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Learning how to make cities safer

 Karin Schermbrucker / UN Women

In the face of rapid urbanization and growing inequality, cities around the world struggle to improve security and living conditions for their people. Understanding the drivers of urban violence is crucial to finding solutions.

At the midpoint of a five-year program of research, experts working through the Safe and Inclusive Cities initiative are shedding light on what works – and what doesn’t – to make cities safer. This brief highlights emerging lessons from their work, along with knowledge gaps and questions that merit further research.

Uncovering the drivers of urban violence

In the context of poverty and inequality, early research points to a range of factors contributing to the rise of urban violence. By gaining insights into the dynamics that fuel crime or community conflict, researchers are pointing the way to practical measures that may help to prevent or reduce the violence.

Family and community breakdown linked to unemployment

Potential solution? Create opportunities for decent work and wages so that families can better nurture their children and strengthen community ties.

A poverty reduction program in South Africa is showing enormous potential for reducing urban violence, even though it was designed as a social safety net, not a crime prevention strategy. The Community Work Programme (CWP) provides work – and wages – to its mainly female participants, allowing them to better manage their households. Researchers are finding that this is also curbing violence, for a variety of reasons. By reducing economic stress on families, CWP wages may also be lowering the emotional stress on parents, enabling them to better nurture their children. This may be reinforced where mothers are able to live and work in the same community, so that children are better supervised. The CWP also allows local communities to agree on their own priorities for the work undertaken through the program. These have included strengthening social and economic conditions, as well as organizing violence prevention activities such as anti-crime marches and safety patrols. The ministry responsible for the CWP has endorsed the findings and is working with researchers to promote and scale up these approaches in communities beyond the research sites.​

Looking forward: Research gaps and opportunities

While research is ongoing, Safe and Inclusive Cities partners are beginning to explore how to build on their current research as they share early findings, discuss options with policymakers and practitioners, and work with local communities to make urban areas safer and more inclusive. Leveraging their work presents an opportunity for lessons from the global South to be taken up and used by cities in the North.

Teams have exposed a number of gaps in current knowledge. For example, they have identified the need for more sophisticated measures of urban violence ‒ going beyond homicide or other crime rates ‒ to help researchers and policymakers alike develop more nuanced solutions to the problems facing cities. This would give decision-makers the evidence they need to ensure that programs are designed to address the root causes of violence, not just its symptoms.

The varying roles of youth – particularly young men – in both perpetuating and breaking cycles of violence are only beginning to be understood. A deeper understanding of youth identities and motivations may help to generate programming that can direct them away from violent pathways.

City size is another area in need of focused research to shed light on the different challenges faced by small and medium-sized cities compared with megacities. Without such context, policies and interventions designed to reduce violence and inequality risk being ineffective, or even potentially harmful.

Partners also point to the need to integrate the perspectives of policymakers and practitioners by including them in research teams. This way, they can contribute to concrete and practical results.

Areas for further research

Measuring insecurity: How can we better measure safety and violence in cities? What indicators give a more meaningful picture of urban violence than homicide rates?

Engaging youth: How and why do young men and women become involved in violence? How they can contribute to its prevention?

Size matters: How are the challenges that megacities face different from those that small and medium-sized cities face? How do interventions need to be adapted to a city’s size?

Sharing perspectives: How can researchers, policymakers and practitioners work together to build lasting solutions to the challenge of urban violence?

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Poor access to basic services

Forced population displacement

Segregation reinforced by urban planning

Criminal gangs as perpetrators and ‘protectors’


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For project descriptions and research publications, visit the Safe and Inclusive Cities website:

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The Safe and Inclusive Cities initiative is a global research effort jointly funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) and Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Launched in 2012, it supports 15 multidisciplinary teams working in 40 cities across sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America to build evidence on the connections between urban violence, poverty, and inequalities.