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Security in the Age of Cities

RESEARCH Working Paper by Kristin Ljungkvist
Hong Kong's skyline.
Reuters

For an extended historical period, nation-states have held nearly sole responsibility for providing security, and they certainly continue to have the greatest responsibility today.

Key Findings

Cities around the world find themselves at the front lines of our most pressing global security issues. Today, terrorism, transnational violence, civil and ethnic unrest, organized crime, and cyber threats all have an urban face. Extremists attack cities to achieve maximum impact and criminals use violence to control territory. Hate crimes, demographic tensions, and lone wolves add to the disturbing trends and high homicide rates manifesting in cities. In conflict zones, cities tend to become the symbolic as well as de facto epicenter of conflicts with humanitarian and criminal spillover effects, such as human displacement and trafficking of people and weapons.

Securing our cities is emerging as one of the most important challenges of our time. For an extended historical period, nation-states have held nearly sole responsibility for providing security, and they certainly continue to have the greatest responsibility today. However, city and municipal authorities are increasingly proactive, and in some cases, are becoming security actors in and of themselves. This change brings with it uncertainty around the division of responsibilities between the local, national and international authorities. While local governments play an important role in both national and international security governance processes, it is not always clear what role, function, means and responsibilities local governments have in relation to other levels of government.

In some cases, the political structure of nation-state level government impedes the ability to prepare and respond effectively to urban security challenges. Intelligence communities are not set up to communicate easily with municipal forces, and local agencies typically do not have the security clearances they need to stay abreast of transnational threats. In response, cities are creating their own counterterrorism and security agencies given the problems associated with coordination across levels of governments. Cities are also struggling with the need to strike a balance between safety and security measures on the one hand and keeping the city open and welcoming on the other. Security concerns have led to increased surveillance and expanded legal and physical capacities. There’s a clear risk for a militarization of urban space.

About the Author
Nonresident Fellow, Global Cities
Council expert Kristin Ljungkvist
Kristin Ljungkvist is a nonresident fellow of global cities at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and an assistant professor at the Department of Security, Strategy and Leadership at the Swedish Defence University. Her research focuses on global cities, urban security and warfare, and on urban dimensions of global challenges such as terrorism and climate change.
Council expert Kristin Ljungkvist