Why violence is a symptom, not a cause of failing cities

megacities expert Robert MuggahWe are enjoying one of the most peaceful periods in history. Global violence is at an all-time low and it continues to decline. Deaths from war are at an historic low too. Yet there are some parts of the world, particularly inner city areas, where the number of violent deaths is rising fast. In his TED talk ‘How to protect fast-growing cities from failing’, megacities expert Robert Muggah explains that doing nothing about the rising violence in these cities is simply not an option if we want to secure a more prosperous and safe future for all.

Turbo-urbalisation

The world is undergoing a period of intense, fast paced urbanisation. Most of this is happening in the developing continents of Africa, Asia and in particular South America. Urbanisation is hailed by the western world as the spark behind economic and creative prosperity. But it is the sheer pace of urbanisation in countries without sufficient infrastructure, education and governmental stability to cater for the swelling numbers that leads to the situation we face today – fragile cities.

Karachi in Pakistan is a case in point. In 1947 it had less than half a million residents. Today it is a mega-city – home to 21 million people. It contributes economically but is in steep social decline and violence is increasing. Many South American cities have similar population growth issues, but they don’t have the economic prosperity and governmental stability that Karachi does have and so the problems with violence are much worse. 40 of the world’s 50 most violent cities are to be found in South America.

This is a complex, fast changing situation with many variables. Demographically, these fragile cities are mainly populated by young people, notably males, creating a ‘youth bulge’. Throw extreme poverty, drugs, mass unemployment and poor education into the mix and the result is a literal fight for survival.

Technology is going some way to bridging the gap. Young people are tech savvy and the authorities can harness technology to predict and control the nature of violence in hotspots. But it is a dual-edged sword. Violent drug cartels use modern technology for their own ends – for recruitment, product sales and punishment.

It is clear that if we want to experience true global growth and wealth for all, we cannot let these fragile cities continue to decline. We need to ‘start a conversation’ about how we can help these cities to reverse their fortunes and thrive like those mega-cities that have worked – Singapore, Dubai, Shanghai. Stability, education and economic opportunities are the key to this reversal.

Back to twinning

One idea is to twin failing cities with thriving ones. El Salvador and the city of Los Angeles are working together on radical new plans. Ex-gang members are mentoring current gang members, facilitating ceasefires and developing workable plans for education. The result has been a staggering 50% decrease in violent crime in El Salvador.

Focusing on hot spots and concentrating resources and education in problematic areas also promises dramatic results. Brazil is a fine example of how a country can turn its most violent cities around internally. Social investment has led to 65% reduction in homicide rate in Rio de Janeiro since 2012, and 70% in Sao Paulo. Tourists are starting to return. Residents feel safer.

Things are looking up

Statistics continue to show that uneducated, unemployed and disaffected male youths are the most likely to turn to violent crime. Focussing on this demographic is likely to yield big results too. And social cohesion, mixing the haves and the have-nots, has also been shown to increase the overall living standards, education and opportunities for everyone.

This situation is not irreversible. We know there is a problem, we know why it exists and we know we can help these cities turn themselves around from within.

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