Metropolitan Security: exploring climate change and security at the level of the city

Jessica Scott, Security Fellow and Program Officer, Climate and Security


Like many other institutional functions and concepts we now take for granted in the developed world in the late modern era, domestic security evolved in an ad-hoc manner across the last few centuries. The development of the first fire departments in the late 17th century were followed by embryonic municipal policing in the late 18th (with professionalization in the mid-19th), which were themselves followed quickly by health and sanitation departments, in response to the biological hazards of the extreme density made possible by industrial civilization. The 20th century saw the advent of civil defense drills, brought on by the total wars of Europe and Asia and the potential for nuclear warfare, and the 21st has seen the development of counter-terror techniques and training for existing security/police forces, as well as the start of an understanding of the role of the built and natural environments in the security of a particular area.  


That all this has happened is without doubt an unalloyed good. However, the incremental, ad-hoc and “lumpy” nature of this institutional development over the course of such an extended time frame has resulted in a situation wherein many institutional functions that seek to achieve the same end have come about independently and without coordination as to their means and structures. At the same time, the expansion of the concept of security to encompass non-traditional security concerns -- including climate change, which we’ll explore in detail below, but also terrorism, transnational crime, and cyber attacks – has changed the locus of control of securitization operations. Non-traditional security concerns are not governed in the same way as the more traditional – domestic, metropolitan – security challenges outlined above. “The most salient feature of the politics of [non-traditional security]” Hameiri and Jones (2013) argue “is the struggle to alter the scale at which particular issues are governed, from the national level to a variety of new spatial and territorial arenas.” These spatial arenas include new types of non-traditional security actions at the transnational level -- like UN Security Council consideration of both climate and cyber security actions -- as well as new levels of international security leadership at the metropolitan level.


The Metropolitan Security program at the Met Society seeks to address both the ad-hoc expansion of security activities and the new metropolitan spatial locus for international security actions via the concept of “Metropolitan Security”. Metropolitan Security is an integrated security framework that is comprehensive of all the dimensions in which institutions of the metropolitan government work to keep cities safe, secure, healthy and strong, from risks local, regional and global, whether natural or anthropogenic. We will use the framing of metropolitan security to explore what new, innovative and appropriate institutional structures could be introduced into, or replace existing, city security operations in order to advance the goals of comprehensive, efficient, and effective metropolitan security leadership -- both at the level of the city as a community and, in critical consideration of the internationalization of security concerns, at the level of city as international actor.  


We proceed to explore the concept of metropolitan security using New York City as our test city, and the nexus of climate and security as our test case. New York City is an obvious choice  because of its dual role as a megacity and a well-established international leader. The full suite of security concerns encompassed by metropolitan security is amplified in the context of a megacity, as explored in later papers; and the role of international leadership in addressing these amplified risks is nowhere more important than in a truly global city like New York. We pick climate-security because metropolitan security requires the adoption of a truly integrated framework that encompasses traditional and non-traditional security concerns along the full local-global spectrum; climate-security is influenced by, and influences, multiple arenas of both threat and action and serves as a critical lens through which to explore the impact of an integrated policy framework.

We must ensure that we look after the health and security of the city in a way that understands the whole, and not merely the parts.

New York City the Autonomous Actor

To assert that New York City is one of the most, if not the most, prominent city in the world is not especially contentious. New York is the leading city in a number of global industries, home to some of the most prominent arts, culture and education institutions in the world, home of the headquarters of the United Nations, and sits at the center of a huge, dense, populated metropolitan conglomeration, often called the “Northeast Megalopolis.” However, to go beyond asserting New York’s importance to asserting its autonomous identity might strike readers as somewhat fantastical. Is not New York City an integral part of the United States, with a political identity and destiny tied to the US?


Of course, in very many ways, it is precisely this. It is the financial capital of the United States and the center of the dollar-denominated economy of the world, which owes its expansiveness and intensity to the strength of the United States as a global hegemon. Further, New York City is a distillation and manifestation of many of the characteristics and virtues and vices that have made the US what it is: the energy, the vibrancy, the syncretism and synthesis, the dual extremes of achievement and poverty, the intense tumult of change, and the unyielding commitment to a future that can be endlessly remade by American agency. New York is obviously an American city, and for many is the epitome of the idealized (though oft-disputed) American dream.


And yet, New York has an identity, culture, set of political and financial interests and a connection to the rest of the world that is entirely unlike anywhere else in the US. It is home to a larger diplomatic contingent than the country’s capital, Washington D.C. More than 40% of New Yorkers were born outside the US, compared a country-wide average of 12% (and a median of less than 5%). The New York Police Department (NYPD) employs interpreters in more languages than the United Nations. It is directly connected by travel, communications, business ties and family ties to every country on earth -- and the milieux of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, just as much as the cultured high modern metropolitanism of Manhattan, are as alien to many Americans as any foreign country.


New York’s American character is its inheritance and its patrimony. However, its cosmopolitan identity and metropolitan interests constitute its future. As such, New York City must investigate, understand, question and explicate this autonomous identity and these autonomous interests, and develop an understanding of its political potential that takes its own agency as primary and its own interests as paramount. This is the work of many years, the work that the Metropolitan Security program at the Met Society intends to lead and to nurture.


Metropolitan Security is a prerequisite for international leadership. Security and stability is a requirement for good governance both within the borders of one’s community and in international leadership spheres. And it matters nowhere more than within the expansive boundaries and interrelated security dependencies of a megacity, as we will explore in later pieces.

Hameiri, S. and Jones, L. (2013). The Politics and Governance of Non-Traditional Security. International Studies Quarterly, 57: 462–473. doi:10.1111/isqu.12014