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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To prepare or not to prepare…

Enhanced preparedness for disruptive challenges is at the heart of attempts to improve urban resilience. In recent years municipal and national governments have sort to increase the sophistication of contingency planning undertaken by an array of stakeholders, intended to decrease their vulnerability to and increase preparedness against high risk events, be they terrorist attack or natural hazards.

On 11th April  2012 a large earthquake and aftershock struck in the sea off Indonesia triggering a Tsunami alert. The institutional response to these highlights both the positive and negative aspects of such contingency planning. In this instance there was no repeat of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the same area in 2004, casualties and structural damage were minimized and reports have highlighted the relative success of pre-emptive contingency planning in enhancing public awareness of the risk faced and the appropriate responses to take. The tremor passed without any immediate reports of casualties or major damage and was met with greater public awareness as a result of successful earthquake drills. In many locations evacuation plans and evacuation points had been detailed and clear signs put up with emergency instructions for residents and tourists.

The relatively recent 2004 tsunami which killed excess of 200,000 people had acted as a catalyst for pre-emptive contingency as well as educating local people to learn about what to do in an emergency. In other words, lessons had been learnt. The tsunami early warning system introduced in 2008 appeared to work well in most areas.

However, there are weaknesses still to address. Despite the Indonesian Government’s attempts to properly resource resiliency efforts, there were reports that many provincial areas felt they were not properly equipped or trained to deal with a serious tsunami incident.

In this part of the world – an earthquake/tsunami zone – where the likelihood of disruptive challenges is relatively high, preparation is a government and civil society priority. But where low frequency, high impact events are not deemed a priority this is not the case and this risk competes with other, more pressing, risks and can be inadequately planned for. Like it or not, the way managers and communites prepare for and ultimately respond to incidents is shaped significantly by recent events in a locality. For the public, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is often at the forefront of emergency preparedness. For emergency mangers this raises a dilemma: what risks do they focus attention on when multiple disruptive events are possible (albeit with different degrees of probability) and when financial and human resources are tight? Does this mean that certain risks will be ignored? In 2003 the Guardian newspaper published an article by an emergency planner commenting upon the changing state of the profession in the post 9/11 world where multiple threats and hazards were seen, new institutional infrastructure was being deployed, yet resources were not keeping pace with requirements. Here, the following scenario was outlined:

Consider: if you wanted to protect yourself from the ravages of misfortune or random chance what would you do? Would you:

  • Choose to ignore them and trust to fate and more fortunate circumstances
  • Choose to ignore them and trust that some passing good Samaritan would come to your rescue in the “unlikely” event that something actually did go wrong
  • Take the threats at face value and assume that they are as likely to happen to you as to the poor unfortunate you just saw in the news?
  • Look around you and try to determine what the actual threats were?
  • Look at what has happened elsewhere and in times past and try to make a best guess at what risk these threats represent to you? And then would you buy the best insurance policy you could based on benefits and cost?
  • Try also to prepare yourself as best you could? or . . .
    -Would you simply throw money at a situation you would want to avoid if at all possible?

Planning for urban resilience is not a simple task. It is not just a matter of being prepared but of thinking and prioritising what risks you are enhancing resilience against and then intervening appropriately. This is easier said than done, but ignore at your peril!

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Urban Resilience and ‘the event’

What can the disruptive protest at this weekend’s University boat race tell us about resilience planning in London ahead of the 2012 Games?

On Saturday 7th April a lone protester, Trenton Oldfield, disrupted the annual Oxford versus Cambridge boat race on the River Thames in London by swimming, unchallenged, into the path of the onrushing boats. Immediately connections were made between the ease by which one person could disrupt a high profile event and the upcoming 2012 Summer Olympiad in London amidst fears it could suffer from similar, or worse, disruption – see for example the Observer’s Olympic security fear piece.

Lockdown security has sadly become a leitmotif of contemporary high profile events such as the Olympics with the type of security operation and resilience planning put in place before, during and after the event telling us a lot about the security culture in a particular country. Such events showcase urban resilience capacity (albeit on a temporary basis)  providing an indication of the preparedness of the host city to pre-plan for a range of likely, or indeed improbable, security incidents. As Colin Bennett and Kevin Haggerty’s excellent Security Games edited collection (2011) highlighted, mega events have become the ultimate experiments in the pervasive monitoring of people and places.

