Sara Pfeifer walks with a San Antonio Police officer during the point-in-time count of the local homeless population.
Local residents and police officers collaborate during the point-in-time count of the local homeless population. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“Safety governance” offers cities a holistic approach to crime prevention and security that is inclusive and respects the rule of law, according to a recent report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Safety governance is a manifestation of “good governance,” the notion that cities should pursue policies that are equitable and transparent, and always extend to the most marginal residents and neighborhoods.

Governing Safer Cities: Strategies for a Globalized World emphasizes that safety governance is about much more than achieving certain outcomes, such as statistical reductions in crime. Instead, it’s about creating conditions on the ground that can make urban environments safer.

That begins with the even-handed allocation of safety resources across entire cities, not just select neighborhoods. It also requires broader policies designed to promote the well-being of even the poorest and most disenfranchised residents.

“The term safety governance [as opposed to the management of safety] also implies a recognition that achieving safety relies strongly on building inclusive cities,” the authors write.

Published in December, the 49-page report is intended to serve as a safety framework for urban policymakers and practitioners.

Here’s a sampling of cities that have successfully implemented safety governance:

  • Lagos: Prior to 2007, Nigeria’s largest city was saturated with crime. But a series of government-led steps was able to make significant strides in turning the situation around. These included creating a Security Trust Fund and strengthening local crime watch groups. Lagos also overhauled its criminal justice system and demolished illegal structures to reduce blight.
  • Karachi: A private philanthropy, Edhi, that provides ambulance service citywide shares stats on violence with the municipality. “This data provides detailed insight into the nature of violence in Karachi, including its distribution and the causes of death,” the report says.
  • Cape Town: The Fusion project mentors gang members to help break the cycle of violence that can draw them to criminal activity. Troubled youths retain their gang affiliations but tend vegetable gardens instead of dealing drugs or committing other offenses. The idea is let the members express themselves positively through gangs.
  • Mexico City: Researchers who studied the most crime-ridden districts concluded that police intervention is not sufficient for troubled neighborhoods and slums. They proposed interventions designed to address endemic social challenges such as inequality, migration and a disproportionate number of households headed only by women.

A holistic approach to safety governance should combine regulation and law enforcement with community engagement and resilience, the report says. The authors caution, however, against over-reliance on enforcement that fails to account for the “root causes” that contribute to the fragility of cities.

“Local inequalities, marginalization, or exclusion have been shown to exacerbate rather than mitigate the drivers undermining safety,” they write.

Communications are seen as a highly effective tool, but only when used wisely. Many cities fail to reach vulnerable populations with their messages or identify community leaders with sway over local populations, the UNODC notes.

Another hurdle involves convincing marginalized citizens to engage in two-way interaction with municipalities to provide feedback useful in shaping policies and resolving problems.

Cities must play a pivotal role on crime prevention even when national governments already assume this responsibility, the report notes. Municipalities also must have the leeway to tailor security and safety policies to meet their unique needs.

David Hatch curates Citiscope’s CitiSignals feature – timely news updates on global urban trends and breakthroughs. He blogs about urban innovation at