The Evolution and Challenges of Security within Cities

Urban security, understood as the absence of a serious threat with regards to criminality and the subjective perception of protection, today depends on various structural and local factors.

Urbanization worldwide has reached more than half of the world’s population and has become one of the first structural aspects that influence cities and their security. Since this trend will increase, criminality will be mainly urban and increasingly polymorphous, complex and difficult to contain through the spontaneous social control which characterizes rural areas and small towns.

In addition, the rise of megalopolises, comprising more than 10 million inhabitants, as centres of power have a sphere of influence that span over various cities; therefore, delinquency will become even more complex for the interaction among cities. This has an impact on certain forms of criminality, such as organized crime, kidnapping and human trafficking. As urbanization grows, the cities become globalized and crime increases in complexity. This evolution forces us to reinvent the co-production of security in new contexts, with the participation of both state and local actors such as civil society.

The type of urban growth which has taken place, particularly in developing countries, implies an uncontrollable sprawl that leads to fragmented cities with low levels of social cohesion, with unequal access to social and urban services, and with heterogeneous values and processes of socialization among youth. In addition, the migratory process entails the coexistence of diverse cultures within cities and highlights the challenge of managing these differences and the conflicts they provoke. Consequently, the types of criminality vary by urban areas, reaching in some cases to lawless neighbourhoods.

Even the speculative business in housing has increased on a great scale in the last decade, as was highlighted by the crisis in 2008, where urban segregation as well as social exclusion rose. Thus, it has become a source of national and global crisis. Consequently, the control of the real estate market will be a challenge for urban management, which looks to avoid an economic and social crisis, reduce inequality and prevent money-laundering.

A second relevant aspect for urban security derives from the evolution of criminality between the 1960s and the 1990s, when an exponential increase of criminality in the world took place.1  As mentioned by the sociologist Sergio Adorno, “in a span of 30 years we have gone from a chronicle of crime as an exception to a chronicle of everyday crime and…images of innocence are replaced by permanent and imminent danger”.2  Around 1995, the level of criminality in developed countries stabilized and in the past decade has even declined. Nevertheless, in the majority of developing countries, delinquency has continued to either grow or stabilize, albeit with a higher level of violence.

The exponential rise between the 1960s and the 1990s was characterized by a phase of economic expansion in industrialized countries, which countered the theory that poverty is the principal cause of crime. There is no correlation between crime and poverty. The phenomenon of urban crime is multi-causal and derives from different variables depending on the urban context. In effect, it is the social fabric and the institutional and historical dimension of each city that explains the variation of crime rates in a determined period. Nevertheless, it is crucial to recognize that different forms of crime have specific explanations; for example, the cause of gender violence is not the same as the causes of theft, white-collar crimes, drug trafficking or gang-related violence.

A third relevant aspect to urban security is the evolution of the institutions of socialization, such as the family, the school and the neighbourhood. For example, there is a coexistence of family structures that is different and culturally legitimated. The protagonism of young people is forcing us to rethink the relationship between different generations. Formal education, which is necessary albeit not sufficient for social mobility, sometimes transforms the school into a factor of exclusion and a place where violence is learned, and some critical neighbourhoods are breeding grounds for organized crime. Parents, teachers and local leaders sometimes do not feel prepared to face the changing scenarios. The degradation of social values, the absence of common references and institutional failure are increasing, as is the vulnerability of the disadvantaged population. Furthermore, technological evolution creates a universe of new forms of communication which increases the gap between generations. Although it offers wider opportunities for prevention, it generates new types of delinquency such as cybercrime and pornography.

Meanwhile, the job market excludes different segments of young people and poorly qualified workers. In Latin America, more than 20 per cent of young people (aged 15-29) are neither working nor studying.3  In addition, it is important to mention the invisibility of young people in the decision-making process of policies that affect them.4 Facing this changing reality, cities are becoming territories of conflict and criminality, and therefore authorities cannot avoid their responsibility to provide urban security through strategic local management. This evolution forces us to draw up innovative prevention policies taking into account the local context, in particular, the late postmodernity with its injustices, shortcomings and social changes. For example, prevention policies need to take into account the plurality of family models; the search for a leading role for youth; the exclusive, stressful and sometimes violent character of schools; the presence of unlawful neighbourhoods; and, in some cities, the destructive omnipresence of organized crime and urban speculation.