Security planning will not only highlight urban resilience but also showcase urban vulnerability. In the case of London, and other cities hosting large scale events, this is most noticeable when dealing with large public gatherings where a balance has to be struck between punitive security and freedom of movement – what one 2012 organiser referred to as ‘customer sensitive security’. Whereas for London 2012, securing the main Olympic park area, already fenced off in Island security mode, might be relatively straight forward, what about the softer targets that present themselves to would-be intruders, or in the worst-case scenario, terrorists? The crowded public places in which people will gather to watch Olympic events such as the marathon or the pre-event torch relay, even with thousands of police on patrol, will be impossible to secure completely. In such a scenario, planning is currently ongoing in London to assess how authorities might respond to, and bounce-back from, such threats should they become a reality.

As recent work has noted, no city is better prepared than London to cope with the myriad of possible disruptive challenges during the Olympic Games, given its long history of resilience planning for terrorism stretching back to the 1970s, but this is no time for complacency. Despite the ongoing work of the London Resilience Partnership which emphasises the thinking through of all possible scenarios (and some unthinkable ones), and attempting as far as possible to minimise the risk to athletes and spectators, the potential for security breaches and protests, (as evidenced by the Boat Race), to disrupt the Games remains high. August in East London will no doubt be a nervous time for competing athletes and security professionals alike.

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Urban Resilience and Fuel Shortages

What do fuel shortages have to do with urban resilience? Besides the longer-term implications of possible energy shortages, short-term shocks in fuel supplies have profound implications for everyday life and they way they are managed is critical.

In 2000 nationwide protests in the UK strategically targeted the transport network regarding the price of fuel. Blockades of oil refineries and go-slow convoys on motorways led to significant impacts on the national economy. These protests also led to critical questions regarding ‘who was in charge’ for coordinating the response within the petrochemical industry and emergency services. Rounds of privatisation, reorganisation and a general hollowing-out of the state had left a disorganised ‘chain of command’ without authoritative leadership. A reform of emergency planning procedures was long overdue.  An outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease and a number of serious flooding incidents in 2000–2001 highlighted similar organisational failings and prompted further reform.

It was against this backdrop that ideas of resilience emerged as the language of choice for articulating the need to improve civil contingencies against an array of risks. The subsequent events of 9/11, and the concern that key sites in and around UK cities would be terrorist targets, accelerated this process and made reform of emergency preparedness a key political priority and pushed the rhetoric of resilience into popular parlance.

In a week where the UK Government held a special meeting of its emergency COBRA (Cabinet Office Briefing Room A) committee in preparation of similar protests by tanker drivers have been threatened and ill-advised comments by Government minister have resulted in localised fuel shortages the language of resilience has once again come to the fore to describe how communities can cope with a  possible lack of fuel. This has in part emphasised the “adaptive capacity” of communities to develop coping strategies and to change behaviour in order to remain resilient amidst a fear of widespread panic. One commentary highlighted the need for communities to act collectively and resist alarmist rhetoric from both Government and media about the implication of potential fuel shortages.

These messages of caution and shared responsibility echo those emerging from research in urban resilience. These focus on understanding and developing adaptive capacity of governance institutions and communities and identifying how this might be utilised as part of developing a new ‘urban resilience’. And citizens are central to this. Community resilience is reliant on the active participation of citizens to make the state more resilient and only through shared and coordinated action can the threats and ‘conditions of uncertainty’ be managed to reduce collective vulnerability.

Obtaining community resilience is often seen as one of the ‘holy grails’ to secure to enable successful recovery. To do this the balance of resiliency policy needs to be reoriented away from an abstract analysis of deterministic legislative and technological processes. Instead it needs to be increasingly grounded in a more meaningful understanding of the way citizens experience the world, where coping strategies and enhanced social networks may be mobilised to reduce the negative impact of an disruptive event be into a fuel shortage, terrorist attack against a shopping centre or localised inland flooding.

Communities are central to urban resilience through the development of enhanced adaptive capacity but this evolution is fragile and is easily trumped by top-down and media rhetoric which highlights panic and uncertainty.

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