How reducing inequality will make our cities safer

2 Mar 2020, WEForum by Robert Muggah Principal, SecDev Group and Sameh WahbaGlobal Director, Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience and Land Global Practice, World Bank

  • Overlapping forms of inequality contribute to violent victimization in cities, from wealth inequality to educational opportunities and property rights;
  • In virtually every city, the vast majority of violent crime is concentrated in just a few neighbourhoods;
  • To reverse inequality and make cities safer, governments, business and civil society groups must start by targeting hot spots, especially in areas of deprivation.

Urban violence is predictable; it concentrates in specific places, among certain people and at very particular times. This means violence is hyperlocal, concentrated in “hot spot” neighbourhoods and blocks.

Inequality, whether in terms of income, wealth or welfare and endowments, is a strong determinant of everything from social cohesion and social mobility to life expectancy. A reduction of inequality and concentrated disadvantage in violent cities and neighbourhoods is, therefore, one of the most powerful ways to reduce violence.

Where a person is born and lives correlates with their overall life chances. Unsurprisingly, people living in environments characterized by high levels of economic and social inequality tend to be more exposed to violence and victimization than those living elsewhere. Neighbourhoods exhibiting higher levels of income inequality and concentrated disadvantage experience higher levels of mistrust, social disorganization and violent crime. Failure to adequately address these issues dramatically reduces equality of opportunity and outcomes across generations, perpetuating violence.

Multiple and overlapping forms of inequality contribute to violent victimization in cities. For example, people in the lower income-and-wealth quintiles are more likely to be a victim than those in the higher earnings brackets. In Mexico, despite a national decline in poverty and income inequality, municipalities registering higher economic inequality report higher levels of violent crime. The most-affected neighbourhoods tend to have limited natural surveillance, residential disadvantage (low-income, high unemployment, low education) and neighbourhood instability (high levels of mobility and single-headed households).

Similarly, racial and gender inequalities not only perpetuate economic inequality but are linked to higher exposure to violence. Labour force participation, educational achievement, reproductive health and political representation are all closely aligned with higher levels of safety.

The world's most violent cities in 2015
The world’s most violent cities in 2015

In virtually every city, the vast majority of violent crime is concentrated in just a few neighbourhoods. Some parts of a city may experience almost no violent crime, while in others it may be an order of magnitude higher. A study of five Latin American countries determined that 50% of all crime occurred in just 3-8% of street segments. In Bogota, for example, more than 98% of all homicides occur in less than 2% of its street segments.

Relationships between disadvantaged communities and local government – particularly law enforcement – are often fraught. When police use excessive force, this can further diminish trust. Moreover, when local residents exit violence-affected neighbourhoods, this can exacerbate socio-spatial segregation, erode social efficacy and intensify insecurity in the communities they leave behind. Meanwhile, neighbourhoods with higher levels of income inequality and more concentrated disadvantage experience higher levels of violent crime. There are frequently spillover effects from unequal and violent neighbourhoods into ostensibly more stable ones.

Fortunately, a growing number of cities around the world are prioritizing crime prevention and violence reduction. This is more radical than it sounds, as many local governments are understandably worried about acknowledging these challenges for fear it may negatively impact local and foreign investment, tourism and their legitimacy to voters. Cities from Medellin and Sao Paulo to New York and Oakland have achieved dramatic improvements in public safety and security over the past two decades. Likewise, global networks such as the Global Parliament of Mayors and Peace in Our Cities have encouraged members to dramatically reduce violence – by half – by 2030.

Lessons for reducing violence

1. Integrated urban upgrading must focus on hot spots: too often, city authorities either ignore or seek to contain poorer areas with police rather than prioritizing investment in affected neighbourhoods and tackling the determinants of criminal violence. The most at-risk areas frequently lack basic infrastructure and services and have poor spatial and digital connectivity with formal employment. Local residents often suffer from insecure land and property tenure and lack the education and life skills needed to access job opportunities. The absence of the state and a breakdown in the social contract can exacerbate violence, leaving poor and marginalized residents stuck in place.

Instead, city governments, the business community, and civic leaders need to make violence reduction a priority. What is required is an integrated approach to tackle spatial, economic and social exclusion. This includes comprehensive urban upgrading to address those issues faced by locals.

