New approach paves way to manage violence in cities in the global South

News, 15 October 2014
Violence in cities across Africa, Asia and Latin America is here to stay and can no longer be seen as a problem that can be challenged and overcome through development programmes, says new research in the October issue of Environment and Urbanization published today.

"Paz" (peace) graffiti in Medellín, Colombia. The text to the right translates as "Mural in tribute to our victims of conflict" (Photo: Cathy McIlwaine)

Drawing on papers from countries including Afghanistan, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Haiti, South Africa and South Sudan, this more realistic approach could be a crucial step to enable those affected by urban violence to better manage day-to-day occurrences and to understand and challenge the structures which cause it.

The journal's editorial urges policymakers to recognise violence as an integral part of development and consider measures to reduce, manage or contest it, rather than trying to "solve" the problem.  

"Lethal violence and its associated fear continues to escalate in cities across the world. While it may be considered controversial, we need to adopt a different position on urban violence and recognise that it is not going to go away," says the journal's co-editor Caroline Moser, of the Global Urban Research Centre, University of Manchester. "Instead of trying to solve the problem, policymakers need to focus on empowering local communities to contest and confront the structural and political causes that lead to urban violence."

One paper in the journal sets out the most important emerging trends on gangs in recent years. It shows how working with groups at local, national and regional level helps to understand the complex relationship between gangs, their identities and what motivates them. Understanding how these groups are structured rather than trying to dismantle them has proved effective in reducing gang-related violence.

Another paper points to responses to gender-based violence that tends to be more frequent and acute in cities in the global South. This goes beyond individual measures, such as women carrying pepper sprays or learning self-defence, to collective solutions in which women work together to identify their right to live, work and move in the city without fearing the day-to-day threat of violence. 

"In cities, the response to violence needs to engage all key actors, particularly at local level. These responses also need to address the everyday violence which in most cities has far more impact than the occasional more sensational stories of violence reported in the international media," says Cathy McIlwaine of Queen Mary, University of London, who co-edited the journal alongside Moser.

In the past, it was widely thought that violence in cities could be addressed through added resources, or new policies that focus on increased security. This often leads external agencies to focus on technical solutions that are easy to implement but fail to tackle the structural causes of violence or achieve success. This has been partly continued by the arrival of humanitarian agencies in cities of the South who are now intervening to address violence alongside their emergency relief efforts. 

"The early optimism that violence could be addressed as a time-bound issue is fast disappearing. While it may deepen, transform and mutate into unforeseeable forms, violence in cities is here to stay," continues Moser. "With this in mind, we can move towards a more nuanced understanding of urban violence and a more realistic assessment of what can and cannot be done to reduce, better manage and contest it."

This issue of the journal comes ten years after Environment and Urbanization's first special issue on "Urban Violence and Insecurity". As well as this paradigm shift in the overall approach on how to manage violence in cities, this issue also reflects on aspects that have gained importance in the last decade.

A notable change is the dramatic increase in conflict in urban areas, with many cities now being primary sites for warfare. Although conflict has always been present in some form, it is now of greater critical importance in cities in the global South, which are increasingly defined not only by violence but also by conflict.

This issue of the journal provides new insights which could help those affected to manage violence on a day-to-day basis, as well as empower them to question and address the causes. 

Papers included in this edition of the journal entitled "New frontiers in twenty-first century urban conflict and violence":

  • Deconstructing the fragile city: exploring insecurity, violence and resilience
  • Visible and invisible violence and inequality in neoliberal Santiago
  • Security scales: spectacular and endemic violence in post-invasion Kabul, Afghanistan
  • Rethinking access to land and violence in post-war cities: reflections from Juba, Southern Sudan
  • Gangs in global perspective
  • Everyday urban violence and transnational displacement of Colombian urban migrants to London, UK
  • The "humanitarianization" of urban violence
  • Partnerships for women’s safety in the city: "four legs for a good table", and
  • Knowledge transfer on urban violence: from Brazil to Haiti 

See a full table of contents for the October 2014 edition of Environment and Urbanization.

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