How to improve urban security in times of crisis?

The ongoing corona (COVID-19) pandemic is perhaps the biggest crisis of our time. For many of us, the current situation and corresponding measures taken by authorities are disrupting our daily lives and (public) spaces. As the Urban Agenda Partnership on Security in Public Spaces we would like to contribute to the ongoing debate throughout Europe by providing a selection of good practices and share this knowledge as a source of inspiration and hope.

Citizens in Europe and throughout the world are expected to #stayhome as much as possible to flatten the curve. To slow the virus from spreading and protect healthcare system capacities is not the only challenge. Besides public health, the crisis also implicates the urban dimension and security in public spaces. As more countries, regions and cities are in lockdown, the way we use and organise our public and private spaces changes rapidly.

Although the crisis and the corresponding measures are affecting the way we use and organise our spaces, this could also provide new opportunities. Albert Einstein once said “in the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” We face an important challenge and choice, how do we improve the security of our (public) spaces in times of crisis? 

It is now up to authorities and citizens to decide how to deal with the current challenges and turn them into opportunities. Together we create the urban future and the ways in which we use and organise (and secure) our public spaces. 

Selection of practices
Before presenting the practices, it is important to mention that the situation in each country, region and city differs. The following practices are based on the inputs received from some of our Partnership members and present a non-exhaustive overview (innovative) initiatives and solutions. 

These practices can be clustered around:

  • Promoting social cohesion
  • Encouraging the use of public spaces
  • Preventing public gatherings and monitoring social distancing
  • Tackling domestic abuse
  • Protecting vulnerable groups
  • Leisure via internet
  • Dealing with disinformation and fake news

Promoting social cohesion
During this health crisis, promoting social cohesion seems to be widely recognized as important, in order to engage citizens and making both communities and public spaces safer and more liveable. 

In Mechelen, Belgium, the municipality is coming up with creative ways to bring people together and to improve the quality of life, even though physical proximity is impossible. In quasi lockdown, so-called ‘neighbour cards’ were introduced. Citizens can download these cards and hand-deliver them to their neighbours offering help. For example, helping neighbours (in a risk group) with doing their groceries. The cities’ Social Policy department also launched an online volunteer platform where people can sign up to offer help and enhance social contact. 

Similarly, the municipality of Madrid, Spain launched the campaign ‘time for neighbour solidarity’ and a platform, called ‘Madrid goes out to the balcony’. This campaign calls for solidarity between neighbours to alleviate the mandatory isolation of households. The city encourages anyone who wants to help their older or disabled neighbours in tasks, such as taking down the garbage, walking the dog and buying essential items. 

Encouraging the use of public spaces
Public spaces are generally open and accessible for citizens and prove to be popular locations for outdoor activities. Now that these activities or sports become more challenging, there are lots of creative solutions to stay active and fit. 

In Belgium, the government and National Security Council encourage people to stay active and recommends outdoor activities, such as walking. To support this national guideline, Brussels Capital Region decided to map parks and green spaces per municipality. In their view everyone should be able to enjoy public (green) spaces and get fresh air. On this map, called Brussels Gardens, people can find parks, forests and other green areas in the Brussels Region. This enables mayors to inform citizens about the availability of these spaces and guarantee safety. 

Preventing public gatherings and monitoring social distancing
In dense urban areas several authorities are increasingly relying on technology to prevent public gatherings and monitor social distancing. One of the main technologies used are drones but it is clear that an integrated approach is needed with actions on the ground. 

In the city of Nice, France, the municipality is using drones to remind and inform people on how to follow the restrictive measures in order to prevent public gatherings and monitor social distancing. The City of Nice uses drones in combination with initiatives on the ground. Small drones are flying over the city centre and main roads, transmitting messages, such as “travel is prohibited unless there are exceptional circumstances.” or “please respect the safety distances.” Throughout Europe, more and more cities and regions, such as Brussels Capital Region, Tuscany Region and the City of Madrid are deploying drones to support their law enforcement. 

The municipality of Mechelen in Belgium shows than an alternative, complementary approach is also possible. Mechelen place emphasis on instructing community guards, volunteers and youth- and prevention workers to make sure citizens adapt to the measures. This is being done by addressing and confronting people with (potential) nuisance behaviour and prevent people (especially youth) from flocking together. It also is the responsibility of these workers to monitor the accessibility and safety of public squares and parks.

