The walled city once symbolized security. Humanity huddled in cities behind the barriers and moats that kept marauding bands and attacking armies at bay. In today’s cities, leaders may build airports rather than walls, but security is yet again top of mind. In these globalized but potentially dangerous times, cities – not nations – once again increasingly stand on the front line.
National defense will always be in business – cities don’t have navies or nuclear missiles and probably never will – but the greatest security threats these days are non-traditional. You know the list: climate change and rising sea levels, terrorism, cyber warfare, drug trafficking, violence, pandemics, and environmental degradation. All are global menaces that have an urban gravity and hit cities hard and therefore become problems for city leaders to manage.
The reason is no mystery. More and more people – more than 50 percent of all humans, more than 80 percent of all Americans – live in metro areas now, and cities keep growing. The sheer density, the increasing interdependence of city dwellers, the pressure on city services and infrastructure – all these aspects guarantee that any security threat becomes most vivid in an urban setting.
But if these urban problems erupt first in cities, the shock waves spread not only through their hinterlands but around the globe. Like major airports, cities are the hubs through which the world connects. Energy networks, water systems, food and waste distribution systems, shipping, trade, finance, air traffic, train and road complexes, flows of commuters and migrants, tourists and refugees, materials and commodities, electronic communications – all energize and link cities. If the hub breaks down, the entire system can be affected.
Among all cities, global cities – the commanding metropolises that run the global economy – are both strategically vital and particularly vulnerable. Any security crisis in these cities can echo up and down the economy. These cities generate an outsize share of the world’s investment, trading, communications, business series, and ideas, even culture. In the last century, to make an impact, enemy armies stormed a foe’s beaches and sent its tanks rolling across its countryside. Today, a terrorist can strike in the heart of a great city or hackers can target its electric grid and be assured immediate effect. In short, what makes global cities great also makes them targets.
Though cities today are targets of security threats, they also have the potential to be the leaders in meeting those threats. Cities are working together to prepare for terrorist attacks. No mayor can ignore a potential assault on electric grids or communication systems. Urban unrest must be met first by local politicians, backed by police and social agencies. Inequality is a challenge for local schools and business communities. And everywhere city leaders are preparing for climate change by building resilient infrastructure and planning for the higher temperatures and more violent storms that this change will bring. Pandemics can travel around the world as fast as jetliners can fly; these jetliners will land at hub airports in global cities, which must be ready to meet and absorb this threat.
Local leaders can act faster and more directly than national leaders. As they say, potholes have to be fixed, not debated. Local leaders are close to their constituents and communities and can tap local resources easily. Often, these resources – police, environment officials, hospitals, community leaders – are just a few steps down the corridor at City Hall.
Given these dynamics, national and international security organizations should give local governments the resources, institutional support, and autonomy they will need to meet the threats. Cities have the potential to serve as laboratories for political innovation. Yet in many instances there are institutional and legal barriers still in place that hinder city governments from developing new and efficient policies. For example, the federal system of the United States means that only federal and state governments that share sovereign powers, while local governments do not have any legal status established in the US constitution. Nevertheless, it is generally recognized that local municipal or county governments, as the level of government closest to the people, play a significant role in delivering services and addressing public needs. The legal principle of “home rule,” which grants local governments limited powers of self-government, should therefore be the focus in this regard. Home rule provisions give the local government power to select its structures and procedures without state interference. Since home rule has its origin in state law and not in the state constitution, the state can in theory fairly easy retract or modify whatever powers it has granted the city. But there are also legal barriers at the federal level. For example, issues of security clearance often impede information sharing between federal and local security agencies.
City governments generally need to become more vocal about what they need, and both state and national governments would be wise to listen. We should certainly not go back to the walled cities of old; instead we must strive to keep our cities open, inclusive, and democratic. But nor can we rely on traditional national securities systems to protect us against all threats. Once again, global cities are global bullseyes, and both urban and national leaders must recognize this and work together to manage the contemporary global security landscape.