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Peace in our cities

September 2, 2015

(This article also appears at

Peace is not just when people aren’t fighting: it’s when they have the ability to resolve or manage their conflicts or differences and make progress, without recourse to violence. This requires strong, functional relationships within and between societies. It also means people have access to political systems allowing them to influence decisions which affect them, to economic opportunity and justice, to the means to stay safe from harm, and to a decent living environment, health, education, and other services. It will be no surprise therefore if I say that peace is far from being realised today, and especially in places like Central African Republic, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, the Middle East and North Africa, Mali, Philippines, parts of India and the ex-Soviet Union, and in communities in countries such as Mexico, Honduras, South Africa and Brazil, characterised by violent crime. Peacebuilding is the art of strengthening and supporting the capacity to resolve or manage differences and conflicts in such places, and internationally.

Urban violence is all too real for many urban residents today, and accessible on international media for those lucky enough to live further away. We experience, see and hear of violence in Athens and Beirut where people protest against a situation over which they lack control; in Syrian cities divided and destroyed in war; in some of the cities in North, Central and South  America where the rule of law takes second or third place to more sinister forms of governance.

More than half the world’s population now lives in towns and cities, and we can confidently predict this proportion will continue to grow apace, as families and individuals seek to improve their prospects by leaving the land. This is of great importance to peace and peacebuilding. Why?

First of all, let’s not forget urbanisation has important intrinsic benefits for peace. Cities enable economic growth and development, the efficient provision of human services, collaboration in civil society, the breaking down of traditional ethnic barriers and identity differences, improved gender equality, and the holding of those in positions of local power to account. Cities allow a certain kind of freedom which is less evident in rural life – especially perhaps for the woman or man whose identity or status is rigidly fixed in the rhythms and culture of farming and pastoral community. It’s no accident that the word civilisation comes from the same root as city (as in Roman civitas). In Greek too, language holds interesting clues to connections: Aristotle saw cities as “places of virtue”, where people’s natural political tendencies (polis = city -> ‘politics’….) could come to the fore in ‘public (=political) life’.

However, Aristotle’s perspective was no more liberal than the advantages of cities are automatic. And the advantages of cities are particularly intransigent when a transition – especially a mass transition – to city life takes place. Indeed, such circumstances often lead, at least initially, to the opposite result.

The dislocation process itself can create or exacerbate conflicts, among people who have left some of their rural/traditional conflict management mechanisms behind, and have not yet developed a suitable replacement for them – or who aren’t yet recognised within the systems which exist in their new environment. Mechanisms for the control and guidance of young people often work less well in the anonymity of the city environment. Even where decent governance systems do exist – often not the case – these can be swamped by the increase in demand. Critically, the networks of resilience – the visible and invisible infrastructure – which link and support people and institutions, often take a generation or more to develop, as ethnic and rural markers of identity slowly erode and are slowly replaced by new urban identities which a modern-day Aristotle might recognise, and which help shape the city which in turn shapes its inhabitants. The ‘enablers of peace’ enumerated above – good governance, economic opportunity, justice, etc. – may be unavailable to many, who thus become frustrated, even angry. The opportunity to exercise agency in the social, political and economic spheres may be denied them. Among the results: cultural dislocation, a search for alternative opportunities and mechanisms, crime, gangs, shadow governance systems, and all-too-often violence within the home and outside it. Not peace.

Urbanisation and the urban environment are therefore of great interest to peacebuilding organisations like International Alert. Hence our decision to focus on Peace in our Cities as the theme for our 2015 Talking Peace Festival, taking place throughout September. This month-long programme of activities looks at our work, and at peacebuilding in urban environments more broadly, through a series of events: music-making, public discussions, technology hacks, art, comedy, food, and a photo exhibition.

This is an opportunity to showcase both the issue – the need for peacebuilding in cities around the world – including in “developed” countries like the UK – and our own work; to stimulate discussion about problems and solutions. The photo exhibition, for example, highlights work from four countries. It shows how we use dialogue to strengthen communication and collaboration across some of the sectarian divisions in Lebanon; how we have supported business, young people, and local government, to work together to resolve conflicts in Kampala before they become violent; how we are improving the understanding among policy makers of what drives young men from poor quartiers of Tunis towards terrorism, so they can do more to prevent this drift; and how we have helped improve the integration of young people of Somali, Pakistani and Iranian descent in London. All these are examples of developing the “invisible infrastructure” which supports peace in urban environments.

These are just four examples, and much more can and needs to be done, to smooth the transition of urbanisation, reduce the degree of alienation to which it too often leads, and enable the realisation of the benefits of living in cities for peace. The good news is, this is not rocket science: our partners in businesses, civil society organisations, music and art communities, and local governments – have all demonstrated that you don’t have to be a specialist peacebuilding organisation to make this work. We hope others will also join in.

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