The city of Helsinki also increased the amount of youth workers, both online and in places were the youth spends time. They discuss the safety measures and ’take the temperature’ to see how children and youth are doing and what sort of help they might need. Additionally, temporary bulletin boards were installed in popular outdoor exercise areas. These sites include playgrounds, play areas, skate parks, exercise areas, bird watching towers and dog parks. The bulletin boards remind residents to keep a sufficient safe distance even when outdoors and maintain good hygiene. 

Tackling domestic abuse
One of the key concerns during this pandemic is the increase of domestic abuse. Staying home is not easy and can become dangerous for women and people already living in a complicated relationship. When victims are confined with their abusers, reporting violence is even more challenging. 

In the Union of Romagna Faentina, Italy, the city of Madrid, Spain and the City of Helsinki, Finland information campaigns were launched to raise awareness on this problem. For example Union of Romagna Faentina organised the information campaign ‘Ma adesso io’ (but now me). In the context of the campaign, together with the member municipalities a day for women was organised with activities, such as performances, exhibitions, concerts and films. Due to the lockdown these activities were held online. Moreover, in Italy, an existing smartphone application, used by the police, was updated to help women in the struggle against domestic violence. Through this app, called YouPol, people are able to report (suspicious) cases of domestic abuse to the police.

In the cities of Nice and Mechelen, emergency call centres were set-up to support victims of domestic violence and offer them assistance. Moreover, Brussels Capital Region specifically set up a task force to ensure a strong response and to highlight the heightened risk of domestic and intra-familial violence in these times of confinement.

Protecting vulnerable groups
There are countless other practices focusing on supporting and protecting vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, homeless, sick, asylum seekers and people who belong to a risk group. This includes amongst others food distribution, home-delivery services, the reception of homeless people and refugees as well as helplines for (senior) citizens. The latter is a commonly used practice as well. 

In Helsinki, the helpline called over 10,000 senior residents during the first week of operations alone. A lot of seniors requested help with trips to the shops and pharmacy. These conversations also give the members of Helsinki’s senior community the chance to talk about how they are coping and how their daily lives have been affected. During these calls, the respondents are also asked if they need psychological support during these uncertain times. In the Union of Romagna Faentina, the helpline is also raising awareness among the elderly to prevent scams. 

Leisure via internet
During the lockdown, cultural trips and leisure are generally not allowed The internet seems to be the solution. Many practices show that leisure activities, such as cultural and music events, visiting art galleries and many more are made available and accessible online. Authorities also allocate funding to promote new kinds of activities. In the city of Madrid, currently in a ‘full lockdown’, the coaches of municipal sports centres offer free sports classes through social media (“I train at home”) and the municipality created an educational puppetry video show for children between 3 and 9 years old.

Dealing with disinformation and fake news
One development to conclude this article with is the spread of disinformation and fake news in the context of this pandemic. As this is a threat to security, authorities are also taking action. For example, Mechelen is trying to avoid online polarisation and including the youth through organising virtual meetings (and e-sports events) with the youth to discuss this topic and debunk disinformation and fake news with real facts. 

This was just a selection from the many practices that cities and regions in the Partnership are implementing. This list of examples is non-exhaustive. Besides these examples from the Members of our Partnership, there are lots of other practices out there. For more information contact the technical secretariat of this Partnership through

This article was written by Ecorys, the Urban Agenda’s Technical Secretariat, which provides the Urban Agenda Partnerships with secretariat support, advice and expertise. In the context of the Partnership on Security in Public Spaces our Partnership would like to contribute to the ongoing debate by providing a selection of good practices with regard to urban security in times of crisis.

The Urban Agenda for the EU addresses problems facing cities by setting up partnerships between the European Commission, EU organisations, national governments, local and/or regional authorities and stakeholders such as non-governmental organisations. Together they develop action plans to pass better laws, improve funding programmes and share knowledge (data, studies, good practices).

The Security in Public Spaces Partnership was launched in January 2019 and consists of 14 partners, of which 11 local authorities, 2 national governments and 1 non-governmental organisation. Other actors and observers include the organisations Eurocities, Urbact, UN Habitat and the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA).

13 May 2020

8 minute read