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Illustration by Security Management

COVID-19 Pushes Cities to Revamp Overall Security Efforts

“COVID-19 has changed the whole concept of urban society,” said Fang Zhao, professor of innovation and strategy at Staffordshire Business School and one of the contributors to the 2021 Safe Cities Index from The Economist Intelligence Unit.

The pandemic shifted the nature of security in urban spaces, the report found, with remote work and commerce pushing digital security needs to the fore and requiring infrastructure to adjust to travel patterns and new utility demands. Agencies responsible for personal safety had to address a lockdown-driven shift in crime patterns, and unexpected crises—like COVID-19—pushed residents and officials to reprioritize environmental security, the Index found.

The study assessed 60 major cities worldwide based on 76 indicators in five main categories: personal, health, infrastructure, digital, and environmental security.

This year’s top five cities overall were Copenhagen, Denmark; Toronto, Canada; Tokyo, Japan; Singapore; and Osaka, Japan.

Cities with high income and transparency tended to rank higher on the list. 

“Income can help fund safety-increasing investments, but economic growth in turn depends on an environment benefiting from every kind of security," according to the Index. "The likely relationship is a virtuous circle.”

Regional differences also make themselves known—well-off Asia-Pacific countries scored better on health security overall, while European ones ranked well on personal security.

Health Security

While the COVID-19 pandemic uncovered myriad health vulnerabilities in cities worldwide, the Index said it is too early to draw detailed conclusions on its long-term implications for health security.

“Nonetheless, the need to rethink health system preparedness is already clear,” the report said. Firstly, cities should look at diseases and their origins as interrelated, while also considering populations as a whole—rather than in siloed groups. In addition, cities must integrate health emergency planning into urban resilience matters, which typically focus more on natural disasters.

The top five cities for health security, according to the Index, are Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Melbourne, and Osaka.

Digital Security

Digital security remains lacking—especially when 59 out of the 60 cities reviewed have expressed the ambition to become a smart city. However, only a quarter of urban governments have public-private digital security partnerships, and a similarly small number look at network security in detail in their smart security plans. 

"Improvement requires rethinking digital security on several levels: cities must see it as an investment, or at least an essential insurance policy, rather than an unproductive cost; they must understand that the nature of the technology requires a city-wide approach rather than one fragmented by departmental silos; and, finally, digital security—and especially protection of smart city networks—needs to involve providing the level of safety that citizens expect and demand," according to the Index. "Indeed, smart cities need to be built around what urban residents want, or they will fail.

The top five cities for digital security are Sydney, Singapore, Copenhagen, and—in joint fourth place—Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Personal Security

Many cities are trying to do more with less when it comes to personal security. Higher levels of social capital and cohesion are key, the Index reported.

“The resultant sense of connectedness, shared values, and community also allows greater co-creation of security with citizens," the Index explained. "The latter not only multiplies the efforts of city authorities to improve personal security, but it also helps define security in ways that are more meaningful to residents.”

The top cities for personal security are all European: Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Stockholm, and Brussels.

Infrastructure Security

Changes triggered by COVID-19—including greater remote work levels, increased digital commerce, and growing resident demands for sustainable urban features like services within walking or cycling distance—are unlikely to disappear, although they may diminish slightly after the pandemic.

The Index found that the leading cities for infrastructure security are Hong Kong, Singapore, Copenhagen, Toronto, and Tokyo.

Environmental Security

Low- and middle-income cities do surprisingly well in this category, potentially due to the fact that good environmental policies are widespread, and smaller cities have a better chance of uniform implementation of plans to environmental issues.

Wellington, New Zealand, tops the list for environmental security, followed by Toronto, Washington, D.C., Bogota, and Milan.