Arnaud Blin, is a historian and political scientist, specialist in matters of governance and terrorism. Currently, in association with CommonsPolis, it contributes to generate reflections and proposals on a municipalist approach to security problems.
Political theorists who have delved into security related question can be divided into two distinct groups. On one side, in direct filiation to Kautilya, Machiavelli or Hobbes, is the idea that the organization of security, internal and external, must be adapted to a vision of human nature that, no matter the political and social environment, is essentially unalterable, which sees a perpetual struggle between the haves and the have nots who seek to take away what it is they possess (the nature of these possessions being very diverse). On the opposite side are those philosophers belonging to the humanist tradition who envision human nature, as it expresses itself for a majority of people, as seeking peace and security and showing itself ready to compromise and to respect the opinions and customs of others. In the first case scenario, we face a world that is motionless but familiar, where we know – or think we know – both the nature of the problem and its solution. In the second case, we are in a world that is constantly evolving, which is less familiar, but more open to experiment novel solutions.
These two general attitudes, which express themselves in a variety of ways, lead to conceptions of security and the organization of security (and justice) that are radically opposed to one another. In terms of external security, the two approaches translate into politics that focus, in the first case, on the use of (or threat to use) force and in the second case, on multilateral agreements, actions and processes. These two attitudes respectively correspond, in the contemporary world, to conservative and progressive policies and to the parties that advocate one or the other policies.
Less visible is the manner by which these approaches translate into local security policies. But, very often, inasmuch as local policies are less debated in the public arena, these are often more radical in their intent. Thus, even in democracies (i.e. in Brazil or Barcelona), some local police forces follow authoritarian models or even in some extreme cases, fascist ones. On a higher political stage, such models would be deemed unacceptable where they are tolerated at the local level. By the same token, cities are able to experiment with original initiatives which, due to the fact that their practical application can rapidly be put together, yield quick results that show what works and what doesn’t.
That being said, it is evident that the debate over local security attracts much less attention than the discussion over national and international security. In point of fact, national and international models for security are those that trickle down to the local level rather than the reverse, including peace operations conducted by the UN (which we examine in more detail in another article). As this method has repeatedly yielded setbacks, it may be time now to reconsider this approach and to look at the viability of a bottom-up method to resolving security issues. It may be time, too, to engage in a deeper debate over the relationship between human beings and their security.
Urban architecture clearly reflects the attitudes of peoples toward security.
In Europe, in the Americas, in the Middle-East or in Africa and Asia, numerous ancient cities still show the physical remnants erected during times of trouble, starting with the more or less sophisticated protective walls that supposedly protected inhabitants from external dangers. One finds these types of constructions in medieval towns such as Carcassonne in Southern France, but also in lesser known areas such as the Tamberma region of Northern Togo in West Africa, where each individual house is endowed with fortified walls and ramparts. The architecture of cities, be they large or small, is often an architecture of power where, especially in older towns, one can observe the physical memory laid out layer upon layer, each stratum reflecting the authority of successive generations and how it expressed itself in relation to their attitudes toward security.
In Washington, the While House was seen for a long time as a symbol of transparency and democratic openness. There was a time when any citizen could walk in and talk to the President. Progressively, however, the venerable seat of the U.S. executive branch enclosed itself, first with a simple fence which, until the end of the 20th century, separated the premises from a large avenue open to traffic. After September 11, a security barrier was established which effectively closed off the area and it is at this precise time that the country, under George W. Bush, effected an ideological shift towards the right which led to what we could qualify as a reactionary security policy. The policy expressed itself in various fashion, including urban architecture, most prominently with the construction of various U.S. embassies which now resemble military bunkers much more than diplomatic venues. Is not the infamous border wall between the US and Mexico lobbied by Trump an extension on a vast scale of this newfound desire for the US executive to erect a wall around itself?
Indeed, the last of couple of decades have be characterized by an urban architecture that seeks to control and “secure” public spaces and that, in doing so, has pushed towards fragmentation and even exclusion. It is in reaction to this general attitude that the concept of “positive security” was born, which echoed the idea of “positive peace” popularized by Johan Galtung.
The idea behind positive security is the improvement of the security of open public spaces through an architecture that promotes inclusion and harmonious living together and coexistence rather than compartmentalization, isolation and atomization.
Parallel to these opposing views of urban security and architecture, the development of new technologies is now giving public authorities and ordinary citizens new means to secure their space and another vision of what security may entail. Typically, surveillance technologies as applied to urban areas, starting with video-cams – whose invention is not new but whose usage, thanks to miniaturization, has expanded dramatically – are essentially used by government authorities and private enterprises. For the most part, their usage corresponds to classic attitudes towards security and they serve to identify criminals great and small, from petty thieves to terrorists.
But the rapid development of electronics has also enabled the ordinary citizen to reenter the debate. The invention and spread of the smartphone in the years 2000 has completely changed the social environment and given individuals a new tool at the tip of their fingers. Thanks to smartphone technology, a new type of insecurity can now be denounced: the insecurity generated by governmental security forces. Until recently, these were only accountable to state or local authorities. In the United States the abuses perpetrated by police forces towards African-Americans, which has been going on for decades, are now part of the public debate thanks to smartphone technology. True, measures to change police attitudes are slow in coming but at least now, the general public is aware that there is a problem, which was not really the case before, at least not to the extent that it is today.
But whether we talk about video-surveillance or citizen awareness, we remain in the domain of traditional responses to insecurity, criminality and governmental abuses. In other words, all this still essentially boils down to visual evidence of a breach of security that one proposes to resolve though legal, judicial, police or other such infrastructures that are already in place and through modes of prevention that essentially revolve around deterrence (the potential criminal or racist police officer hesitates to act through fear of getting caught).
Nevertheless, although still in their infancy, novel proactive initiatives seek to tackle urban security using new technologies in radical ways.
One example: the city of Eindhoven in the Netherlands, with its revolutionary project of de-escalating aggressive behaviors through the proactive transformation of public street lighting.
Eindhoven is a mid-size city of 230 000 inhabitants, the historic headquarters of the electronic company Philips. It has had an unusually high crime rate compared to other cities in the country. In order to tackle this problem a consortium of local stake holders got together, including city hall, Philips and the Eindhoven Institute of Technology. The consortium then pooled the resources and knowledge available through local channels to identify the immediate danger zones, that is, those specific areas where, for example, brawls were most likely to erupt. In those areas, it proceeded to manipulate the city lights by changing the color and intensity of the street lamps on the spot (from central headquarters), as the situation evolved. According to various extensive studies, light has important effects on human behavior, in particular when it comes to aggressive behavior of groups and individuals.
This initiative is highly original but it is too novel for anyone to draw far ranging conclusions. Evidently, the crime rate of Eindhoven has fallen since the project was put in place but crimes rate have gone down for the Netherlands as a whole. All told though, this initiative could easily be replicated elsewhere. Besides its originality, this experience is especially remarkable in the novel attitudes shown by the stake-holders, both in terms of conceptualization and practical application. Beyond the novelty, one should retain the manner through which the city sought and managed to pool its local resources, skills and competences in order to solve what was essentially a local problem.
In this respect, though steeped inside the daily reality of a city, this experience holds universal value.