Cities are socio-economic magnets, sites of innovation, and a source of opportunity, but also of poverty, inequality and marginalisation.

They are also territories of primary strategic importance, where most people are currently living and where an additional 2.5 billion people will reside by 2050.

These trends will have profound implications for political, economic and social orders for generations to come. Research from the United Nations University stresses that ‘the future of violent conflict is urban because the future of humanity is urban.

If we want to prevent future violent conflict, we must prevent violent urban conflict’. In the face of this challenge, the Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG16) is to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. What approaches may help achieve SDG16 in cities?

Local agency

Local agency is key. People living in difficult places do not just wait for violence to stop, or for peace to arrive, but go about shaping the life of their community on a daily basis.

Doris Barreto, for example, works in a health facility in Catuche, a violent neighbourhood in one of the most dangerous cities in the world, Caracas.

Beyond offering health services for women and girls, Doris facilitates meetings between the mothers of murdered teenagers and their killers. This work is important because the mother and the killer live in the same neighbourhood and see each other several times a day. Doris ensures that the mother can live with less grief, and that the killer can live with less guilt. Due to the great trust locals place in the health centre, it has also been the space from which mothers of slain teenagers managed to secure a truce between two major gangs that has lasted over a decade.

Doris’s story also highlights that building peace and security ‘for all’ must be all-encompassing – it must include all perpetrators of violence and those shaping a violent environment. This means bringing difficult and unconventional actors into a political process with risks and opportunities.

The people driving such efforts are known as ‘insider mediators’, ‘interrupters’ or ‘transpublics’. What they have in common is that they are connected to, and trusted by, important local constituencies and that they can build trust in processes and outcomes where the formal authorities are too weak or illegitimate to do so.

Local agency is also key to achieving carefully tailored peace processes.

The Colombian city of Medellín attained a 90% drop in violence from 1991 to 2006 through a holistic strategy that implemented pacification and community policing, improved access to basic services for marginalised communities, changed the built environment and spatial segregation of the city, created jobs for at-risk youth, promoted social cohesion within the city, and improved urban governance for security.

In El Salvador, the truce between the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs between April 2012 and early 2014 saved at least 5,000 lives.

In Ecuador, Barrio de Paz projects worked at the community level to facilitate truces among youth gangs and to provide job training to gang members. The projects were credited with having contributed to a reduction in violence in Ecuador between 2006 and 2008, and to the peace between its two largest gangs – the Latin Kings and Los Ñetas.

In Libya, the towns of Bali Walid and Sirte developed their own ‘peace charters’ through consultation and dialogue with different groups in each community.

These processes can deliver important outcomes, but they can also be challenged as conflicts change.

Heavy-handed approaches

In Brazil, populist politics have brought heavy-handed approaches back into mainstream politics. Wilson Witzel, the governor of Rio de Janeiro, has advocated a ‘shoot and kill’ strategy to address violent crime.

As a result, police killings rose by nearly 50% in July 2019 in comparison to the same period last year, according to the Brazilian Institute for Public Security.

In El Salvador, the truce could not evolve into a broader social peace given the continued extortion by gangs and the existence of spoilers in all camps. In Syria, communities negotiated at least 35 local ceasefires between 2011–14, but these local responses were ultimately overpowered by the escalation of violence after 2014.

Trusted spaces are another crucial element to sustaining peace in the city. Anthropologist Dennis Rodgers describes his experience in Nicaragua of an encounter of rival gangs in a market in Managua’s gangland. The gang members noted each other in the market but did not kill each other on sight.

It is possible to plan spaces of encounter in such a way that fosters interactions between divided communities

This was because the market area was ‘nobody’s territory’ and therefore not part of the turf war between the rival gangs. The market demonstrates that even in the most violent places there can be spaces of exception that enable co-existence, interaction and relationship building.

Such ‘spaces of encounter’ – as Jane Jacobs called them – can come in different shapes and forms. They can be a health clinic, as in Catuche, or markets in Managua. Such spaces need to be constantly nurtured and maintained. From the perspective of urban design, it is possible to plan spaces of encounter in such a way that fosters interactions between divided communities.

Such encounter models of cities may be the ultimate realisation of the SDG16 in cities, yet they frequently clash with the interests of construction lobbies and private security firms that advocate for ‘gated communities’ – fenced-off urban developments with guarded entries for usually middleclass and elite clients. They are important realties in many cities and can turn walls that separate neighbourhoods into walls in people’s mindsets.

No single answer

Given the complexity of spatial dynamics and local politics, it is fair to assert that no single actor can achieve peaceful and inclusive societies in cities on their own. Thus, a shift in the narrative from ‘implementation’ to ‘co-production’ more aptly describes the task ahead, with different actors taking on different roles in the pursuit of an urban peace.

What co-production may require, however, is a new approach to how international actors support the implementation of SDG16.

It is much less about formal top-down programming and more about direct relationships that match the demand for expertise, know-how and capital for localised efforts to reduce conflict and exclusion. Such efforts are part of the trend for transnational relations to be conducted by a range of non-state entities rather than the traditional multilateral system.

This approach also connects to the trends of urban diplomacy in which city-level actors shape responses and policy frameworks on issues important to them.

After decades of globalisation, transnational connections have matured, allowing some entities more autonomy to advance their own international agendas in coordination with, or independent from, states. The pathways for achieving SDG16 in cities involve novel ways of cooperation within the emerging transnational networks for urban diplomacy.

Urban diplomacy key to preventing conflict in cities, Achim Wennmann, the International Institute for Strategic Studies