Advanced surveillance…good or bad for urban resilience?

Can the use of advanced video surveillance in the city enhance or detract from urban resilience?

 In the last twenty years a vast literature – both academic and policy focused – has developed around the concept of ‘militarising’ or ‘securitising’ cities. In particular it has focussed on the policy responses to the occurrence of crime, fear of crime and the evaluation of cities as strategic sites for a spectrum of increasingly destructive large-scale interventions from protest and riot to terrorism and war. These bodies of literature have developed alongside an ever-expanding interest in the vulnerability of cities against natural disasters (which is generally held to include human-induced risk from such events).

 During the 2000s these streams hybridised. They increasingly considered the ability of cities to continue to thrive against an ever-present threat of terrorism and disorder, to be achieved by building in resilient features to policy processes and practice and through the development of civic and institutional frameworks to deal with risk management. This was often operationalised as a complex, technologically-dominated response, particularly following the events of 9/11. It signalled a surge towards an ever increasingly resilient and militarised city with advanced digitised surveillance practices at its core. This occurred in large part through the extrapolation of surveillance within public and semi-public urban spaces, in particular automated, software-driven systems which in many case can provide a risk monitoring function (for example crowd control, the ‘spotting’ of would-be terrorists, etc.).  But, it can be argued it has also facilitated the automatic production and control of space and the further industrialisation of everyday life*.

 Surveillance and urban resilience are, in this context, intimately connected – a theme explored in detail in a newly released Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies which provides a state-of- the-art analysis of how surveillance has developed and it is now deployed in a variety of contexts utilising a host of techniques and technologies. In particular relation to urban resilience, the rise of digital surveillance in the late modern city is explored with the UK being seen as the global CCTV capital (although with others such as China catching up fast). Of particular importance here are:

  •  the explicit role the military have in advancing CCTV technologies and then deploying them in civilian contexts;
  • the enhanced role of the private sector in driving technological development and deployment forward;  and,
  • the increasing ability of surveillance to act as a sorting mechanisms to screen out ‘the poor’ or ‘undesirables’.

 This third point is particularly important given the mistrust that such overt surveillance can create between the police and particular ‘targeted’ communities. Perhaps ironically it is often the same communities that expensive community development programmes regularly target with urban regeneration initiatives and capacity building measures aimed at improving their resilience to shock. Urban video surveillance is therefore a double edged sword which can both enhance urban resilience but can also mean that some members of civil society will not wish to engage with emergency responders to enhance their ability to cope with a range of disruptive challenges. In this context the role and responsibilities of the urban managers of surveillance systems is crucial to ensure there is adequate consensus over its use and that the positive benefits for overall urban resilience are not lost.

 * see the online journal Surveillance and Society for a detailed expose of all things surveillance-related

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