In terror environment, cities must find balance between trust, security

By Kristin Ljungkvist
Guest columnist
Updated 3/28/2016 4:08 PM

To be a global city is not just to be any city. It is to be a city of particular global importance. But there is a flip side to the prestige and attention that is aligned with the global city status. Approximately three out of every four terrorist incidents worldwide, and four out of every five terror-related casualties, occur in cities.

Events such as 9/11, the London and Madrid bombings, last year's attacks in Paris, and now in Brussels have amply illustrated how the global city not only makes the perfect target, but also the perfect stage for the sinister and explosive narratives of terrorism. While we may instinctively respond with fear, exclusion, and militaristic security measures, global cities need to strike a balance between safety and security measures on the one hand, and building trust and promoting social inclusion on the other.


Concerns for security have led to increasing surveillance and expanded legal and physical measures, which in turn could entail a risk of a militarization of urban space. Military tactics and technologies developed for urban war-zones, in for example Gaza and Baghdad, are increasingly being used in security operations at international sports events and political summits in Western cities. The police forces in cities like London, Toronto, Paris, and New York have started to use the same nonlethal weapons as the Israeli army is using in Gaza; and the construction of security zones around strategic financial cores and government districts in London and New York make use of the same techniques used in overseas military bases and green zones.

This new security environment is, to a certain extent, built on fear. We are certainly experiencing a time of discontinuous change, urbanization, mass migration, environmental constraints, technological advances, globalization, and challenges to public health. But perhaps one of the biggest challenges we face lies in the increasing popular receptivity to politicians who prey on the fear of such developments. In recent years we have seen politicians on both sides of the Atlantic asserting for example that refugees are a major security threat and that unemployment can be addressed by stopping foreign trade.

The popular receptivity to this kind of political rhetoric can be connected to the absence of social trust. According to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, a trust gap is developing between a globally informed elite and mass populations.

Governments can no longer take the trust of the mass population for granted. At the same time, we have an abundance of research showing that there is a correlation between high levels of social trust and economic growth, societal security, community resilience, a vital democracy, and the rule of law. We also know that social trust can be built between communities and public institutions, such as law enforcement, while providing the opportunity for all residents to thrive and participate in civic life, making cities safer and more prosperous for everyone. Social trust is also important for cities when they are actually exposed to hazards, because it helps to resist, absorb, accommodate to, and recover from the effects.

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Building social trust is a long-term project that requires bottom-up approaches (e.g. engaging local communities and civil society), as well as top-down strategies (e.g. fighting corruption and discriminatory practices in public institutions). An especially important policy area here is education, but not only in terms of content. Well-functioning, secular and nondiscriminatory schools can help foster democratic values and trusting individuals.

Social trust is key in striking the balance between safety and security measures on the one hand, and keeping the global city open and welcoming on the other. Managing fear -- rather than management by fear -- is central for the global city to be safe and welcoming at the same time

Kristin Ljungkvist is nonresident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. This essay was first published on their website at

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