Security in cities will be a key topic at this month’s UN World Urban Forum. But the UN and development organisations cannot make urban spaces safer on their own – local communities, armed forces and others have vital roles to play.

Bomb damage in Gaza. Credit: Antonio Sampaio, Research Associate for Security and Development

Urbanisation is a major global challenge affecting warfare, insurgency, organised crime and especially humanitarian work. The new focus on tackling armed conflict and crime in urban environments represents a particularly salutary change to global discussions on peace and security.

It is true that the subject did not loom large at last month’s World Economic Forum in Davos, and will not be prominent at the forthcoming Munich Security Conference. Instead, mayors, international organisations and businesses are exploring the issue largely in the absence of national leaders or ministerial delegations, free of much of the nationalistic rhetoric and geopolitical deadlock affecting nation-states.

From 7 to 13 February many of these players will discuss global urbanisation at the ninth United Nations World Urban Forum (WUF) in Kuala Lumpur. Attendees will include government representatives concerned with infrastructure, technology, sustainability, crime and many other issues, looking to implement recently agreed UN guidelines on sustainable urbanisation (the New Urban Agenda). The event boasts a strong line-up of sessions on security and related themes.

Security and the urban population explosion

Humanitarian organisations say that urban crises and their prevention have never featured as high as at this year’s WUF, with top-level discussions on sustainable urban development for peace and security, alongside other sessions on post-conflict rebuilding and longer-term resilience.

In 2007, the world’s population became predominantly urban for the first time. Urban dwellers are forecast to make up 66% of the global population by 2050. Most of this growth is expected to take place in developing regions, including many fragile and conflict-plagued countries in Africa and South Asia.

It follows that the postwar recovery of urban areas will become increasingly central to security and stability at all levels – local, regional and global. For instance, successful urban recovery in Iraq and Syria is key to preventing the resurgence of violence by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) and other sectarian militias present in cities. 

Tackling the protracted non-state threats behind many of today’s conflicts requires a clear focus on urban systems and policies. Local leaders and organisations can have a strong impact on security and post-conflict transitions in towns and cities such as those recently ravaged in Iraq and Syria.

So far, the urban security discussion has been led by humanitarian and development organisations looking to address the rising tempo of armed conflict affecting or taking place in cities. But national leaders, and security practitioners and experts, are gradually dialling in. NATO is reviewing its preparedness for urban operations and has stated ‘it is a matter of when, not if, the military will be required to operate in urban environments’. The US Army has warned it will inevitably be asked to operate in a megacity, and is currently ill-prepared to do so.

It is vital that international organisations and experts strive to manage current urban conflicts and minimise future ones in order to avoid the long-term damage brought by urban warfare, especially in a world of increasingly overcrowded settlements.  

Urban challenges call for holistic approach

The magnitude and pace of the global urban transformation has challenged policy and academic communities beyond the realm of international security. The journal Nature recently established a multidisciplinary expert panel on the future of cities, which concluded last month that ‘urban research grapples today with the same limitations [as] medical studies at their onset’, focusing on selective categories of disease and subject, and neglecting important cross-cutting questions.

The Nature panel also warned that ‘current urban research on pressing international problems is rudimentary and fragmented at a time when the window of urban transformation demands robust, sophisticated and truly global urban research.’

In this light, militaries, policy analysts and humanitarian organisations should be encouraged to develop new, joined up approaches to urban conflict. The IISS, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs exemplified this kind of collaboration in Geneva last November by hosting a two-day symposium on war in cities.

Discussions like those about to occur at the WUF would have a greater impact if they involved senior officials from foreign and defence ministries, armed forces, national police forces, and UN peacekeeping units and international security experts. It is vital that the full range of interested parties pays close attention to the ideas for implementing the New Urban Agenda that emerge from the WUF.

Back to content list


IISS Voices

The IISS Voices blog features timely comment and analysis on international affairs and security from IISS experts and guest writers.