Cristina Vasilescu, an expert in public policy analysis and evaluation, tells us what was discussed at the Security, democracy and cities conference, organised by the European Forum for Urban Security (EFUS) on the 20th-22nd of October. The event brought together over 650 actors from various fields (welfare, justice, education, urban development, architecture, urban spaces design, culture, etc.) to debate how to promote urban security nowadays. The conference involved 100 speakers in 18 thematic workshops, 12 focus sessions, 10 field visits, 3 plenary sessions. Debates revolved around two main topics: 

  • How to frame urban security? 
  • How to ensure urban security nowadays?

While the minutes of the conference sessions have been published on the EFUS website (Positioning section), this blog piece aims to share insights on some of the main messages of the conference. After a brief explanation of how to understand urban security and an analysis of the aspects of social life that can be optimised with the aim of ensuring it, it is concluded that restorative justice also plays a fundamental role in providing the necessary conditions for improving urban security, especially because it hands back from public authorities to citizens the “power of solving issues in their communities”.

conference poster

Urban security: a social issue

Nowadays security issues in urban spaces should be reframed as a social inequality issue. Social inequalities in economic, political and social life fuel resentment and lack of trust in institutions and politicians. Furthermore, they create fractures in social relations, triggering loneliness, feelings of exclusion and defence of one’s own interests. This, in turn, limits dialogue, empathy and interest in collective well-being. It is within these fractures and feelings of exclusion, loneliness and selfishness that dangerous polarisation develops leading to social tensions, radicalization, violence and crimes. Thus, in our complex societies, urban security is not about control, punishment and defence technology, but rather about social inclusion, equality in all areas, respect for diversity and human relations. Just let me tell you an anecdote in this regard. While in the EFUS conference room the impressive urban camera control system of Nice, able to scan every angle of the town, was described, in a restaurant in the city centre a waiter warned me to keep my purse near to me as I might get robbed. Indeed, we can have the most controlled cities in the world and people will still continue to feel insecure in the absence of a truly inclusive society where people bind to each other, acknowledge their diversity as a value, respect each other, feel recognised by the others as valuable human beings and feel responsible for their collective well-being. 

In a few words, urban security is about rights (human rights, social rights, political rights), social justice and respectful human relations. 

“Our response must systematically be rooted in the respect not only of the rule of law but also of universal rights. In other words, the universality of human rights must supersede any temporary political circumstance as indeed, security in Europe is based on the respect and defence of fundamental rights, the strict rule of law, democratic legitimation and the principle of the social welfare state.” (2017 EFUS Manifesto, pp.9)

Urban security promotion: a holistic partnership between rights, justice, inclusivity and participation

Ensuring urban security requires adopting a holistic approach to security that embeds cross-sectoral contamination and collaboration, as promoting urban security implies integrating policy actions in various fields (e.g. human rights, welfare, education, justice, public participation, culture and sport, environment, urban design and architecture). A primary action to be taken to promote urban security consists in ensuring social cohesion. In order to achieve social cohesion, policymakers and stakeholders should pay attention to providing all citizens, and in particular those at risk of social exclusion, with job and income opportunities, opportunities for personal development (e.g. culture, sport, lifelong learning), access to qualitative education, health, housing, environment and food. Particular attention should be paid to ensuring equality and equity in citizens’ access to them. Furthermore, the achievement of social cohesion is also rooted in the respect of human rights, the respect of diversity, tolerance and social capital. Formal and informal education, sport and arts can provide good opportunities to strengthen these latter aspects (e.g. UN programme Education for Justice; MOOC on Preventing and Fighting against Discrimination targeted at police in Catalonia; education in human rights implemented by the Municipality of Vienna; intergenerational walks in Salzburg). 
Increasing the representativeness of our democracies represents another relevant action in order to promote urban security. Often our democratic political and institutional systems are still not representative of the whole population (e.g. women, minorities, immigrants). Action should be taken at all levels of government to ensure representativeness of our democracies (e.g. introduction of the knowledge of the main languages spoken in Catalonia as a reward criterion in competitions for joining the police; use of positive discrimination for enhancing women’s participation in competitions for firefighters). Besides ensuring representativeness of our democracies, action should be taken also to strengthen the democratic experience in citizens’ daily lives
Embedding participation within the design, delivery and evaluation of all public policies, including in the security area, is another significant action to promote urban security. Promoting citizens’ meaningful participation (i.e. citizens’ decisions have to be embedded in the final decision taken) to the design, delivery and evaluation of urban security policies is essential for their improvement, social legitimacy and sustainability. Furthermore, citizens’ engagement in the decision-making and delivery processes also makes them feel more responsible for the well-being of their communities and contributes to building trust not only between citizens and institutions but also among citizens themselves. Several tools can be adopted to put the participatory approach into practice in the urban security areas (e.g. creating Dialogue Fora on urban security topics, engaging citizens in the co-design of urban security policies through workshops on security policies in neighbourhoods, specific commissions, such as for instance the Barcelona Safe City Commission, living labs, etc.). Besides engaging citizens in developing security policies, particular attention should be paid also to other stakeholders such as private actors in the security field (e.g. private security companies, voluntaries, private firms in various fields, such as for instance the commercial and the transport ones). Furthermore, it is important to ensure a multilevel governance of urban security policies. While both national and international institutions have a significant role in urban security policies, local actors (e.g. municipalities) are those closest to the citizens and are called to deal with social conflicts and tensions in their communities. The dialogue and coordination between the various levels of government is particularly relevant for designing and delivering policies that respond to local security needs. In addition, mayors have a significant role in building partnerships at local level between public and private actors in the urban security field, but also among less “traditional” actors in urban security (e.g. schools, cultural and sport organisations, urban planners). 
The way public spaces are designed is equally important for fostering urban security, as it impacts on people’s behaviours. Designing spaces to which people feel they belong to and that incentivise meetings and dialogue between citizens can contribute to fostering urban security. Several tools can be used to ensure that urban spaces are designed in a way that encourages citizens’ safety: e.g. Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (i.e. a multidisciplinary approach that promotes urban security through the use of the urban and architectural design and the management of the built and natural environments); the Feelings of Unsafety Lifecycle Model; Crime Prevention through Urban Design and Planning (CP-UDP). Whatever the tool selected for designing safe spaces, the design process has to be carried out together with the citizens and social and economic stakeholders living in the spaces that are subject to safety design. 

