EUKN interview with Mr Martijn Neef

30 January 2015

Urban security is firmly on Europe’s political agenda. In the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attack and the pre-emptive anti-terror raids in Verviers, the EUKN interviewed Martijn Neef from TNO and Project Manager for BESECURE. This European funded project aims to strengthen European urban security by sharing experiences and practices among security stakeholders and urban policymakers.


EUKN: Urban security is a complex issue and involves multi-dimensional approaches and different stakeholders. What are the main dimensions of urban security?

MN: Urban security is a really critical topic. It is also far more complex and intricate than we originally thought when starting the project. There are too many differences in cities across Europe to give a realistic account of what the main dimensions are. From a research and knowledge sharing point of view an interesting observation highlights that whenever people talk about urban security, you first need to understand the background and the stakeholder’s role. For instance a policeman would have a totally different concept of urban security than a policymaker or a citizen. There are national perception studies in which numbers do not necessarily correlate to the relevant crime statistics. Pressure from the media and political quarters can influence city councils, however, their interventions might not target the actual core of the security issue.

As urban security is at the cornerstone of urban life, we analysed practices looking at the context, the issue and the practice itself. It is essential to keep all three under consideration when sharing knowledge. For example, in Belfast, riots are a recurring event, but this is barely replicable elsewhere. Therefore, a best practice is dependent on the context, the issue and location of the situation. As we have a specific objective, different than the one of criminologists, we cannot exclude any specific dimension from our analysis. We have opted for a broad categorisation along institutional, economic, societal and urban environment domains of the factors influencing urban security.

We looked specifically at different cities in Europe: Belfast, London, Poznan, The Hague, Naples, Reggio Calabria and Freiburg. We talked with local stakeholders in order to identify best practices in the field and understand the factors that started them. Based on that, we identified a taxonomy of dimensions, which was used to design our support platform. We created a set of factors, but we left it open because we think that others can be added.

Urban security from an objective point of view is indeed complex. Different scientific fields also look at it from different angles, therefore, from a practice point of view it is a very subjective topic. What you do as a policymaker subjectively can be very different from what you ought to do objectively. Some actions, for example, may have the objective of pleasing public opinion, rather than directly tackling the security problem effectively. An example would be the increment of police presence, which is a very visible action, and one that can serve political goals rather than effectively decreasing the crime rates in an area. A more objective and scientific approach would instead tackle the core issues. Urban security is an issue which is driven by local councils with limited terms in office, limited amounts of money but that want to show fast actions. 


EUKN: Who are the main urban security stakeholders? How do they partner? 

MN: We thought it would be a very simple question at the start of the project: for example, the Mayor’s office supported by police teams and social organisations. However, the governing of cities differs per country. The flexibility and freedom of each stakeholder also differs per city and per country. For instance, in the Netherlands there is not much room for non-regular parties to collaborate due to legislation and standard operation procedures, while in other countries there might be more room for innovation and alternative tactics. An interesting innovation and example of work from The Hague is the creation of the ‘Security House’, wherein the local city council, local police, the public prosecutor and social organisations work together to deal with criminal youths and failing families in an orchestrated manner Other cities will of course have their own way of working and collaborating with different stakeholders. In the UK they are a step further, there is the possibility for cities to step out of normal work relationships. For example, the Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association  is a social housing corporation in London Tower Hamlets that actually hires a dedicated a police unit. By doing so, the housing corporation that owns the real estate is also responsible for the people’s wellbeing by running its own police force. This scheme was considered a success in that they managed to decrease crime rates. However, a similar tactic would not even be possible elsewhere if the law did not permit it. The example in Tower Hamlets was an innovation that came from the housing corporation itself and influenced the local police. It made the housing corporation more responsible. Across Europe different collaboration models are being tried and tested. In Freiburg and The Hague there are collaborations with local cafes, bars and restaurants. In order to reduce nightlife disturbances the local police work in close collaboration with bar owners. It goes outside normal collaboration models: it is a different way of working but it is successful. The police have more eyes and ears and ultimately a faster human warning system. However, it only works if there is a mutual benefit and understanding. Similar tactics are taking place also in Naples to tackle the influence of the Camorra, the organised crime syndicate. The Police are teaming up with local shop-owners. This was an initiative actually started by shop-owners to signal their resolution by sticking “mob-free” labels on their windows.

Using all the evidence we collected during the project, we are at the finishing stages of building a platform, which can be used by anyone wanting to create a new intervention or policy. The idea is that people can be inspired. The platform will provide a library of document and policy data, which can provide step-by-step support for the design of a new policy. The point is to create evidence-based security policy proposals. We encourage policymakers to be more critical and evidence-based, so the platform offers options to link evidence to new policies, such as best practices from other areas, urban data or relevant literature or reports. For each practice, we looked at the what, the why and the where. 


EUKN: Depending on the motivation of the perpetrators, the approach of the responsible authorities to restoring urban security will be different. How are these approaches coordinated at different governance levels (I.e. City, National, European levels)?

