Urban security and perception of cities

The security in the cities currently is limited in its imagination of city as a series of physical infrastructure.

The strongest common link between 9/11 and 26/11 attacks are their ability to get two of the biggest cities, known as the engines of growth, to a standstill. Even though innumerable attacks on cities like Paris and New York City have shocked the world in the recent times, our cities continue to rely on cure rather than prevention.

The last few years have made urban security a vital part of the national security discourse. With the incessant rise in urban migration there has been a consistent rise in the density and inequality within the cities. This has had two significant impacts- one, just because of the sheer number of people living in cites, the cost incurred from a natural disaster or a terrorist attack is proportionately higher than any incident is the rural end. Secondly, the rise in inequality and limited availability of resources has perpetuated petty crimes and underground network of illegal activities.

As the criminal activity and vulnerabilities of the cities increases, one can rely on economics for answers. The two important economic concepts in play while planning for security within cities are- network effect and tragedy of commons.

Cities are essentially a continuous built up area with high density. This density within the cities reduces the effort involved in connecting people and ideas. It is this feature of cities that makes it lucrative for cities and conducive to crimes. In addition to the huge population that helps to maintain anonymity, cities also offer a wide range of human and capital resource which helps in promoting a network of illegal activities. It is in this regard that factors like unemployment, low standards of living and illiteracy makes it easier to attract more people into criminal activities. Therefore, city policing is incomplete until and unless these interconnections are kept in mind.

Richard Little in the famous paper ‘Holistic strategy for Urban Security’ points out that “it is more effective and economical to think of urban security in neighbourhood or district terms rather than as protecting individual buildings.” As per Little, the city security infrastructure is limited to protecting important building in the country. This is evident as the Research and Development in protecting infrastructure is unscalable. Thereby a certain building being highly protected does not ensure the safety for the neighbourhood. These shortcomings make city infrastructure highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks and natural calamities, even though enough R&D had been done on these issues for years now.

The other major shortcoming in urban security planning, also highlighted by Little, is that a lot of it relies on the promptness and the rationality of the residents. Security is a public good, that is, no one can be excluded from being safe and one person being safe doesn’t stop another person in the same region from being safe. Hence, there is no incentive for an individual to invest in safety if others around him/her are doing so, also known as free rider problem. This one feature of security is the key reason for the limited amount of investment made on personal security by the individuals. This also the reason why the government has ensure public safety.

Hence the current system relying on residents and the citizens to take responsibility for the safety of the neighbourhood is highly optimistic and unreliable.

These two factors are just a part of the bigger problem of understanding and reducing urban security. Hence, the institutions in charge for urban security will have to re-evaluate their understanding of cities such that they stop another 9/11 or 26/11 from taking place.

Devika Kher is the Program Manger of Takshashila’s Graduate Certificate in Public Policy course and a policy analyst at Takshashila Institution. Her twitter handle is @DevikaKher.