2. Environmental design improvements and smart policing strongly correlate with reductions in urban violence. High-mast street lighting, for example, is credited with reduced crime and violence in informal settlements in Nairobi and an improvement in economic activities as retail outlets stay open later. The design of public spaces that are secure and accessible to various community members, the intelligent deployment of policing and resources to challenging areas together with strengthening community participation are also important. Problem-oriented policing is demonstrably effective.

3. Strengthening community engagement and collective efficacy is essential. Empowering neighbourhood residents to intervene on behalf of the public good is critical to reducing violent crime. This means building social cohesion, including the trust between residents and positive reciprocity with the government. Sharkey’s pioneering research in US cities underlines the value of working with young people to help them avoid violent confrontations and invest in positive pro-social behaviour and methods to avoid delinquent peers.

4. Improving access to jobs and life skills must be a priority. The creation of channels to decent jobs for youth in high-violence neighbourhoods is effective in reducing delinquency and crime. Strategies that also support access to jobs and life skills development for specific at-risk young males (and their parents) are also needed. The goal is to offer opportunities and perspectives for at-risk youth that offer pathways away from violence.

Ultimately, urban crime and violence have far-reaching economic costs. According to the land-mark Pathways for Peace report, violence contributes to a 2-8% loss of GDP growth around the world annually. In addition to saving millions of lives, preventing it could generate up to $70 billion a year, globally. For example, a study of US cities determined that a 25% reduction in homicidal violence could lead to a 2.1% increase in housing prices the following year. This translates into gains of between $1.5 billion in Jacksonville to $11 billion in Boston. Tackling inequality – of income, access to opportunity and human capital – not only makes sense morally and ethically but economically too.

To reverse inequality and reduce crime in cities, governments, business and civil society groups must start by targeting hot spots, especially in areas of deprivation. Comprehensive interventions that combine smarter infrastructure, data-driven policing and targeted service delivery with environmental design improvements and greater security over property tenure are critical. Programmes that empower and engage communities and improve their access to life skills and economic opportunity are also vital. When these policies are in place, they can deliver rapid and lasting results. Reducing inequality is a down payment on violence reduction in the long-term.

Robert Muggah is releasing a new book, Terra Incognita, with his co-author Ian Goldin. The book explores mega-trends, including inequality and violence, and will be released by Penguin/Random House later this year.

Violence has always been one of humanity’s most serious global challenges. This is because for most of history, we were natural born killers. Hundreds of millions of men, women and children have been killed or maimed by armed conflict, crime, extremism and sexual and gender-based violence.

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Not only does violence exact a massive social and economic toll, it also corrodes democratic institutions and undermines fundamental human rights. There is also a risk of certain forms of collective violence escalating in the coming decade, not least with the stresses imposed by climate change and the risks posed by new technologies.

Yet far from the chilling headlines, progress has been made over the past half century in preventing and reducing many types of violence. While promising, the comparatively recent drop in violence is no guarantee that it will continue well into the 21st century. But with targeted interventions and sustained financing – especially in cities – most forms of violence could diminish further still. This is, in fact, one of the central aspirations of Sustainable Development Goal 16 on peace, security and justice. The world has a real opportunity to halve violence by 2030. Achieving this will require taking stock of where we are and taking decisions about where we want to go. This is precisely what bold initiatives such as the Pathfinders Partnership seek to achieve.

At the outset, it is important to reflect on just how many people are affected by violence. While difficult to measure with precision, as many as 600,000 people – including almost 100,000 women and girls – die around the world each year as a result of conflict, crime, extremist and extrajudicial violence. Millions more suffer physical and psychological injuries associated with warfare, criminality, and sexual and gender-based violence. Over 40 million people are displaced by violence – including 26 million refugees. If no steps are taken to change our present course, it is not at all certain that these trends will improve in the next decade. Yet if measures are taken to reverse these tendencies, literally hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars in reconstruction, reparations, productivity losses and insurance claims could be saved.

