Targeting terrorism in cities

‘Urban resilience’ – is it really the solution?

Lukas Davis

Government and governance, National security, Arts, culture & society | Australia, The World

4 June 2019

With the increasing number of terrorist attacks carried out specifically in cities, more and more policymakers are adopting the term ‘urban resilience’. Whether this marks a step in the right direction, though, remains to be seen, Lukas Davis writes.

Following the December 2017 car attack in Melbourne, then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull laid out a series of ‘special challenges’ – including wide streets, wide footpaths, and tramways – that the city needed to address in order to prevent such attacks in the future.

Targeting civilians in densely populated urban spaces has now become the pernicious norm. Violent attacks in cities like Melbourne, and more recently the massacres in Christchurch and in places across Sri Lanka, are further examples of how extremists have significantly altered their modus operandi in the 21st century.

These very low-probability but high-consequence events are designed to generate fear and ultimately destroy the social cohesion that lies in core of the world’s liberal democracies. As a result, a complex and evolving landscape, transcending the domain of traditional security services, has emerged for various practitioners, policymakers, and legislators.

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Not only are the usual actors of security processes – security professionals, politicians, bureaucrats, police, and military personnel – involved, but built environment professionals are now key contributors as well. Together, they must balance public interests with complex security considerations while coming up with creative responses to these threats.

As governments and institutions confront the complexity of security threats faced by globally connected cities, they have also increasingly been employing ‘urban resilience’ as a more holistic, umbrella policy response.

Urban resilience promises to improve the adaptive capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to grow even in the face of internal and external adversities. It encourages urban planning and city governance that allows individuals, local actors, and communities to respond to challenges through more collaborative and reflexive methods.

More commonly deployed as a response to climate change and natural disaster events, Australian governments and agencies engaged with homeland security, emergency management, and counter-terrorism have increasingly moved to implement resilience concepts in public policy. For example, the Australian government released a Strategy for Protecting Crowded Places from Terrorism in 2017, which seeks to mitigate the impacts of and increase resilience against terrorism in cities.

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In the same year, the Victorian government launched its own initiative to upgrade security in the CBD. This involved installing new physical protections across nine locations and additional CCTV cameras, as well as establishing a new public address system.

Built environment professionals are also actively engaging with design training and skills development in the areas of security, crime, and resilience.

Likewise, a number of other Western countries have integrated principles of resilience, defensive urban planning, and design into their anti-terrorism policy. For example, the UK established its ‘CONTEST’ policy in 2003, which is divided into four separate policy strands – ‘prevent’, ‘pursue’, ‘protect’, and ‘prepare’.

Similarly, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency has issued a guide for those concerned with city planning and design with information on how to best mitigate potential terror attacks through their work.

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Yet, for all its touted promise, the rapid implementation of resilience has come with much uncertainty. There is still much to be clarified around how different practices and approaches should come together to mobilise the concept.

Resilience has also come under fire for its politicisation, with several scholars calling it a neo-liberal austerity ploy that rescales and localises responsibility from the state to citizens. Others have argued that the term ‘resilience’, when utilised as a vague, politicised buzzword, can even help justify ambitious government spending.

As a result, further research and critical analysis are required – specifically, analysis of how resilience objectives are operationalised and applied. This will help identify whether these policies are better than traditional practices by being more future-oriented and adaptive, or whether they merely reinforce reactionary policies and the status quo.

Security solutions like these must be proactive and proportional to the ongoing threat of terrorism. They must also be considered as part of an integrated collection of broader urban resilience and security strategies within general policy. Finally, they must strike a balance between reducing risk and managing unexpected outcomes, while being mindful of other urban policy goals and improving liveability in Australian cities.

Resilience is an ambitious policy objective in Australia. Though the jury is still out on urban resilience and whether, over the long-term, it can deliver on what it promises, urban resilience policy-making is certainly likely to stay.

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