March 23, 2016

Social Trust Essential to Balancing Safety and Security in Global Cities

By Kristin Ljungkvist, Nonresident Fellow, Global Cities

A man reacts at a street memorial following Tuesday's bomb attacks in Brussels, Belgium, March 23, 2016. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
A man reacts at a street memorial following Tuesday's bomb attacks in Brussels, Belgium, March 23, 2016. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

To be a global city is not just to be any city—it is to be a city of particular global importance. But there is a flipside to the prestige and attention that is aligned with the global city status. Approximately three out of every four terrorist incidents worldwide, and four out of every five terror-related casualties, occur in cities.  Events such as 9/11, the London and Madrid bombings, last year’s attacks in Paris, and now in Brussels have amply illustrated how the global city not only makes the perfect target, but also the perfect stage for the sinister and explosive narratives of terrorism. While we may instinctively respond with fear, exclusion, and militaristic security measures, global cities need to strike a balance between safety and security measures on the one hand, and building trust and promoting social inclusion on the other.

Fear in Global Cities

As global cities are centers of power they are also magnets for media attention. Densely populated urban areas facilitate extensive loss of lives, and damage to buildings with strong symbolic meaning generates high levels of anxiety for large populations. The various and complex function of the city can be undermined and disrupted not just by the attack itself and its immediate aftermath but also by the insertion of continuous existential insecurity. The complexity of cities also makes them ideal to conceal terrorist plots.

Concerns for security have led to increasing surveillance and expanded legal and physical measures, which in turn could entail a risk of a militarization of urban space. Military tactics and technologies developed for urban war-zones, in for example Gaza and Baghdad, are increasingly being used in security operations at international sports events and political summits in Western cities. The police forces in cities like London, Toronto, Paris, and New York have started to use the same nonlethal weapons as the Israeli army is using in Gaza; and the construction of security zones around strategic financial cores and government districts in London and New York make use of the same techniques used in overseas military bases and green zones. Western militaries and security forces now perceive all urban terrain as a potential conflict zone inhabited by potential enemies. Cities and metropolitan regions have even been described as the new battleground of asymmetric warfare in the 21st century.

This new security environment is, to a certain extent, built on fear. We are certainly experiencing a time of discontinuous change, urbanization, mass migration, environmental constraints, technological advances, globalization, and challenges to public health. But perhaps one of the biggest challenges we face lies is the increasing popular receptivity to politicians who prey on the fear of such developments. In recent years we have seen politicians on both sides of the Atlantic asserting for example that refugees are a major security threat and that unemployment can be addressed by stopping foreign trade.

From Fear to Trust

The popular receptivity to this kind of political rhetoric can be connected to the absence of social trust. According to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, a trust gap is developing between a globally informed elite and mass populations. Skepticism and low levels of social trust seem to be the very fundament on which the political rhetoric of Donald Trump in the United States and Marine Le Pen in France are being built.

Governments can no longer take the trust of the mass population for granted. At the same time, we have an abundance of research showing that there is a correlation between high levels of social trust and economic growth, societal security, community resilience, a vital democracy, and the rule of law. We also know that social trust can be built between communities and public institutions, such as law enforcement, while providing the opportunity for all residents to thrive and participate in civic life, making cities safer and more prosperous for everyone. Social trust is also important for cities when they are actually exposed to hazards, because it helps to resist, absorb, accommodate to, and recover from the effects.

Building social trust is a long term project that requires bottom-up approaches (e.g. engaging local communities and civil society), as well as top-down strategies (e.g. fighting corruption and discriminatory practices in public institutions). An especially important policy area here is education, but not only in terms of content. Well-functioning, secular and nondiscriminatory schools can help foster democratic values and trusting individuals. However, while there is no easy quick fix, there is also a growing recognition that certain contextual factors in police practices and ‘fine-tuning’ of police strategies may play a role in relation to social trust. This includes strategies around the appearance of the police such as their clothing, size of police clusters, and diversity of police officers (gender balance, ethnicity).

Social trust is key in striking the balance between safety and security measures on the one hand, and keeping the global city open and welcoming on the other. Managing fear—rather than management by fear—is central for the global city to be safe and welcoming at the same time.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

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