Security is a central responsibility of city authorities. The lessons of the past have evidenced that a policy oriented exclusively on repression or dissuasion gives poor results5 and have demonstrated that cities and states are both paramount actors in the formulation and implementation of security policies. It also proved that cities are crucial actors in the areas of social, situational and developmental forms of prevention. Finally, we saw that urban management is more than the size of the cities or the risk that cities face, such as the presence of organized crime, which explains the level of insecurity.

Only a minority of city governments have municipal policies. However, in matters of prevention, they have a unique responsibility because they benefit from the proximity to the population and therefore know the needs and the characteristics of the territory. The need for decentralization derives from the nature of prevention, which requires proximity actors in order to be implemented. A central government, by definition is distant from the reality of cities and of their various neighbourhoods, does not know its territory and therefore cannot guide an alliance with local actors necessary for effective prevention policies. It is the responsibility of the local authority to encourage and direct as well as to implement and evaluate the prevention policies. “Local governments can be closer to citizen’s needs… The local leader is supposed to know, and even more importantly, is prepared to better understand his municipality and what is going on within it. Proximity is not only political. It is cognitive”.6


A prevention policy at the local level implies the use of a rigorous methodology7 that includes a participative diagnosis to understand the reality and the causes of criminality. It can also generate consensus among local actors, define priorities, and formulate and implement strategies through prevention projects. It also includes the monitoring and evaluation of these processes and, finally, some supporting policies such as the training of technical teams and communications. A focus on technical approaches is important, but methodological rigour is also relevant. Without the formulation of a global plan for the city, as is the case in many cities worldwide, there is a risk of enacting preventive measures that are dispersive, dislocated and with little or no impact in the mid and long term.

The development of a prevention policy process in a city, according to the results of the observation of cases of “safer cities”, allows for the identification of three phases. The first is the collective learning of tools and the strengthening of alliances, for approximately three to four years. In this phase, continuity, rigorous approach, leadership and technical teams are key issues. A second phase of consolidation is expressed in terms of social cohesion, culture of prevention, the quality of life and the reduction in crime levels. A third phase is the adaptation of a successful process by other cities, as is the case today in Côte d’Ivoire and Tanzania. This phase will allow for the creation of a national urban security policy originating from the practical experiences of the cities.

On the other hand, coherence between prevention and social policies is fundamental because the causes of criminality are rooted in the social fabric of the city. The ideal of prevention policies consists of focusing on vulnerable groups and, at the same time, addressing the modification of the structural factors that generate vulnerabilities. Crime prevention should strive to achieve a just city that offers opportunities for the most vulnerable people with effective and holistic prevention approaches articulated by social and urban policies.

The most common limits to adopting prevention policies are the absences of an adequate institutional framework, of financial resources and of rigorous assessments.

The critical fields within the policies of urban prevention include mainly the sphere of public spaces, the issue of critical and vulnerable neighbourhoods, the vulnerability of youth sectors and gender violence.

The current challenge is tackling these issues within the framework of an articulated process of co-production of security with a coalition of local actors, in collaboration with the police and in alliance with central governments. Indeed, this is what is set forward by the Global Network on Safer Cities, launched in 2012 by UN-HABITAT.


1   Findlay, M., The Globalization of Crime (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999).

2   Adorno, S., “La criminalidad violenta urbana en Brasil. Tendencias y características”, presented at the Seminar El desafío de la violencia criminal urbana, BID, Río de Janeiro, 1997.

3  Sen and Kliksberg, Primero la gente (Edic. Deusto, Barcelona, Spain, 2007).

4   CEPAL/OIJ, “Juventud y cohesión social en América Latina: Un modelo para armar” (Santiago, CEPAL 2008).

5   See Sen and Kliksberg.

6   Mockus, A., “Papel y retos de los gobiernos locales en la gestión y coordinación de la seguridad ciudadana. En Ciudades seguras para convivir” (UNDP, San Salvador, 2008), pp.117-168.

7  ONU-HABITAT and Universidad A. Hurtado, Guía para la prevención local (Santiago, Chile, 2009).