EFUS Conference 2021 autumn

Besides interventions focused on space security, the way people and institutions approach and deal with conflicts is paramount for fostering urban security. Mediation (social, family, in criminal matters, etc.) proposes a conflict-resolution approach in which victims and offenders come together to solve a specific conflict with the support of a mediator. Various models of setting-up mediation interventions exist, as there is no standard mediation. Mediation depends on the features of both the context of implementation and type of conflict to which it is applied. For instance, in Barcelona, a mediation service is provided by the municipality. The mediators are professional staff employed by the municipality of Barcelona and they act as facilitators for conflict management within the community. Each mediator is assigned to a specific city district. In Augsburg also mediators are professionals employed by the municipality to facilitate conflict management. Differently from Barcelona and Augsburg, in Bordeaux, mediation is a municipal service that is provided through local NGOs. Mediators are professionals provided by the civil society organisations with which the municipality collaborates. They are assigned to a different neighbourhood with respect to where they work and live in order to ensure their objectivity, but also to allow them to be able to reconcile their professional and personal life. Each mediator undertakes an analysis of the neighbourhood to which he/she is assigned in order to analyse the space and build trustful relations with the inhabitants. In all models mediators do not deal with all conflicts, but only with the most relevant ones. The selection of conflicts that can be mediated represents, in fact, one of the success factors in all the three experiences. Other common success factors are mediators’ capacity to facilitate conflict resolution as well as making participants feel recognised as valuable human beings in the mediation process. When it comes to outcomes, the evaluation of Bordeaux mediation services, the only model among those mentioned previously that embeds evaluation, shows a 40% reduction in conflicts in the communities where mediation services were introduced. 

As urban security is not only a matter in the hands of public authorities, but especially one under citizens’ direct responsibility, approaches that go beyond the delegation of conflicts to public services or civil society professionals and make citizens responsible for dealing with conflicts in their communities are needed. Indeed, the delegation of conflict management to public authorities has been considered as the “tragedy of the modern state” (Zehr, 1990), as people renounced their power to solve issues in their communities and, thus, to gain learning from the respective situation and grow. Restorative justice represents such an approach.

Restorative justice and urban security: what role for restorative justice?

Restorative justice can contribute enormously to fostering urban security as it has the potential to deal with many of the causes at the basis of feelings of unsafety experienced by citizens nowadays (e.g. fractures of social relations, loneliness, feeling excluded, lack of trust, putting one’s own interest at the centre of his/her actions). Restorative justice has a transformative power, as it does not only pay attention to the encounter between victims and offenders and to the reparation of harm, but it also identifies and deals with the causes beneath harm. Thus, restorative justice has the potential to unveil social inequalities forging harm. However, restorative justice does not limit itself to revealing social inequalities, but it also deals with them by encouraging citizens to take over their responsibilities in dealing with social inequalities in their communities, by making people accountable for their actions and by fostering active dialogue between members of the community (e.g. citizens, institutions, social actors, private actors) on ways to deal with such inequalities. In addition, it challenges people to apply restorative principles (i.e. respect for the others, dignity, mutual concern, solidarity, truth and justice) in their daily lives. 

