An urban planner and a counter-insurgency expert on why gossip is a good thing.
Both Peter Wynne Rees and David Kilcullen think that cities are safer today than they were when they were growing up. They attribute the awareness of incidents rather than rising crime rates to the perception that cities are becoming increasingly dangerous. Peter, who grew up in London, is the UK capital’s former planner. He now lectures at The Bartlett, the Faculty of the Built Environment at University College London, and firmly advocates that politics has no place in urban planning. David, who was raised in Sydney, is a security and counterinsurgency expert, with experience in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, where he used Twitter to map people’s movements during the Arab Spring. The pair met in London, where they discussed safety and security in cities and why cities thrive on good gossip.


Peter Wynne Rees: The secret to the management of any place is understanding where gossip is occurring and what is being said. Gossip is the only effective form of communication within a place. In the middle of the desert you have a watering hole, and people will go to a watering hole for two reasons: to get water and to get the latest news to take home and spread to their families. The city of London is no more sophisticated than that.


David Kilcullen: A lot of that gossip is now happening on Twitter or email, which you can use to figure out what’s going on in the street space. From a technological point of view, it allows you to have persistent virtual presence without inducing the observer effect. When you try to look at a city, you almost never see what’s really there, because it changes by the mere fact that you are present on the ground. But it’s an error to think that external, remote observation is the answer. Central London is arguably the most heavily instrumented environment in the world, but unless you have the ability to communicate with people in networks where they live, you don’t have an understanding of the environment.


PWR: The outsider has to become an insider. As a younger planner, I used to have more outfits than an undercover policeman, which allowed me to go anywhere in London, at any time day or night, and be part of it. If an urban planner doesn’t live in the community they are working with, how can they ever hope to provide what people want? I think that far too much emphasis is put on observing abnormal behavior. Abnormal behavior is almost always creative and hardly ever criminal. It brings vibrancy to our cities. It is normal behavior that usually masks criminality. If you want to find the criminals, look for the normal areas, because that is likely where they will be hiding.

DK: I fully agree. We did a study a few years ago on San Pedro Sula in Honduras, which is supposedly the most dangerous city on the planet. It has a murder rate of 169 per hundred thousand. For comparison, Baghdad at the heart of the surge was only 48. London is about two. It’s an incredibly dangerous city. But when you analyze the populations and the way that they integrate in San Pedro Sula, you realize that these murders are actually extraordinarily concentrated on a number of major transport routes into and out of the city. It seems counterintuitive, but the safest areas in a city are the areas that are controlled by the bad guys. Violence and crime occur in areas where there is contested space, where the government is in control and is reporting on what is going on. You don’t see violence and crime in areas where someone else is in control. It’s true of San Pedro Sula, it’s true of Mexico City and it’s true of parts of Bogotá. 

PWR: Tracing the problems back. That’s where you have to start. It’s the suburbs that are calling out for civilization in the form of densification, in the form of the creation of village centers, or recreation of village centers within them. I’m hearing a lot of news from Australia, possibly the inventors of the suburb, that they realize just how unsustainable and socially difficult these places can become. And they’re very keen to try to strengthen centers in suburban areas to overcome some of the problems. We can’t afford to have more and more areas that are only accessible by automobile. That isn’t sustainable, and again isn’t very secure. The most dangerous societies are those where people lock themselves in a bubble to travel between the bubble of home and the bubble of work. They’re not connecting, and they’re not interacting with their society. I think that’s much more frightening than places where people get around by subway or bus, or whatever it might be.

DK: I’d take that one step further even. Every year in São Paulo there are 75,000 private helicopter journeys across the city. What that is is rich people essentially opting out of the city entirely, living in these gated communities on the outskirts of the city that have private water, private electricity, private security, private health systems, and commuting by helicopter – literally in a bubble – to their office downtown, and then flying over the city on their way back. They don’t do it because they want to opt out of the city overall they do it because of the congestion problems and the associated problems with density. It creates two completely different cities, where the top of the social tree doesn’t interact with those at the bottom, and the result is a city that fails to cope with the pace and scale of its growth. That’s a very difficult situation to create solutions for.

