Peacebuilding in the city: Responses to violence and fragility in urban settings

The Annual Meeting 2013 of the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform drew the attention to the ever more diversified nature of peacebuilding contexts. While peacebuilding within the United Nations has traditionally focused on the aftermath of armed conflict and at the national level, there is an ever greater need for peacebuilding in ‘fragile’ cities. The focus on the urban response connected the lessons from a great diversity of practice related to citizen security, urban safety, armed violence reduction, urban resilience, conflict prevention, and the transformation of gang cultures. Many city officials and local community organizations are at the forefront of these efforts and the Annual Meeting brought their voices to Geneva to reflect on lessons and options for supporting their work more effectively.

The century of cities

The 21st century is proving to be the century of cities. Already by 2007 more than half of the world’s population was living in urban areas – a first in human history. By 2030, 6 out of every 10 people will live in a city, and by 2050, this proportion will rise to 7 out of 10. Urban growth is first and foremost the growth of cities in the developing world, which now account for more than 90% of global urban expansion. It is also growth concentrated in “marginal urban and surrounding periphery contexts, especially slums”. Cities today are economic magnets and the source of real opportunity for many. They are also sites of great poverty and grinding inequality in access to services, including all of the basics – housing, schooling, health care, food, transport, security, and justice.

In many poorer neighborhoods and slums, concentrated deprivation goes hand-in-hand with high levels of urban violence. Criminal gang activity and street violence are not at all new to cities, of course. But the intensity and organization of contemporary violence in some cities and their neighborhoods invites comparison to armed conflicts. Analysts of “fragile cities” see the potential for chronic, quasi-war, forms of violence to spread to other city areas and intermediate towns where the state has lost the monopoly of force and there is a failure in local social contracts between governments and citizens.

What entry point for peacebuilding?

The rapidly evolving characteristics of violence are in a sense also a reflection of how the contexts of peacebuilding have changed in many settings. Cities are increasingly where the people are, and that increasingly makes them the primary site for the promotion of sustainable development. And sustainable development cannot be promoted successfully in situations of chronic violence any more than in the context of ongoing conflict. To quote The Report of the High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda:

We must acknowledge a principal lesson of the MDGs: that peace and access to justice are not only fundamental human aspirations but cornerstones of sustainable development. Without peace, children cannot go to school or access health clinics. Adults cannot go to their workplaces, to markets or out to cultivate their fields. Conflict can unravel years, even decades, of social and economic progress in a brief span of time. When it does, progress against poverty becomes daunting. By 2015, more than 50 per cent of the total population in extreme poverty will reside in places affected by conflict and chronic violence. To end extreme poverty and empower families to pursue better lives requires peaceful and stable societies.

This link between chronic violence and poverty underlines the critical need for practical innovation to respond to violence and fragility in urban settings. While much of “UN peacebuilding” practice is limited by the prerogatives of state sovereignty with respect to city-level efforts, there is clearly an interest and capability in the larger peacebuilding community to respond to the urban challenge.

Peacebuilding contributions to addressing violence and fragility in urban settings

Overall, the Annual Meeting underlined that the peacebuilding community can provide a specific contribution to responses to violence and fragility in urban settings by focusing on:

  • Small-scale interventions (e.g., small grants schemes and contributions to the work of local NGOs) to operate in a context-appropriate fashion;
  • Funding support to grassroots political leadership in conflict situations, while privileging research and learning exchanges in non-conflict settings to protect the legitimacy of local leaders;
  • Collaborative research platforms such as urban violence observatories and city labs for peacebuilders and urban violence specialists to work together in fragile urban contexts with local authorities to create bottom-up, tailored solutions.

This relatively modest agenda would draw on peacebuilders' experience and expertise that can be connected to the existing work of some UN agencies, especially on urban safety and governance. The principle role of international actors to catalyse and facilitate work on the ground complements contemporary peacebuilding field analyses - pointing again to the importance of the conversations around the comparative advantage of different actors in building peace in different settings.

Towards ‘city labs’ and UNHABITAT III

Following the Annual Meeting and responding to the needs of mayors and local officials, the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform and UN-Habitat Safer Cities Programme have decide to join forces with the aim to establish a presence of ‘city labs as pilot action sites within the framework of the Global Network of Safer Cities, championing knowledge exchange, learning, innovations and facilitating solutions. ‘City labs’ are understood to represent a space for experimentation and innovation for violence and crime reduction and prevention. About 10 cities in countries that have piloted the safer cities model or have expressed interest in piloting a national chapter of the GNSC as per first phase, and at the sub-regional level, within a city to city learning, networking and training process initiated by the end of 2014. Strategically, the joint collaboration is also connected to the broader process leading towards the development of UN-wide Guidelines on Safer Cities by UNHABITAT III 2016.

Dr. Achim Wennmann (achim@gpplatform.ch) is Executive Coordinator of the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform.

About the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform

The Geneva Peacebuilding Platform is an inter-agency network that connects the critical mass of peacebuilding actors, resources, and expertise in Geneva and worldwide. Founded in 2008, the Platform has a mandate to facilitate interaction on peacebuilding between different institutions and sectors, and to advance new knowledge and understanding of peacebuilding issues and contexts. It also plays a creative role in building bridges between International Geneva, the United Nations peacebuilding architecture in New York, and peacebuilding activities in the field. The Platform's network comprises more than 3,000 peacebuilding professionals and over 60 institutions working on peacebuilding directly or indirectly.

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