Restorative justice bases its “raison d'être” on the fact that all people are valuable, have the capacities and the knowledge to deal with the issues that concern them and need to be respected for what they are, with their needs, faults and capabilities. In turn, this contributes to reducing people’s feelings of exclusion. Moreover, through promoting mutual responsibility and solidarity, restorative justice assumes that the well-being of a community depends on the care that members of the community as a whole have for each other. Through building relations that not only recognise the “other”, acknowledging and respecting his/her diversity, but also take care of the well-being of the “other”, restorative justice is able to contribute to the creation of a community attentive to collective well-being. Furthermore, restorative justice assumes that truth can be achieved only through the dialogue between each other’s truth. It acknowledges people’s need for his/her truth to be listened to and recognized and creates safe spaces/opportunities where active listening and empathic dialogue between community members can take place. Through encouraging empathic dialogue and by engaging people in just relations, restorative justice can contribute to recomposing social fractures. 

In this understanding of restorative justice, the focus is put on the collective “us”, on common good, on a shared vision of collective well-being and on the social responsibility of all community members. Through the dialogue between various perspectives and the promotion of a shared set of social values, restorative justice questions social injustices and activates integration processes that make social conflicts “productive,” allowing for community building and social cohesion. Indeed, in restorative justice conflicts are not seen as a barrier to interpersonal relations, but as an encounter and learning opportunity for parties involved and for the wider community itself. By bringing conflict parties and the wider community together to acknowledge the harm, to take responsibility for it, to repair it and reconstruct social relations within the community, restorative justice brings the resolution of conflicts back to people. This in turn contributes to reinforcing communities, empowering victims and including offenders, strengthening urban security. 

The potential of restorative justice to forging urban security lies, thus, in its capacity to build peaceful, respectful and proactive communities able to and responsible for keeping peace before technology and police. 

Some tips for putting restorative justice in practice

Some key aspects for putting into place restorative justice are: 

  • Acknowledge that conflicts are part of our daily relations and promote a positive view of conflicts; 
  • Acknowledge citizens’ value, responsibility and capacity in dealing with conflicts in their communities and promote a participatory approach to conflict prevention, management and mitigation as a value in itself; 
  • Pay attention to power imbalances and make sure that all citizens’ truth is heard, recognised and taken into consideration in conflict prevention, management and mitigation; 
  • Activate solidarity, active listening and empathic dialogue in the community;
  • Make restorative values and principles explicit and embed them in the process of conflict prevention, management and mitigation and more in general in the processes of community building and community empowerment;  
  • Train both professionals (of public and private organisations) and ordinary citizens in restorative justice; 
  • Overcome fragmentation and bring all components of a community (i.e. citizens, institutions, private actors, both social and economic) together to take jointly responsibility for dealing with social injustices in the community in a restorative way; 
  • Normalise the restorative approach to dealing with social injustices and conflicts in society, by dealing with “small” and daily injustices, and adopt restorative principles in daily interpersonal relations;  
  • Do not create separate settings for restorative justice, but embed it into public policies and services (e.g. welfare, education, housing, environment, territorial design, justice) to build restorative communities; 
  • Work with justice offices to embed restorative justice into formal justice procedures and processes; 
  • Engage spokespeople’ for restorative justice in the community, who are trusted by the respective communities; 
  • Engage local authorities as supporters of restorative justice and facilitators of the creation of networks for disseminating restorative justice within a community; 
  • Ensure adequate and long-term resources as well as the openness, transparency and inclusivity of restorative processes; 
  • Monitor and evaluate outcomes and provide continuous feedback on results achieved; 
  • Be ready to commit to a long-term process as restorative justice needs time to fully deploy its effects at community level. 
Cristina Vasilescu

Cristina Vasilescu is a senior researcher with over 14 years of experience in social research, public policy analysis and evaluation, training for public administrations and EU project design and management. In the last 4 years she has led the evaluation of COnTatto project, aiming at building restorative communities in the province of Como, and of several interventions for the social and labour market inclusion of offenders. She is a member of the Italian Evaluation Association and of the European Forum for Restorative Justice. She chairs the Working Group on Restorative Cities, where she also represents the restorative towns of Como & Lecco.