Violent crime rates vary dramatically around the world
Homicide rates around the world, according to UNODCImage: UNODC

The first step to effectively reducing violence by 2030 is to have a clear sense of how it is distributed in time and space. Take the case of lethal violence. There is a misperception that more people die violently in war zones than in countries at peace. While total levels of violence oscillate from year to year, it turns out that the reverse is true. The UN Office for Drugs and Crime estimates that the ratio is roughly 5:1. Put simply, many more people are dying violently as a result of organized and interpersonal crime in countries like Brazil, Colombia and Mexico than in internal conflicts in countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. This is not to say that one type of lethal violence is more important than the other, but rather to ensure a more fact-based diagnosis.

A second step is to determine where violence concentrates and who is most at risk. A considerable proportion of all violence – that is, deaths, injuries and extreme violations – is concentrated in cities. These tendencies are likely to increase steadily given the inexorable urbanization of every region on earth. Cities in Latin America and the Caribbean – already one of the world’s most urbanized regions – feature some of the highest levels of lethal and non-lethal violence. It is home to 43 of the world’s 50 most violent cities. Meanwhile, most conflict and terrorist-related deaths are concentrated in a handful of countries in Central Asia, the African Sahel, North Africa and the Middle East. Irrespective of where it occurs, young males are most at risk of perpetrating or being victimized, although women and girls experience horrific forms of violence ranging from femicide to rape and abuse.

The third step is to acknowledge the risk factors that give rise to various types of violence. Although violence is multi-factoral, a number of recurring risks stand out. For example, social and economic inequality is high on the list, as are concentrated poverty, rapid unregulated urbanization, a high level of youth unemployment, and weak security and justice institutions that lead to soaring levels of impunity. Other situational factors loom large, including exposure to narcotics and alcohol and the availability of arms. Many of these factors cluster in urban settings, especially in neighbourhoods exhibiting concentrated disadvantage, social disorganization, and low levels of social cohesion.

If violence is to be genuinely diminished, it is important to acknowledge its many “hidden” forms that are routinely excluded from the international agenda. Some governments are reluctant to discuss them on the grounds that they are considered an internal domestic matter. For example, there are more than 10 million people in prisons around the world, a significant proportion of whom are in pre-trial detention and living in inhumane conditions. There are also thousands of people who are missing – “disappeared” – not least union leaders, indigenous rights defenders, human rights activists and journalists.

The only way to make a serious dent in violence is by acknowledging its full scope and scale together with the factors that drive it. This must be accompanied by sustained investment in reducing the risks and improving the protection of affected areas and populations, and investing in solutions with a positive track record. In the US, for example, research suggests that a focus on reducing lethal violence in the 40 cities with the highest rates of homicide could save more than 12,000 lives a year. In Latin America, reducing homicide in just the seven most violent countries over the next 10 years would save more than 365,000 lives.

With targeted interventions, especially in cities, hundreds of thousands of lives each year could be saved
With targeted interventions, especially in cities, hundreds of thousands of lives each year could be savedImage: Our World in Data

What are our next steps?

First, countries and cities should set out violence reduction plans with clear targets and performance indicators over the next decade. Effective data-harvesting systems to track trends, investment in in-house monitoring and analytical capacities to interpret results, routine supervision, ongoing training and professional development, and constant evaluation are all critical. This requires political leaders who are prepared to plan across electoral cycles and business and civil society champions who are willing to invest time, energy and resources to improve their communities.

Next, governments need to develop comprehensive approaches to preventing and reducing violence. This means investing in prevention – including the risk factors that give rise to violence. It also means building in peace architectures that can channel grievances non-violently. Ideally, governments can combine specific adaptations in policing practice with prevention and protection measures tailored particularly for at-risk places and people – from young out-of-work males to vulnerable women and children. This requires the creation of partnerships across institutional and bureaucratic silos – between state and city authorities, but also across different public entities. Central to success are strong partnerships with universities, research institutes, and businesses that can help identify evidence-based pathways for improvement.

Another key ingredient of success is staying power. The most successful interventions take time to have a lasting effect. Consider São Paulo, for example, a city that has registered sharp reductions in its murder rate in recent years. Metropolitan São Paulo’s homicide rate fell from 49.2 per 100,000 in 2001 to just 5.5 per 100,000 between 2001 and 2018, making it one of the safest large cities in Brazil. In 1991, the city of Medellín in Colombia registered a homicide rate of 381 per 100,000—among the highest ever recorded anywhere. Today it is 21 per 100,000, below that of Detroit, Baltimore or New Orleans. It is challenging to maintain support given electoral cycles and economic volatility, but when interventions are terminated prematurely, the positive effects typically vanish just as quickly.

