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How to protect fast-growing cities from failing

It is possible to reduce global violence around the world by 50% in the next three decades. But only if we focus on cities – especially the most dangerous ones. That’s the message delivered by Robert Muggah, research director of the SecDev Foundation and Igarape Institute, at TED Global in October 2014. The video was launched today on the TED website. Muggah was one of a handful of selected speakers to speak on the most pressing challenges of our time. Robert has spent the past two decades working in cities wracked by conflict, crime and terrorism. He finds that “it’s not so much nation states that are gripped by warfare and criminal violence but our cities; violence is migrating to the metropole.”

Robert is troubled by our cities. Not urban success stories like Shanghai and Seoul, but those that he calls “fragile cities,” quickly urbanizing cities like Nairobi and Mumbai. These cities concentrate disadvantage, suffer from spatial inequality and are witness to compressed forms of poverty and chronic violence. “Our cities – especially fragile ones – will define the landscape of future stability and disorder. Tomorrow’s wars and humanitarian aid will take place there. And the fight for development – global reductions in poverty, inequality and improvements in health and education – will be won or lost in their slums.”

Says Muggah, “we’re facing a stark dilemma, where about 600 cities are going to thrive and drive global growth, while hundreds more will stumble and fall backward.” If we start paying attention to cities teetering on the edge, he says, we can cut deadly violence dramatically. But we have to act fast. As social media explodes as a way for gangs and violent organizations to recruit, coerce and intimidate young unemployed men, says Muggah, “violence is going virtual.” What the world needs is for healthier, wealthier cities to partner with fragile cities, to share lessons on education and positive community building – because, says Muggah, “there’s nothing inevitable about lethal violence in our cities.”

According to Muggah, there are a few mega-risks that are making cities fragile. The first is the concentration of lethal violence in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The second is turbo-urbanization – the fact that 90% of future urban growth will occur in these same regions. A third trend is the expansion of the youth bulge – people under 30 years of age – in fragile cities. Another major risk is new technologies enabling more and more residents to engage in digital protest and real revolution. According to Muggah, “old crime is migrating to cyberspace, and it has terrifying implications for how we live.” These are just partial sketches of a very complex and evolving situation. These are not the only risks shaping violence in our cities.

Fortunately, there are five steps we can and should take today.

First, Muggah urges policy makers to start a conversation. He argues that we cannot ignore the challenge of fragile cities, focusing only on those global cities that work. We need to change the trajectory of fragile cities and account for multiple risks, not just one. He encourages mayors to partner successful cities with fragile and violence-affected ones, jump-starting a process of learning and collaboration to learn strategies that work to tackle crime.

Second, if we want to significantly reduce lethal violence around the world, Muggah urges planners to focus on hot cities and hot spots. In virtually any city, 1-2% of street addresses account for around 100% of violence. There are examples everywhere of how evidence-based policing has changed the game. One of the most inspired examples is São Paulo, which went from being one of Brazil´s most dangerous cities to one of its safest.

Third, Muggah recommends that leaders also focus on hot people – those most at risk of killing and being killed. Tragic as it is, lethal violence is often highly concentrated among young males – often unemployed, uneducated and black. This issue is about men and boys and we have to focus on them to get this problem under control. If we are going to break the cycle of violence – as many cities are doing – we need to invest in young boys and promote education, jobs and recreation.

Fourth, city leaders need to make cities safer, more inclusive and livable. Instead of reproducing exclusion, segregation and walls, planners need to build-in inclusivity, open planning and community cohesion from the start. The great example of how to do this comes from Medellin, Colombia, which went from being the world´s murder capital to a model city. Its mayor did this by implementing a host of measures, the most visible being the integration of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods with the rest of the city through a network of cable cars, public transport systems and first-class infrastructure.

Finally, city fragility can be reversed by harnessing the power of new technologies. There are examples everywhere of how technology is improving governance and participation in cities. Predictive analytics and mobile technologies hold enormous promise. Muggah describes how he has worked with talented programmers from Monterrey to Nairobi to find ways to crowd-source security solutions. More and more people are using their own smart phones to map out areas of safety and insecurity. In the future, smart cities will be safer cities.

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