We can agree that citizen participation is necessary to improve security in cities: it gives project managers first-hand information about what problems are identified by city dwellers and their priorities, and produce solutions that are more effective, inclusive, and long-lasting. However, this is easier said than done. As many project managers can tell from experience, getting citizens to participate is not easy: sometimes citizens do not participate, and other times those who participate are always the same. Citizens can take the opportunity to express their grievances unrelated to the purpose of the participatory activity, and city makers do not know how to translate discussions into insight for decision making. And when it comes to security, The experience can be frustrating for everyone involved, particularly when it concerns a very sensitive topic such as security.
While citizen participation is all about openness, not all people are equally invested. Why some groups are more engaged than others? One element that explains this is victimization. Individuals who have had experiences of victimization are more likely to be involved in citizen-led initiatives or groups. In these groups, individuals connect with others who share the same worries and experiences, such as a neighborhood watch.
Yet...victimization is not the sole factor that motivates or deters participation. Tim Hope, a researcher from the University of Chicago, conducted a study in the 1990s to analyze community-based crime prevention strategies in the United States and Great Britain. In it, he observed the profile of those city dwellers that were involved in collective action: members of groups were less likely to come from poor, crime ridden communities, where there are high levels of suspicion. He proposed that the success of this approach would better be identified in relation to the “vertical” dimensions of relations that connect local institutions to sources of power and resources in the wider civil society. Project managers wishing to create participatory activities should consider the community’s power -or lack thereof- to engage in collective actions and pay special attention to them. Hope says:
The paradox of community crime prevention thus stems from the problem of trying to build community institutions that control crime in the face of their powerlessness to withstand the pressures toward crime in the community, whose source, or the forces that sustain them, derive from the wider social structure
In many cases, decision-makers tend to focus on individuals and groups who express greater levels of fear in surveys. However, frequently those who are more likely to be heard and more likely to address authorities about it do not necessarily representative of a situation of insecurity. Additionally, insight over non-criminal issues may be interpreted as irrational -particularly those expressed by marginalized groups-, and therefore, less deserving of attention, when in reality they are often affected the most by insecurity. Yet, they have a real impact on the way inhabitants use, perceive, and even transform their environments.
What city- and policy-makers can do?
- Consider that not all crime is reported, that not all violence is treated as a crime, and that small non-criminal actions (incivilities, for example) affect feelings of insecurity.
- Combine qualitative and quantitative methods.
- Work in small groups.
- Maintain a constant presence with the target population and territory.
- Collaborate with local actors that are well-acquainted with the spaces in question.
- Work with vulnerable or marginalized communities.