The independent resource on global security

Cities and security

Governments, no matter how large or small, are usually expected to take primary responsibility for protecting citizens in the face of acute threats to their security, and cities provide a particular set of vulnerabilities that are difficult to address. Nor are these vulnerabilities limited to the threat from global terrorism., The rapid changes in economic, political, social and technological spheres are changing the nature of the security problems that need to be addressed, and require new and different responses.

One of the most important trends seen all around the world is the movement of people into cities, which are expanding both their size and their importance. There will be more, and bigger, cities in the future. The Urban Age Project at the London School of Economics has tried to quantify the change. According to their findings, the percentage of the world’s population living in cities has increased from 10 per cent in 1900 to 50 per cent today, and it is projected to be 75 per cent by 2050.


Credit: Moyan BrennCities are becoming more diverse, as they attract communities of different nationality, faith and ethnicity. According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the number of people living outside the country of their birth is approaching 250 million and, while precise current data is lacking, the movement of people may well be accelerating.


As urbanization partly reflects choices by young people, who see fewer opportunities to meet their aspirations in rural areas, cities are becoming younger.

Cities are also becoming richer. According to the McKinsey company assessment, instead of 200 nations, 600 cities should now be considered the backbone of the world economy. Since they account for a growing share of national economies, and also concentrate wealth, in the future it is cities, as much as countries, that will compete for investment, talent and influence.

To compete successfully, cities will have to create an environment where people want to live, and investors want to place their resources. That means developing the infrastructure, services, housing, and environment that investors are seeking. However, cities will also have to convince investors and inhabitants that they offer a safe and secure living space. If effective strategies are not developed to reduce and contain safety and security risks, the consequences will be ever more serious, as the importance of cities increases.

A language to describe and discuss what city security means, both now and in the future, is currently lacking. There is a focus on national security, international security and, increasingly, the security of the individual or ‘human’ security. However, the discourse around city security—identifying its elements, its providers and understanding the ways and means of assuring it—is at a very early stage.

Certain elements from the more familiar security discourse might be present, albeit in an adapted form. For example, in certain parts of the world physical access control by security forces at the perimeter of cities is already a permanent arrangement. Changes to the way police forces are equipped and trained, and the increased use of a variety of private security forces, is also giving some city and local authorities quasi-military capabilities. However, these developments cannot, by themselves, capture the diverse elements that need to be considered in a comprehensive approach to city security.

City security also includes other measures that are intended to remove impediments to the development of cities, which are expected to be an engine for positive development. This could mean responding to major disruptions (whether man-made or natural) and also reducing more insidious threats to social cohesion and preventing the fragmentation of cities into many small, identity-based communities.

There is a growing community that focus on the development of urban resilience—the ability to predict and prevent threats (to the degree possible), to prepare, so that the impact of an unavoidable shock is lessened, to protect against stresses and shocks through regulation, administration, coordination and practical measures, and to respond effectively to stresses and shocks so that the disruption to the life of the city and its inhabitants is as little as possible and as short as possible.

Promoting urban inclusiveness is also an element in reducing the threat to social cohesion, by equipping cities with tools and methodologies that help an increasingly diverse mix of national, religious, sectarian, tribal, ideological, gender and racial identities to live shoulder-to-shoulder, without becoming fragmented or isolated.

Promoting urban digitization will also have an important security dimension, given that many public and private services that cities will deliver in the future will rely on the ability to both harvest and mine digital information. Information harvesting is the passive collection of data that citizens put into the public domain when they use digital devices, while information mining is a more proactive collection of data using features of modern digital devices such as location services. Citizens may not know how their data is being combined and used, or even be aware that the processes are taking place. To make the best use of technologies as they become available, cities need to win the trust of the public that data is being used to make citizens safer and more secure, as well as promoting more efficient and smarter services.

In conclusion, city security is already an important issue, and its importance is only going to grow as the urbanization trend continues. The role of the city in addressing the threat of homegrown terrorism is currently one central concern. However, we need to develop a better understanding of what city security is and how it can be promoted.


SIPRI is currently engaged in a detailed analysis of city security in its many dimensions. The process will culminate in a Secure Cities Conference, to be held in Stockholm in September 2016. 



Dr Ian Anthony was the Director of SIPRI’s European Security Programme.