03/22/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/21/2014 05:59 EDT

Cities are now battlefields, but does tighter security make sense?

As I handed my knapsack to a private Kenyan security guard in a deep-green uniform, I couldn’t help noticing that he looked like a bored teenager who wanted to be anywhere else but there. Two of his colleagues stood by, chatting in Swahili. Then the guard politely asked me to walk through an airport-style metal detector. At last, satisfied that I wasn’t carrying any guns or explosives, he waved me in.

All that, just to go into Yaya Shopping Centre for a 20-minute meeting. This is the new security regime in Nairobi, Kenya, these days.

Ever since the attack on the Westgate Mall last September, security has been taken to new and at times alarming levels. Every mall, hotel and government building in the city has put in place similar procedures. Even some restaurants have started to hire their own security guards.

It has also become quite common to see the Kenyan Defence Force on the streets of the city. 

It all adds to an unnerving sense of being in a conflict zone. And despite the busy malls and full cafes, the trauma of the Westgate attack still haunts Nairobi’s residents.

​​Every tire explosion, every loud bang triggers memories of that sunny Saturday afternoon when four heavily armed men from the radical Somali group Al-Shabab shot their way past security and entered the mall. What followed was an 80-hour siege that captured the attention of the international media.

When the Kenyan army finally wrestled control of the mall back from the gunmen, more than 70 people were dead, including two Canadians, and more than 200 were injured.

“Anger doesn’t even begin to sum up their feelings … they’re suffering and it’s eating them up inside,” Dr. AmeetAggarwal says of some of the survivors of the attack.

He is a Toronto-trained therapist now working in Nairobi, and has treated about 50 of the people who were affected by the attack. He says his patients are slowly working through their trauma and it will be a long time before they can make sense of the events of that day.  

The security trap

But as survivors of the Westgate attack have quietly gone on with the business of putting their lives back together, it seems the Kenyan authorities, eager to take action, have fallen into the same trap as many other cities around the world.

​​All over the city, there are signs of a creeping militarization and heavy surveillance. Twenty-four-hour CCTV cameras have become ubiquitous. A booming security industry has blanketed the city with poorly paid, unarmed guards who are no matched for trained and heavily armed terrorists like the ones who took over the Westgate Mall.

And Nairobi isn’t the only city that relies on national army, security forces and constant surveillance of all public spaces. From Mumbai to Rio deJaneiro, many cities, especially in the developing world, are becoming militarized in response to terrorism and organized crime.

As we see more and more armed conflicts like terrorism and drug wars take place in big cities, many people are asking the same question: Just how much of this increased security in our cities is actually making us safer, and how much of it is about making us feel safe?

Kevin Walby, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Winnipeg, says that back in 1990s, video surveillance was sold to cities like London as an effective crime prevention tool that would keep residents safe.

But, Walby says, “that turned out to be not true at all, to the extent that [some] public police have come out and made a collective statement that we’re overspending on video surveillance and we’re not getting any bang for our buck…. We can’t prove that it has deterred crime. We can’t prove that it has deterred terrorism.”

Heavy security does not always equal better security, as we learned yesterday. Even the most protected public spaces like The Serena Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, are still vulnerable to attacks by determined terrorists. Gunmen managed to infiltrate tight security at the hotel, killing nine people including two Canadians.

New threats

David Kilcullen, a former counterinsurgency advisor and the author of Out of the Mountains: the Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla, says militarizing our cities is not the best use of limited resources. Especially when those resources should be going to combating the greatest threat facing our cities today: climate change.

Kilcullen argues that by the middle of this century, 75 per cent of the world’s population will be living in large cities, mostly in low-lying coastal areas. Climate change related storms and flooding will “put hundreds of millions of people at risk of coastal weather events.”

A hurricane of the same strength as 2012’s Sandy, for example, could put 22 million people under water in cities like Dhaka, Bangladesh or Lagos, Nigeria.

However, David Kilcullen is quick to remind us that these dire predictions for the future of cities are not inevitable. With smart public policies and better urban planning, we can make cities of the future not only safer, but more livable.

[HassanGhediSantur is a Somali-Canadian writer and freelance broadcaster based in Toronto. Listen to his full audio documentary called Conflicted Cities in the player at the top-left of this page, or on the Ideas website.]