PWR: We’ve got to give our societies a reason to come out of their homes. In the old days that was the church, the café, the pub. Those networks are breaking down in many societies. I think the nearest equivalent to that now is free Wi-Fi. The British Library was pretty much a disaster until they introduced free Wi-Fi. Now they haven’t got one square inch of carpet that isn’t covered by a student with a laptop, and while they’re there the library benefits from them using the other facilities. If you introduce free Wi-Fi selectively in your urban area, into key buildings and into key spaces, then you will attract young people. Yes, they’ll be gossiping virtually, but you’ll also find that they’ll start to gossip in reality as well.

DK: The creation of public Wi-Fi in certain places is analogous to those watering holes in the desert. You create a resource that brings people to it, because it’s something that everyone needs. We did some work on the Arab Spring, and one of the things that really struck me during the revolution in Cairo was that the day after the Egyptian government cut off the Internet, five times as many people came out to protest against the government. We spoke to a number of people involved in those protests, asking why they came out, and we got two responses over and over again: one was, “Before the government shut off the Internet, we regarded the protests as a fringe group. There are some that always protest, and we didn’t have much of a common interest”; the other was, “When the government cut the Internet off, they made it so that the only way we could find out what was going on was to go out on the street.” When you apply that idea to normal life in a city, it shows you that physical interaction and virtual interaction are very much interdependent. If you create environments where you’re deliberately trying to get people to converge and interact, you can do that for reasons that generate resiliency equally as they can generate instability.

PWR: When you bring large numbers of people into close proximity, there will always be some who want to disrupt what others want to do. The most difficult thing, of course, is deciding on the balance, because disruption can often be creative and be the thing attracting people to cities. London is where the unexpected happens every day – and that needs to be protected.

DK: That can be done by focusing on resiliency. I come from a military background, and the military talks about stability operations. Police conservatories talk about stability policing. The assumption behind both these approaches is that normal is stable and stable is acceptable to most people. But that’s just not true for a lot of cities. Take Dhaka, in Bangladesh, for example. In 1950 there were 4,000 people in Dhaka. Today, it’s roughly 14 million, and that is the minimum estimate. It could be as much as 18, depending on how you define the city’s footprint. Dhaka is growing so rapidly that a whole series of governments in Bangladesh have come up with designs to meet the needs of the city, and before those designs can be implemented the city has already grown beyond the point where it can be dealt with in that way.

PWR: Urban stability is the last thing to be aiming for. The history of all the communities in the world is a history of change, not of stability. If you want to look at the ultimate example, I suppose it’s Paris: the “perfect” city. And what is the result of this grand planned city? The banlieue, La Défense, none of which you would like to offer up as examples of good development or good places. My definition of place is that it is space plus people. It’s people who make places, not architects or planners. If places have the right proportions, the right mixture of uses around them, are accessible and permeable, then people will make a place out of those ingredients. Unfortunately there are still architects, planners and, even worse, politicians around the world who believe that for a place to be good it only needs to be functional.

DK: I think that Paris is a great example. Haussmann designed boulevards that were exactly one cavalry squadron large and squares that were exactly two cannon shots apart, and set back these buildings from the intersections in a way that creates a beautiful feel at street level but also, not incidentally, makes it virtually impossible to create a barricade across the street. The fabric of the city is essentially built on a set of homeland security design principles.

PWR: What we need to do to manage our places well is to go back to Jane Jacobs and The Death and Life of Great American Cities and learn about how people interact in places, what are the strengths, what are the weaknesses, what are the things they need help with, what are the things they need support for, and to train a whole breadth of urban managers rather than planners, who can look after urban fabric and the societies within them. I think the problem is that we’ve separated the various professions, and none of them are really responsible for place making or place maintenance any longer. They are all about one particular small facet of it.

DK: Exactly. As we look forward, we need a theory that creates a paradigm where people who might have different disciplines can talk together, and people can interchange information in a way that you can build a common point of view on what’s going on. And I don’t think we have one of those yet. I think there’s a very different conversation going on in the security field than what’s going on in the urban planning and commercial spheres. We need to integrate those conversations if we’re going to come to anything that’s going to work