Do cities need safety strategies? A case of the Joburg City Safety Strategy

  • 25 Feb 2015 | by Nazira Cachalia | Joburg City Safety Programme

Do cities need safety strategies? A case of the Joburg City Safety Strategy – Blog

The Johannesburg City Safety Strategy, has shifted  the focus on what constitutes a safe city from crime and violence alone to viewing crime through a multitude of factors.

The Johannesburg City Safety Strategy, has shifted  the focus on what constitutes a safe city from crime and violence alone to viewing crime through a multitude of factors.

Johannesburg City Safety Strategy, has shifted  the discourse on what constitutes a safe city from focusing on crime and violence alone to one which looks at a multitude of factors (at the level of the individual and the community) that contribute to the wellbeing of the city’s people.

In this article, Nazira Cachalia, Programme Manager at the Johannesburg City Safety Programme shares insights that look into the safety strategy’s approach.


The debate on what constitutes a ‘safe’ city has become an important topic for many researchers and urban policy makers in the last decade. The discourse on what constitutes a safe city has shifted from a focus on crime and violence to one which looks at a multitude of factors (at the level of the individual and the community) that contribute to the wellbeing of the city’s people. Examples include access to health, economic opportunities, traffic safety, environmental factors, and conditions of deprivation, access to justice and urban planning and design.

A traffic officer controlling the flow of traffic at one of Johannesburg's intersections.
The most recent Economist’s Safe Cities Index saw 50 cities, selected in terms of regional representation and data availability, ranked in terms of a safe cities index consisting of indicators relating to four main categories of safety: digital security, health security, infrastructure safety and personal safety. Cities which ranked in the top 10 were noted for their wealth and economic development potential. Researchers also noted that being “statistically safe is not the same as feeling safe”.

Johannesburg ranked low in all four of the reported categories of safety. Given the selection criteria used in identifying participant cities, this does not necessarily mean that Johannesburg is one of the least safe cities on a global scale. It does however highlight critical areas in need of change, and begs the question: do city safety strategies make cities safer?

Johannesburg, like many other cities in the developing world, continues to experience challenges relating to safety, despite the city’s potential. The City of Johannesburg (CoJ) developed its first comprehensive city safety strategy in 2003. The strategy drew from the analysis contained in the CoJ’s long-term strategy of the time (the Economic Development Strategy or ‘Joburg 2030’), and the principles addressed in the 1996 National Crime Prevention Strategy (NCPS) and the 1998 White Paper on Safety and Security. It outlined the role envisaged for the municipality with respect to creating safer communities, and defined a set of focus areas that were identified through stakeholder consultations, data analysis and research on local and international benchmarks. 

The Johannesburg City Safety Strategy (JCSS) brought on board innovative approaches through which to promote city safety, targeting at geographically specific and multi-disciplinary solutions, evidence based problem solving and the establishment of strong multi-agency partnerships. It integrated the city’s philosophy, approach and priorities to city safety in the context of a single framing document – with emphasis placed on “crime, violence and safety and security”. From 2004, the City also established a JCSS Implementation Plan, supported by relevant governance structures and training and delivery toolkits to ensure delivery on the strategy.

“Statistically safe is not the same as feeling safe!”
The content of the City’s safety strategy reflected a view that safety is not simply a policing responsibility – and that local government has a critical role to play in driving safety. The City’s subsequent plans address city safety as an important strategic priority that forms part of the broader objective of service delivery.

In a recent independent evaluation of the JCSS, some important insights and lessons were noted. Amongst others, the safety strategy was seen to provide a valuable entry point through which to institutionalise city safety in the City, while serving as a useful platform to identify departmental cross-cutting programmes that support the mainstreaming of safety. By setting up formal mechanisms for analysis and engagement, the JCSS enabled officials to identify safety problems and to collaborate on interventions targeting crime and urban management issues. The strategy provided the necessary ingredients for decision makers and implementing agencies to make informed decisions with respect to crime prevention and urban management.

Johannesburg City Tour bus.
However, the review also noted lessons. These related to the importance of translating western models to suit local contexts, and the need to establish strong ownership and a shared understanding of strategy implementation, in a way that takes into account the impact of a fluid institutional environment, and changing political and institutional leadership. The issue of ownership and ongoing incentives for joint implementation of the strategy was noted in the context of changing priorities and resource constraints.

As crime and other safety related issues are not static and require some level of ogoing engagement to remain relevant, the City is in the process of revising the JCSS. This revision is aimed at responding to, amongst other things, Johannesburg’s changing urban context and safety dynamics, concerns and realities, while also supporting improved implementation through targeting greater alignment with the CoJ’s current institutional form and its revised strategic direction and priorities. The latter are reflected in the City’s long-term strategy, the Joburg 2040 Growth and Development Strategy (GDS), and the related ‘Safer City’ Priority Implementation Plan.

Mandela Bridge and the City of Johannesburg at night.
So do safety strategies make cities safer? Safety strategies provide focus, and with appropriate implementation and on-boarding of all relevant stakeholders, provide the basis for real change. They offer other benefits too. They make a city more accountable to its citizens, and allow cities to measure progress against agreed deliverables. More importantly, a city safety strategy provides the basis for city role-players break down the silo mentality and work in a more integrated was and to reassess safety priorities in times of changing urban context – such as during period of significant urbanisation. The process involved in crafting a city-level safety strategy also provides the space for cities to draw from and be inspired by new ways of thinking and best practice relating to urban crime and violence prevention and reduction – while also opening the space for engagement on other matters beyond these more ‘traditional’ safety elements.

In the absence of a safety strategy at a local government level, efforts targeting city safety will remain disparate, uncoordinated and focused on purely operational matters (e.g. addressing safety-related hazards and events on the ground). Reactive approaches do not support problem solving or the need for monitoring and evaluation of impact against defined outcomes and activities, and in this way result in lost opportunities for delivery improvements. Through revising its city safety strategy, the CoJ will establish a set of clear and shared desired outcomes and delivery approaches to which all City role-players can contribute – with this built through an updated reflection on the state of safety, and analysis of new and alternative ways through which city safety strategies are supporting the growth of safer cities.

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