On June 22, 2016, the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative hosted a discussion on “Cities in an Age of Insecurity” ahead of the United Nation’s Habitat III Conference in October 2016 and at a time when cities face increasing transnational security challenges.

Dr. Nancy Stetson, special representative for Habitat III at the US Department of State, gave the opening remarks, where she highlighted the importance of cities in combating critical transnational security issues, ranging across areas as diverse as food security and violent extremism. Dr. Stetson, the lead negotiator for the US delegation to the conference, noted that, in an era of national gridlock, local officials often can take quicker and more effective action to address these challenges. Building more effective and inclusive transnational networks, focusing in particular on city-to-city relations and policy exchanges, will be an important topic at the Habitat III conference in Uruguay, she added. Dr. Stetson finished her remarks by inviting other stakeholders to join her and the US delegation at the conference to better shape urban development in both the United States and around the world, and help counter security threats including violent extremism, climate change, and economic inequality.

Following Dr. Stetson’s remarks, a panel featuring Dr. Judith Hermanson, president and CEO of IHC – Global Coalition for Inclusive Housing and Sustainable Cities; Dr. Ian Klaus, senior adviser for global cities, US Department of State; and Eric Rosand, director, The Prevention Project; and moderated by Dr. Peter Engelke, senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, discussed building more resilient city-to-city networks, the need for more inclusive development in cities and urban environments, and how to better integrate city-level challenges within global governance frameworks.

A primary goal of the Habitat III conference will be to improve collaborative frameworks for addressing a range of issues, from climate change to data security and smart urban planning. Key stakeholders, including the US Department of State, will look to the conference to help think through future ‘resilient networks’ to address these challenges. The panel suggested that initiatives like the ‘International Visitor Leadership Program’, a State-run peer-to-peer exchange that provides professional network building, could be a model for potential city-led networks.

A main theme – of both the June 22 panel discussion and the upcoming conference – is inclusivity, both within cities (overcoming social inequality) and within city partnerships (including primary and secondary cities in peer-to-peer networks). Central to resilient development is the need for a wider array of stakeholders in state-led national security dialogues, especially as the threat of extremist terrorism impacts cities.  The panelists pointed to the growth of inclusive, city-led networks, such as the Strong Cities Network (aimed at information sharing to counter violent extremism) as a reason for optimism and a way of fostering city resiliency and greater partnerships. However, inclusivity between cities will not solve the lack of inclusivity within cities – as several panelists remarked, economic marginalization, leading to poor economic prospects, can make individuals susceptible to radicalization. Therefore, stronger efforts to include marginalized and displaced people, including the one billion slum-dwellers worldwide, in the economic life of cities is crucial to smart urban planning and greater resiliency.

The discussion concluded with all participants expressing that Habitat III offers the US government and its partners an opportunity to build extensive equitable networks, both within and among cities, and plan a smart and strategic urban development agenda for the next twenty years. Conferences like Habitat III also give cities the chance to communicate directly with national governments, and reinforce the commitment of all stakeholders to sustainable development. The Atlantic Council is looking forward to its outcomes and policy implications for countering threats in this age of greater insecurity.

Related Experts: Peter Engelke