It will take unprecedented global partnerships to reduce violence by 50% over the next 10 years. But there are grounds for optimism. For the first time, the UN and World Bank have united behind a common framework for preventing conflict. UN entities such as the Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have made commitments to reduce violence. UN Women has announced a Spotlight Initiative to end violence against women and UNICEF has joined forces with others to advance INSPIRE strategies to help governments improve safety for all. Another promising initiative is the global campaign to end violence against children, which has already raised close to $38 million, strengthening the work of 49 partners in at least 37 countries. At the city scale, UN-Habitat is promoting safer cities and a coalition of mayors have launched the Peace in Our Cities campaign to localize SDG 16 commitments. Yet much more needs to be done.

The world has an opportunity to dramatically reduce some of the most egregious forms of violence over the next decade. To do this, we will need the same kind of energy and dedication that was mobilized to eradicate other killers like smallpox. We know what works, and what does not. There is no excuse not to deliver a safer world.


Invest in people and a better world…

By 2030, your CO2 emissions will be greatly reduced. Meat on your dinner table will be a rare sight. Water and the air you breathe will be cleaner and nature will be in recovery. The money in your wallet will be spent on being with family and friends, not on buying goods. Saving the climate involves huge change, but it could make us much happier at the same time.

Right now, we are losing the fight against climate change – but what would winning look like? What is life like in a green world?

Here’s one version of a “CO-topia”:

You walk out of your front door in the morning into a green and liveable city, where concrete has dwindled and green facades and parks are spreading. If you choose to call a car, an algorithm will calculate the smartest route for the vehicle and pick up a few other people on the way.

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Since the city council’s ban on private cars in the city, lots of new mobility services have arrived. It is cheaper for you not to own your own car, which, in turn, reduces congestion so you arrive at your destination more easily and quickly and don’t have to spend time looking for somewhere to park. You can also choose to travel by bike, scooter or public transit.

The air you breathe in the city is cleaner because there are far fewer cars on the streets and the rest are electric – all electricity is green in fact. There is less noise and much more space for parks and pedestrian streets since all the parking space became available. For lunch you can choose from dozens of exciting meals – most of them are plant-based, so you eat more healthily and are more environmentally friendly than when lunch meant choosing between five types of burger.

Single-use plastics are a distant memory. You still grab a to-go coffee, but it comes in a reusable cup that you turn in at the next coffee shop to get your deposit back. The same system applies to plastic bottles and other take-away containers. At home, all of your household appliances have been turned into service contracts. If your dishwasher is about to break down, it is no longer your problem. The service provider already knows about the problem and has sent someone to fix it. When the machine no longer works, the provider picks up the old machine and installs a new one.

People are trying out new types of living arrangements with more shared functions and spaces. This means that more people can afford to live in cities. More houses are built with wood, which makes them nicer to live in and much better for the climate than concrete buildings.

When you buy something, you buy something that lasts; you buy it because you really need it and want to take care of it. But because you buy far fewer things, you can actually afford products of better quality and design. “Refuse, reuse, reduce, recycle” is the new way of looking at products: if you don’t need it, you refuse; if you buy it, you will use it again and again; and in the end, you recycle it. All packaging is made from three types of plastic or other new materials, so recycling is easier these days.

Agriculture has changed dramatically, as the new plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products have made it harder for traditional animal-based products to compete. Much of the land formerly used to produce animal feedstock has become available. As people in cities have started to value going into nature, tourism, hunting and angling now offer new types of income for people living in rural areas. Forests and nature are again spreading across the globe. People travel more in their region and by train, so air traffic has started to decline. Most airlines have switched to electrofuels, biofuels or electricity.

Best of all, because citizens have stopped buying so much stuff, they have more money to spend on other things. This new disposable income is spent on services: cleaning, gardening, help with laundry, healthy and easy meals to cook, entertainment, experiences and fabulous new restaurants. All of these things give the average modern person more options and more free time to spend with their friends and families, working out, learning new skills, playing sports or making art – you name it and there’s more time to do it.

If we consider what the future could be, picking up the mantle against climate change may not seem so bad after all.