Securing our cities

The city forms a unique security environment and should be recognised as such
Hugo Rosemont
19 January 2010

If conflicts are increasingly hidden, where do we now find the most serious security threats facing our societies?

The first update of the National Security Strategy of the United Kingdom published in June 2009 introduced a new approach to thinking about this question. It recognised that “it is important to look at how and where those threats manifest themselves in order to reduce our vulnerability.”

Developing its previous thinking, the Government introduced the concept of “threat domains” to frame how it is approaching the challenges. It identified three different types of domains: 1) “hostile and destructive capabilities” - a domain focussing on how threats can arise, one example being weapons of mass destruction, 2) “physical and technological domains” - environments such as land, maritime, space and cyber space where security threats can emerge, and 3) “domains of influence” - arenas such as public opinion or culture which affect the UK’s ability to act against the drivers of insecurity.

The identification of these new domains - or what might be considered here as hidden battlefields - is welcome news. In particular, the strategy highlights the need for the UK to take greater account of the space domain in so far as it relates to National Security. The strategy also takes account of the cyber domain and the Government’s new plans on this issue. While there has been some criticism of the document, the Government’s decision to develop a Cyber Security Strategy and recognize that a broad coalition must be involved in protecting against threats in this domain is encouraging.

However, while the Government is correct to identify “land” as a security domain, and argue that “there can be no simple map of how and where threats can arise”, it is surprising that the UK’s cities are not identified as important physical “domains” within the National Security Strategy. The document explains that, in the physical environment, “considerable attention is now being paid to the maritime domain.” This is important in view of the increase in piracy in recent years and the fact that the UK is a “maritime nation”. But in thinking about other physical domains why does the National Security Strategy not develop further thinking on the security of our cities?

Could it be said that at the global level a hidden conflict is how we are battling for the security of the world's major cities? Are we winning such a battle?

This is difficult to judge but it is an important question. This is because the emergence of new threats and trends suggest that we must think more about the security and resilience of our major cities.

Take terrorism, for example. If terrorists aim to inflict mass civilian causalities, are cities their ideal targets? This is an uncomfortable question to ask but recent trends suggest that the answer is yes. Malicious, continuous acts of terrorism have ensured that many of the world's major cities have become associated with devastating acts of violence. ''9/11", “11/4” "7/7" and "26/11" - afflicting New York and Washington, Madrid, London, and Mumbai respectively - are just some of the most infamous examples. While the UK Home Office is now placing a stronger focus on the protection of crowded places through its counter-terrorism strategy known as CONTEST, do we need a much wider recognition at the broader level of international security that cities need to be protected against a fuller range of threats?

The time is right to consider including “the city” as a security domain in its own right. This domain should be included in national and international security strategies, and Governments should develop strategies for delivering our cities’ security accordingly.

Why do we need an added emphasis on “city security”?

In addition to the specific terrorism threat, consider the contributions that the UK’s cities make to the economy. If we do not invest in the protection of London and its citizens, will the UK be able to achieve its economic security in already troubled times? Secondly, consider the arrangements for delivering policing in each of our major cities. Are we thinking enough about how the Metropolitan Police Service and its Governing Authority the MPA link to the aims of the National Security Strategy? Third, consider the security implications of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. These cities will find themselves at the centre of global attention very soon; are we investing in new capabilities that will provide security legacies for the future? Finally, consider demographic trends. The United Nations Population Fund predicts almost five billion people, 60 per cent of the population, will be living in cities by 2030. To deliver citizen-focused approaches to global security in any meaningful way, the protection of cities against a full range of security risks must be considered in security strategies.

International security strategies have hitherto downplayed the unfortunate reality that our cities and the citizens within them are facing very serious security threats. Security strategies should consider including “the city” as a major new security domain. Governments must develop strategies that allocate the appropriate resources to the protection of our cities.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData