In dealing with the new threats facing security int the cities, the authorities are reacting with measures to protect citizens, most of which also involve limiting their freedoms. This situation is untenable in the long term. It is now necessary to develop preventive policies built upstream of urban planning and cross-checking the views of town planners and security experts.
by Arnaud Blin
In the United States, the year 2019 offered American citizens the pathetic spectacle of an arm twisting contest between Donald Trump and the Democratic Congress over the construction of a concrete wall covering half the border between the U.S. and Mexico (the rest being “protected” by natural elements). Other than the fact that this quarrel affects the issue of immigration, it also highlights the contrast between two visions of how one might ensure the protection and security of citizens. This security dichotomy also applies to urban spaces which, unlike the U.S.-Mexico border, raise growing and increasingly complex problems for the authorities. At a time when terrorist organizations, or those that claim as much, are expanding their operational capabilities, new measures must be undertaken to prevent and contain these potentially serious threats to the freedom and security of individuals who live or work in cities. For the authorities, it is tempting under these circumstances to take measure which, from the outset, infringe upon the liberties, including the liberty to move about, of the citizens they are supposed to protect.
As illustrated today by Donald Trump’s discourse, amongst others, states have traditionally and almost systematically had the reflex to erect barriers, often physical (Great Wall of China, Maginot Line, etc…), to protect themselves from external – sometimes even internal – threats. Today, the security systems that one finds in most airports in the world follow the same logic. These systems, by the way, were inexistent just a few decades ago, and one could board a plane much as one can climb into a bus. The airport example, or rather counter-example, speaks volumes and it should incite us to better organize the security around urban spaces. It is undeniable that air travel has become increasingly unpleasant what with all the security checks and we may infer that this type of approach should be avoided at all costs as far as our daily lives are concerned. The only reason why airport controls are acceptable is that they only affect a very small portion of the population which, in any case, often has the choice not to travel by air.
Moving to the scale of a city, however, such an approach would make life unbearable for everyone. Which is why other solutions must be sought after, which, among other tasks, should also address the need to prevent and contain the radicalization of individuals and communities within cities. Rather than erecting barriers between each other, as the current trend pushes us towards, it might be more fruitful, especially on the longer term, to do the reverse and to try eliminating obstacles to social integration.
In certain countries, particularly where crime rates are high, such as South Africa, suburban communities have arisen around veritable fortress neighborhoods: completely enclosed residential spaces, some of which are very large, that are supposed to offer the ultimate protection against crime. One can now witness such constructions all over the world, notably in the Americas, a trend that undoubtedly encourages the fragmentation of urban spaces and of society at large along ethnic lines or income levels, the richer portions of society being less exposed to crime. We know that this type of approach tends to foster radicalization since, by isolating communities from one another, one generates the atomization and marginalization of certain communities and individuals, some of whom may nourish deep seated resentments and see no issue but violence. In the case of terrorist acts perpetrated by, or in the name of, Al-Qaeda or ISIS in Europe, we see that the terrorist cells are composed of individuals belonging to the same family, or who live in the same building, housing project or neighborhood. In contrast to this desire by some to isolate themselves from the rest of society, however, one can also observe a desire by certain suburban populations to move back to the heart of cities, humans at large being in the end social animals that seek the company of others and do not necessarily look to live in autarky or isolation. It is important that we encourage this movement through urban planning catering to this need.
But one of the problems faced by urban planners is that urban planning is all too often retroactive, meaning that when plans are put into effect to resolve certain problems, these problems may have evolved while others will have emerged between the planning and the implementation. Today, for example, it would be logical to rethink urban planning by integrating the threat posed by motor vehicles being used for terrorist purposes. But while one should take this new element into consideration, one should also try to think of other tools that future terrorists might think of using, such as drones for example. In this light, it would be judicious to better coordinate the work that might be done upstream, starting with consulting various experts in urban security, counter-terrorism and high tech and integrating their input to the work done by urban planners and architects. In some cases, it might be useful for cities to share experiences, especially as they might be facing similar problems or threats, or to seek assistance from the U.N., whose comity in charge of counter-terrorism within the Security Council is mandated to facilitate such exchanges.
Arnaud Blin is a French-American historian and political scientist specialized in conflicts history. He has published fifteen books, translated into ten languages. Ex-director of Beaumarchais Center for International Research (Washington), he coordinated for around 10 years the World New Governance Forum (Paris). His professional interests have centered in problems linked to good governance and security. Through the Forum, he led around forty projects on global governance with Gustavo Marin. Last published work : War and religion. Europe and the Mediterranean from the first through the 21st centuries (University of California Press, 2019).