multiple mechanisms is inevitably a net effect, which comprises a complex mix of the balance between noneffect, positive effect and possible negative effects.

Key Tensions – Ethical Considerations

The potential criminalisation of social policy

A tension exists between identifying the role of social, educational and wider economic forces in fostering crime and insecurity and in justifying social policies in terms of their crime preventive potential or implications. The danger is that crime and insecurity become organising frames in the exercise of authority and in legitimising interventions that have other motivations.

Targeted versus universal provisions

There remain stubborn debates about the preference for universal provision or targeted interventions – i.e. ‘primary’ versus ‘secondary’ prevention. Targeted interventions focused on risk factors are justified in terms of effectiveness, as they target those people/factors most likely to effect change, reducing the chances of ‘false positives’, and cost efficiencies as they target need in more limited ways, reducing costs.

The stigmatising potential of targeted interventions

Targeted prevention initiatives raise concerns about the stigmatising potential and labelling implications of associating specific people or places with crime. In some countries, there are strong cultural and political presumptions in favour of universal preventive services for young people justified on the basis of children’s existing educational or social needs and problems, rather than future risks of criminality.

The inaccuracy of risk-based predictions

Targeted interventions based on risk assessments can be more effective from a cost basis but also suffer from inaccurate predictions of subsequent crime/criminality, such that they can herald intervention where negative outcomes would not actually have occurred (‘false positives’) and/or where negative outcomes occur despite the intervention (‘false negatives’).

Key Lessons – Problem-Solving Approaches

In tailoring interventions to particular issues and contexts, problem-solving approaches – such as SARA (Scanning, Analysis, Response, Assessment) or the 5Is (Intelligence, Intervention, Implementation, Involvement, Impact) – provide a robust process-based framework through which to specify and better understand the nature of given security problem and guide practitioners towards better-quality interventions and their implementation.

Working outwards from defining the specific crime or security problem and engaging with the end-users and beneficiaries of an intervention is a more effective approach than existing solutions or bureaucracies/organisations available to respond to the problem.

Given the siloed nature of service provision/responses and the segmented nature of knowledge and skills/resources, this demands harnessing multi-sectoral and diverse actors through pooled resources, skills, knowledge and capabilities in interdisciplinary and cross-professional partnerships.

One of the limitations that constrained the implementation of problem-oriented policing is that it focused on the police organisation as the locus of the response to social problems when the levers to the problems often lay far from the reach of the police.

Nothing works everywhere, and a lot of things work somewhere! Context matters – configured in time and space – in the causation of crime and insecurity. Crime prevention and urban security problems are complex and informed by a tangle of interacting causes and interdependencies, which differ across problems and contexts.

There has been a tendency to search for universal solutions under the banner of ‘what works’ which has drawn attention away from the situated and contextualised features of local places. And simultaneously with little regard to which groups of people benefit from particular interventions or design features in a particular place/situation at a specific time.

Key Lessons – Design, Innovation and Technology

Early intervention also demands considering the crime and security consequences of change and innovations - in technology, products and services - at the design stage, rather than retrofitting partial solutions after innovations have occurred.

Interventions at the design stage enable up-stream, early opportunities to effect security and harm reduction outcomes, rather than retro-fitting changes after the event. Secured by Design, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) and ‘defensible space’ theories have all offered important insights that have informed practical and often successful measures. The design of motor vehicle security and the subsequent decrease in vehicle related crime is a notable example.

Designs, however, must avoid being narrowly conceived around security at the cost of other social goods and security requirements need to be creatively balanced with a range of others including, aesthetics, convenience/accessibility, social inclusion and environmental sustainability.

Designing in crime and security features into new interventions necessitates active engagement and responsibility on behalf of the producers of new technologies, services and products, as well as designers and architects. As the example of the Car Crime Index (in the 1980s) demonstrated, this can require significant political and organisational buy-in as designing in crime prevention and security features from the outset may be costly and disruptive to wider commercial imperatives.

Vulnerability-led design responses or too much emphasis on security can promote fear of crime and insecurity and foster social polarisation, with adverse implications for wellbeing.

Human-centred design solutions afford sensitivity to local context, a focus on the nature of the problem(s) to be addressed, an understanding the causes of social problems, the nature of social interactions and the ways in which people use and adapt to solutions/interventions.

Involving communities (or representatives) in the design of interventions creates a sense of (local) ownership and participation, as well as ensuring local context is accounted for and incorporated.

Cost-benefit analyses suggest that resources spent on security, policing and crime prevention might sometimes be better spent on other public services and essential infrastructure - i.e. health, education, transport and culture.

There has been a tendency to prefer technological solutions – i.e. hardware – to human solutions in regard to addressing security concerns, with less regard for the intersection and interaction between social and technological processes; between technology (as hardware) and people.

Social media and the online space is often portrayed as the cause of problems and harms, but its potential as a platform for positive intervention, learning and change should not be overlooked or underestimated.

Key Lessons – Data, Methods and Measurement

Urban security demands different data than crime data alone and necessitates thinking differently about – and differently measuring – indicators of ‘success’ and outcomes in the evaluation of interventions. Factors such as levels of perceived unsafety, civic tolerance, social cohesion, trust in authority, community well-being and victim support are salient outcomes in urban security.

Good quality data collection and sharing across relevant organisations, as well as ethically sensitive data management and use: allow for joined-up provision; afford opportunities for joint analysis and coordinated working between relevant agencies; provide the capacity to track and support individuals and families through service provision/diverse interventions, and assess their trajectories; provide an evidence-base from which to assess effectiveness; ensure the best use of resources and facilitate best practice; and afford opportunities to monitor performance and render services accountable and reviewable.

