Events

Urban Crime and Violence

March 21, 2007 // 9:00am12:00pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
Brazil Institute
Mexico Institute

On March 21, 2007 the Comparative Urban Studies Program hosted a seminar to discuss research and activity emerging in the field about the causes, costs and consequences of urban violence, highlighting innovative policy responses to the problem.

Rubem Cesar Fernandes, anthropologist and director of Viva Rio, discussed the work of his organization to overcome violence and social exclusion throughout Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by engaging with the local community. First, he discussed a program that targets high school dropouts, helping to re-enroll troubled youth back into school. More than 100,000 young people have benefited from this program and are prepared with job-training skills. In spite of the program's success, it has been difficult to convince centrally financed public schools to make the program part of its official education policy, he acknowledged.

Fernandes detailed a Viva Rio program to control small arms violence by working with local police systems to put together a database that helps trace guns to shops that sell to youth, the primary risk group involved with armed violence. Fernandes described a communication system that tracks weapons to owners and sellers. Ammunition is marked by 1,000 rounds; and a move to 50 rounds is now under debate. This is a concrete example of using producer information to achieve results at the local level. Another success of this program was a police military conference that produced important police reforms and community policing. "The police and the state control guns so we need to work with them to make changes happen," said Fernandes.

Fernandes described a model program funded by The Inter-American Development Bank that would allow favelas or the informal settlements to gain more access to the city. The program seeks to urbanize favelas, opening access and allowing for internal paths of communication. The project concentrates on creating open spaces within favelas that give traders and street vendors opportunities to create an economy. While many experts think the favelas should "go away," instead they've kept growing. The solution is to turn favelas into neighborhoods and integrate them into the city rather than keeping them apart.

Finally, Fernandes reflected upon his recent work in the neighborhood of Bel Air, Port au Prince, Haiti, addressing the challenges of achieving continuity for long-term projects within the context of state instability.


Caroline Moser, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, discussed her research on the impact of violence and insecurity on the lives of the poor in Colombia, Guatemala and Ecuador. While the scale of urban violence in Latin America varies among cities and countries, the phenomenon is linked to inequality and exclusion rather than poverty, and is commonly associated with urban growth rates, not city size. Moser outlined how participatory methodologies to understand urban violence examine what communities themselves perceive as having the greatest impact on their lives. To influence policymakers, researchers need to quantify the qualitative facts and identify different types of violence. Moser presented a comparison between Guatemala and Colombia where empirical evidence showcases the interrelationships between different types of violence. "In Colombia, 9 urban communities identified 25 types of violence on average and one community identified 60 types."

Moser argued that family violence is "where everything starts." Intra-family violence leads to insecurity, followed by social mistrust, lack of unity, fear, and delinquency. The interrelationships among different types of violence illustrate the structural issues of power and powerlessness that combine with individual problems of identity and agency pointing to the root causes of violence and insecurity. Moser detailed the negative impact on the lives of the urban poor as a result of the direct economic costs they suffer from deaths in the family; indirect social costs as the rich separate themselves living in fortified enclaves with high fences and surveillance; and the costs of erosion of capabilities and the capital assets of the poor.

Moser also discussed the impact of violence on social capital. She defined productive social capital as generating benefits and development for the entire community as a public good. Perverse social capital, on the other hand, damages the community but generates a benefit for those in the relevant organization (gangs, etc.). Moser's institutional mappings of Colombia suggested that 1 in 5 membership institutions generate perverse social capital (gangs, militias) while women and childcare groups were the most trusted membership organizations. Violence related membership organizations were least trusted, followed by state institutions, such as the police and the judiciary.

Moser addressed future challenges to combating urban crime and violence in Latin America, noting a universal lack of confidence in state capacity to control or prevent crime. The structural problems of police and judiciary systems not only add to the violence, but also create deep mistrust among citizens. The rapid expansion of non-state forms of social governance, such as the privatization of security, will continue to instill fear and insecurity in the mind-sets of many. Local communities must be consulted to help combat these social problems, concluded Moser. Integrated approaches that recognize the plurality of actors and the complexity of the problems are needed to tackle the multidimensional nature of violence.

Diane Davis, professor of political sociology and associate dean in the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), discussed the impact of urban violence on the quality of life and future in Latin American cities. She described a new version of violence and criminality that swept over Latin America in the mid 1990s. Drawing from her research on police corruption and impunity in Mexico City, Davis described the contribution of police to violence and the subsequent rise in private security. Urging the need to consider short and long term solutions, Davis outlined four areas in which positive consequences of violence could be identified: social; spatial; economic; and political.

The social consequences of violence materialize in fear, privatization and increased support for heavy handed protection. These trends have created new incentives for social mobilization. Positive aspects can be seen in the invigoration of neighborhoods as the focus of action. As a consequence of crime, there is increased citizen participation; more interaction with the police; new women's and children's organizations; and new alliances between the urban middle class and poor.

Within the spatial and physical realm, the negatives are commonly known as less public space; the atomization of the city; the rise of gated communities; and the proliferation of suburban enclaves and sprawl threatening the environmental sustainability of Latin America's cities. However, positive aspects can be found within new schemes of urban reinvestment and real estate development; up-scaling and renovation of neighborhoods; investment in infrastructure and services; global investment in downtowns contributing to the economy; and high technology and experimental innovations with new types of housing and the recovery of public space.

The negative economic consequences of violence include less direct foreign investment, illegal trade and the rise of the informal sector. These negative consequences result in a distortion of the economy because revenue does not return to the state. However, Davis pointed to positives outcomes: new applications of technology; new investment; the development of the private sector; and the growth of the private security industry.

Considering the political consequences of violence, the negative impact includes the disjuncture among territorial organizations; conflict between state actors; and cynicism toward political parties and state institutions. The positives include competition between political parties to deal with violence, which can drive new governance schemes and set the stage for urban autonomy to address problems in traditionally centralized states. New horizontal alliances between the public and private sectors are also occurring at the city level.

Overall, the balance is neither positive nor negative, concluded Davis, emphasizing the need for calibration and integration. Work at the community level does not do enough, she argued. Policy actions to reduce crime and violence must take into consideration large urban scales, spatial interconnections, and sectoral tradeoffs to balance metropolitan planning.

 
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