Safe Cities

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The Challenge

Safety has been defined as the physical, social and psychological integrity of a person. It is now a growing concern in many cities. Rising mental health issues, addiction, poverty, crime and violence are combining to create social disorder. Cyber-bullying and cyber-crime are increasing. Many cities also have to cope with the threat of terrorism and the impacts of climate change. Inequality is growing. Loneliness and isolation are more prevalent. The social fabric is fraying.

This is happening when cities are facing intensifying growth pressures on housing, services, and infrastructure, and are suffering at the same time from declining resources. At stake is their ability to maintain the quality of life of their citizens.

The city of Calgary is facing many of these problems. It has seen a significant increase in crime related to the economic downturn in Alberta, rising unemployment, and the opioid crisis. The Calgary Foundation’s Vital Signs survey in 2017 found that 78% of the city’s residents are concerned about poverty. Financial stress affects two out of three. One in four Calgarians describe their ability to find suitable employment as poor or below average.  And 61 per cent rank housing affordability as below average or poor.

Piecemeal spending to deal with rising crime and mental health issues hasn’t been effective. This is a complex challenge that requires a multifaceted response, and the city is collectively rising to the challenge. “We need to take a systems-wide view on mental health, on addiction and on crime prevention, and look at those things together,” Mayor Naheed Nenshi said. He appealed to city council in July 2018 to increase funding for existing services and implement new strategies. City council voted to spend $25 million over the next five years to support a new Safe City initiative.

The Need for Systemic Action

Calgary’s challenges aren’t unique. Cities everywhere are feeling the stress. Many have chosen to pursue coordinated initiatives that include social action, harm reduction, community building, programs for youth, and the design of natural and built environments that foster safety, health and wellness.

Initiatives target a wide range of outcomes. Social action programs focus on the root causes of crime and addiction, including mental health issues, family breakdown, poverty, and homelessness. Harm reduction programs reduce the damage associated with substance abuse. Community building programs aim to reduce isolation, discrimination and social exclusion; and increase community connection and social capital. Youth programs seek to enhance life skills, reduce bullying and delinquency, and increase resiliency in the next generation. There is a new focus on creating spaces that promote safety, increase mobility, provide affordable housing, and provide places for healthy recreation and play.

Community Mobilization Prince Albert (CMPA) is often cited as a Canadian example of what can be accomplished through coordinated community action. Created by Prince Albert police chief Dale McFee in February 2011, the program integrates the activities of the police service, local school boards, and the Saskatchewan ministries of Health and Social Services to identify at-risk children and youth, share information on the families involved, and develop shared intervention strategies. It is a key initiative in a provincial strategy in Saskatchewan called Building Partnerships to Reduce Crime.

The objectives of the CMPA program include:

  • giving citizens and families at risk the supports needed to build positive and healthy lives;
  • allowing youth to grow and be educated in environments that are free from fear and risk;
  • improving all aspects of social wellness, including a reduction in emergency room visits and school truancy rates; and
  • achieving a dramatic and ongoing reduction in levels of crime and victimization.

In its first year of operation, the initiative contributed to reducing overall crime by 11%, the number of public prosecutions by 12%, and emergency room visits by 11%.

New Tools to Increase Public Safety

While getting at the root causes of crime and addiction is vital, alone it is insufficient. Communities must also be able to respond to risks to public safety when they occur. Growing threats require a larger and more broadly-coordinated approach.

Cities are adopting technologies to increase situational awareness, and support an integrated response to emergencies. This includes a broad range of new tools:

  • pattern analysis and crime prediction;
  • video surveillance, gunshot detection, and perimeter protection;
  • identification technologies such as face and license plate recognition;
  • cyber security techniques like social media analysis; and
  • citizen alerts of criminal activity.

New systems enhance command and control through improved information sharing and coordination among agencies. They also enable mass notification of the public. The investments being made in these systems are significant. Spending on safe city technologies — video surveillance, remote sensors, data analytics, social media monitoring, body cameras, facial recognition, and license plate readers – was estimated at $5.6 billion in 2015. This is expected to grow to $8.5 billion in 2019.

The Challenge of Collaboration

The challenges in making cities safe are legion. When introducing new technologies, public concerns about privacy must be addressed. Special expertise is needed to implement advanced technologies and interoperable systems. But perhaps the greatest challenge is the need for collaboration. Orchestrating the actions of an entire system is complicated, and there are many silos that have to be bridged.

With collective will a community can choose the future it wants and work together to create it. The vision of a safe city is a powerful call to action. It promises:

  • strong families and healthy children;
  • empowered and engaged youth;
  • safe and inclusive public spaces;
  • vibrant participatory communities;
  • increased economic opportunity and quality of life; and
  • institutions that people trust.

This is a lot to aspire to, but it’s achievable if we act with strong intention. Author and social innovator Paul Born described the power of community in his book Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times.

“We live in community. It’s in our DNA. We need one another, plain and simple. Community shapes our identity and quenches our thirst for belonging. It helps us put life into perspective and sort out real danger from perceived danger. Community has the capacity to improve our physical, mental, and economic health, as well as our overall sense of happiness and fulfillment. It has the power to unite us all in a common bond as we work together for a better world.”

Safe cities are a powerful example of a challenge where true collaboration will make a difference.

Integral Strategy

Integral Strategy Network is committed to working with communities who want to use a more powerful collaborative approach. We have seen repeatedly what communities are able to accomplish when they use the Integral Strategy process to improve economic opportunity, health and wellness, social connection, and quality of life. The benefits are broad, significant, and highly relevant to the Safe City challenge. Integral Strategy provides new tools and new ways of thinking and working to tackle wicked problems – an approach that simplifies complexity, transforms intentions into achievable actionsaligns diverse interests, and finds solutions faster. The process:

  • Engages the whole system
  • Involves the people who will help to make the strategy successful
  • Includes diverse perspectives so the challenge can be viewed from all angles
  • Ensures everyone has a shared understanding of the goal
  • Creates a shared sense of purpose
  • Uncovers new strategic opportunities
  • Creates broad understanding of what will be needed to execute successfully
  • Helps participants see beyond the boundaries of their own roles and organizations
  • Increases creative collaboration
  • Mobilizes collective capacities
  • Reconciles conflicts in execution details
  • Moves from “us versus them” to working together
  • Creates a shared story
  • Strengthens commitment, accountability and ownership
  • Encourages collaborative leadership
  • Creates leaders at every level
  • Establishes clear line-of-sight between the work people do and impacts in the community
  • Learns through doing to improve results

Communities are stronger and more effective when they work this way. In fact, this is the very definition of a healthy community.

Integral Strategy Network works with organizations to help tackle their toughest, most enduring challenges.

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David Forrest

David is the founder of the Integral Strategy Network. He is a writer, futurist, strategist, and facilitator of systemic change.

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