MN:  We know that there is a strong need and demand for knowledge sharing in the field of urban security, not only at European level, but also at national and city levels. Investing in knowledge sharing can help at the local level as different force units have different methods and different neighbourhoods have different characteristics and issues. European projects should not be competing for better practices, but rather aiming to coordinate. To date, we did not see good examples anywhere of good coordination, but there are many efforts at the national and European level. Our BESECURE  project in itself, for instance, is an example of coordination endeavours in knowledge sharing but as a research project it still a long way from practical use. There are some attempts in the UK, the Netherlands and Germany, but so far nothing concrete. There are attempts to store and share knowledge on urban security, but they are either very focussed on a specific topic or too broad to be of practical use by professionals


EUKN: What are the common trends and disparities of urban security approaches between the different cases studies of the BESECURE project?

MN: We asked our local partners what their main priorities were. Our questioning revealed that there were issues shared between cities. However, they might not be the main priority. For instance house burglaries are a shared problem, but while it is one of the priorities in The Hague, it is not in Naples. That is not because they do not happen, but because there are other priorities. Common topics of interest can stimulate knowledge sharing. However, we did not identify issues, which were a shared priority among all the cities we researched.


EUKN: How can urban planning and policies play a role in fostering safety and security in urban communities? Did efforts to create inclusive communities in Europe help to achieve the objective of safer communities?

MN: Not all countries are innovative in this respect, in some countries where there is not a strong tradition of social organisation, there is not much experimentation. In Poland, for instance we have not found very innovative practices. Urban planning can help a lot, urban planners, for instance, were part of our team of researchers. Social and urban security, are issues now taken into consideration by urban planning. In the past this was not the case, with the building of high-rise flats leading to the emergence of security issues. What we have seen is that integrated planning takes into consideration security, but there is still a lot to be done. The regeneration of entire areas is one of the more common used tactics: in the Netherlands and the UK there is the strategy to just take down and rebuild entire areas of the cities in order to improve social conditions. This changes the entire face of neighbourhoods creating gentrification, that can be guided or self-organised. Creating the conditions to attract more shops and more wealthy people is a strategy used by urban planners to tackle security issues.

The strategy of social inclusion, trying to create a mix of different social groups, is not so typical for urban security. It has been used in some cases in the Netherlands, and was considered to be a failure. It was not designed specifically to tackle security issues, however, community issues did become a side effect.


EUKN: How can the recent events in Paris and Verviers be interpreted within the context of the BESECURE project?

MN: I believe that the emergence of terrorism as an urban issue will be taken into consideration by urban planners. For example, urban planning intended not only as physical architecture but also as the creation of facilities that can ease tensions could have a strong effect. Smart planning will also establish local municipality offices to represent the ears and eyes of the council in neighbourhoods. This will help organise communities. Creating partnerships between police units, shop owners and residents is complex but it is also an effective tool towards safety and security. Different organisations: developers, social organisations, planners and councils need to work together and agree on what they want to achieve. With specific regard to terrorism, I do not believe that urban planning can do a lot. It can ensure some sort of early warning of tensions, but unexpected radical events cannot be prevented by urban planning. What can be done is to work towards a stronger sense of community, with a higher quality of life in turn making citizens less eager to leave societal communities. We cannot recommend specific practices as differences are very significant. What we believe could be recommended is the implementation of knowledge sharing practices. These are difficult projects: the topic is complex and touches a number of aspects, including local politics and rivalry among cites. It is hard to generate interest in innovative practices to be shared at the European level. I believe that the EU needs and thinks knowledge-sharing platforms are important, and so it therefore needs to invest in them. It is also hard to attract the proper crowd, which means that it is important to create alliances among cities and countries. It would be useful for this project to have continuity, and one of the paths, for example, would be to use our material and knowledge for educational purposes and in learning how to deal with urban data. 


BESECURE Project Background 

The BESECURE project (Best Practice Enhancers for Security in Urban Regions: is an EU funded research project that aims to innovate the way policy makers use knowledge, experiences and data in their decision-making process and emphasize the importance of creating evidence-based policies in urban security. The project revolves around proven practices gathered from eight case study areas across Europe, and demonstrating that these practices can serve as the basis for novel, evidence-based urban security interventions. Through the case studies, we have amassed a wide compendium of interesting practices on various urban security topics. Furthermore, our research has led to a robust information structure that captures the essential dimensions of urban security practices as to make them transferrable in a meaningful way. 

The project’s primary instrument is a versatile platform. The platform consists of three interconnected parts: an inspirational platform, a policy support platform and an urban data platform. The inspirational platform helps policy makers to find relevant practices from other cities via an intuitive comparative matching strategy that matches the user’s own context and issue at hand with stored practices and associated contexts. The urban data platform provides easy-to-use data visualisation and analysis features, based on relevant cause-effect patterns drawn from gathered practices and established scientific work. The policy support platform guides policy makers and advisory teams through a stepwise design process in which each step revolves around the establishment of an evidence base, and for which content from the repository is offered. 


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