Good quality, shared data are vital in clarifying and defining the nature and extent of the problem(s) being tackled through focused analysis to ensure a properly problem-based intervention.

There is often a confusion between risk factors as ‘flags’ for (or indicators of) causes and casual mechanisms themselves, particularly evident in preventing juvenile delinquency. To distinguish between ‘causes’ and ‘flags’, we need to identify a plausible explanatory process (theory of change) that connects the supposed cause and effect and that actually produces the effect.

Interventions and their evaluation need to be clearer about the causal factors (and the theories of change) that it is assumed will cause a mechanism to produce certain desired outcomes. Hence, we need strong and credible reasons for how and why the assumed cause will produce the effect in question.

Evaluation is important for development (to help strengthen institutions), for knowledge (to provide a deeper understanding of specific questions or fields) and for accountability (to measure the outcomes and their effectiveness/efficiency).

Methodologically, the ‘what works’ movement - through its emphasis on quasi-experimental methods and random control trials - has (deliberately) focused attention on single interventions and sought to remove contextual factors and the analysis of the implementation processes, in order to highlight constant conjunctions.

Programme evaluations need to play greater attention to both the context and the processes of implementation in informing what works, where and for whom.

For evaluations to be meaningful, the aim of the intervention needs to be clearly defined, as do subsequent outcome measures by which the success of the intervention can be assessed.

Rather than seek to evaluate the presence or absence of a successful crime preventive effect, there is a need to explore the causal mechanisms (or ‘theories of change’) that are believed to underlie and produce those effects/outcomes (or their absence). Understanding how something works or is intended to work, enables more focused design of interventions that also take account of contextual factors.

Knowledge about failure and of undesired side effects is as important as learning about success. Urban security evaluations tend to focus on success stories and in policing interventions too often appear ‘doomed to succeed’.

Key Lessons – Implementation Matters

The overwhelming lesson from the last 30 years is that the institutional context and resistant organisational cultures have often undermined the implementation of research-informed urban security and crime prevention. It is not that the science is poor with regard to crime prevention and urban security – although it is inevitably incomplete, in some places inadequate and shifting in the light of technological and social change - but rather that it is not being implemented or implemented in inappropriate ways, circumstances and situations that constitute the most basic contemporary challenge.

The importance of political leadership, public trust and institutional commitment, support, appropriate levels of resources and buy in from relevant stakeholders are all pivotal to the success of interventions.

Communicating the successes of crime prevention and the effectiveness of up-stream early interventions in ways that elicit long-term political commitment and organisational change remain a considerable challenge.

There is a long history of successful experimentation in urban security with robust evaluation to support their effectiveness and impact, but the lessons from which are not mainstreamed and realised in routine organisational practices or not appropriately transferred to other places and populations.

Demonstration projects may provide interesting insights and learning but will result in little change if they are not embedded within infrastructures that align with cultural values, underpinned by sustainable funding and supported by long-term organisational commitments.

Effective multi-stakeholder partnerships require: shared ownership; clearly defined outcomes and expectations of each contributing partner; acknowledgement of asymmetries of power differentials; constructive negotiation of conflict; mutual understanding and regard for difference; trust and information-sharing; and meaningful engagement with end-users and beneficiaries.

Developing shared values in collaboration demands that partners understand each other’s priorities, values, positions and limitations well enough to have meaningful dialogue about the different interpretations of the problem, and to exercise collective intelligence about how best to seek to resolve it.

Insufficient regard has been accorded to understand the diffusion of innovations and the structural features of organisations, including their propensity to take up new knowledge (absorptive capacity) and the presence or not of a receptive context for change, including things like organisational culture and environment.

Responding to public perceptions of insecurity by providing additional security interventions, technologies or hardware may fail to engage with the issues underlying these demands. It may also miss the opportunity to subject these demands to rational debate and local dialogue. Hence, the need to engage local publics, stakeholders and user communities in genuine problem-solving processes that investigate beyond the immediate appearance or superficial expression of security problems.

Seeking solutions to problems of local order through security alone may serve to exacerbate population’s fears and entrench perceived lines of difference within and among local communities.

Key Knowledge Gaps

Predicting future crime and security trends and developments, given their dynamic nature is intrinsically difficult.

All evaluations produce knowledge of what worked (in the past) for a particular population, under specific circumstances, at a particular time and may not hold for a future population at a different place or time. The inferences that can be drawn are contingent.

The knowledge base with regard to causation and the causal interactions between multiple factors remains limited.

The role that social, educational and welfare provisions play in shaping the propensity for crime and criminal behaviours remains poorly understood.

Too little is known about and insufficiently robust data are collected concerning the processes of implementation that influence the effectiveness of urban security interventions.

There is insufficient understanding of the ways in which context shapes successful outcomes and the nature and extent to which particular preventive mechanisms are context-determined or context-dependent.

More can be learnt comparatively about the ways in which urban security interventions and their effectiveness are shaped by differing culture, social practices and legal, political and administrative frameworks.

There is a need to better understand the extent to which crime prevention lessons from the physical world translate into cyberspace and their possible application (or not) to online environments.

The implications for urban security of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and algorithms build into products, services and utilities are largely uncharted, as expert knowledge and processes of interpretation are replaced by machine learning and automated decision-making. What we do know is that these algorithms are not impartial but embed with different assumptions about behaviour and risk that are opaque and obscure. As such, they raise fundamental ethical and normative questions about the values that inform the future of urban security.

Climate change, an ageing population and growing social polarisation, diversity and inequality are all likely to interact with wider social and technological change in ways that are more complex, interconnected and interdependent, raising new challenges for the tense relationship between liberty, security and other social values.