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A Guide For Cities: Preventing Hate, Extremism & Polarisation

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Strong Cities Network A Guide For Cities


The Strong Cities Network Management Unit would like to thank the many local government officials that contributed to this Guide, whether by participating in interviews, discussions or surveys, or in Strong Cities’ activities since the Network’s launch in 2015. A special thanks goes to Eric Poinsot, Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism Coordinator, City of Strasbourg, France, who provided critical guidance and support throughout the drafting of this Guide. This publication was made possible by generous support from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the European Union and the US Department of State. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Strong Cities Network’s membership in its entirety nor its donors, partners and supporters.

Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD)

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) worked with mayors and government partners to launch Strong Cities at a meeting during the opening of the UN General Assembly in 2015. Since then, ISD has expanded and supported Strong Cities membership and has delivered its programming. ISD continues to host the Management Unit and contributes its research and expertise to meet the policy and practice needs of cities and local governments around the world.

About this guide

The Strong Cities Network has been working closely with local government officials from across its more than 200 member cities globally since its launch in 2015 to unlock the contributions that local governments, whether in urban or rural settings, can make to whole-of-society approaches to preventing hate, extremism and polarisation1. In this time, many local government officials shared that they would benefit from a better understanding of the roles that cities can play (and the responsibilities they have) in addressing hate and extremism. This includes by leveraging and learning lessons from existing crime and violence prevention frameworks and approaches. Many also said that they believe that a prevention toolkit designed for local governments would help them operationalise these roles and fulfil these responsibilities.

This Guide is an attempt to capture these experiences and package them in a user-friendly way for cities. This includes local governments that want to enhance existing policies, programmes and practices or develop new ones.

Whom this guide is for

This Guide is written to inform the rich diversity of different diversity of local government officials, including administrative staff and practitioners. It aims to be broad and not restrict guidance to any particular sector, geography or other context.

Strong Cities recognises that for some cities, access to support, guidance and an evidence base for developing prevention is readily available and that there are numerous resources that touch on these issues typically catering to European and North American audiences. Many of these are included in the Recommended Resources annex at the end of this Guide. 

This Guide, which builds on Strong Cities’ analysis to date, including its policy brief, Why Do Cities Matter? 10 Steps That Cities Can Take to Prevent and Counter Violent Extremism, is intended to complement other tools it has recently developed. These include a resource for mayors and other local leaders on prevention, recognising the unique role that they can play in shaping and driving city-led efforts to address hate, extremism and polarisation; an updated guide on city-led response to incidents of hate and extremist-motivated violence; and a resource to facilitate the implementation of the Global Counterterrorism Forum’s good practices on strengthening National-Local Cooperation (NLC) for preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE).

How this guide is intended to be used

This Guide compiles good practice examples and learnings on key aspects of prevention from mapping the issues in a community through to evaluating and sharing learnings from interventions at different levels2. Not all components of this guide will be of practical use or otherwise relevant to all cities, and guidance is presented so that specific topics and content might be selected according to the needs of a given city. Beyond this publication, the content of this Guide will be hosted on Strong Cities’ Resource Hub and will become a ‘living document’ where examples, practice spotlights and learnings
will continue to be added and updated online to expand upon the introductory summaries
of each aspect covered by the Guide. 


As a diverse global network, Strong Cities’ membership of more than 200 cities spans more than 40 countries. This Guide is designed to support the needs of local governments interested in strengthening existing or developing new approaches across a wide variety of different locations. It recognises, however, that the legal, political or practical conditions for a city to contribute to these topics vary greatly from one context to the next.

The Guide is designed to have broad applicability. However, it is likely to be of greatest use to cities in countries where the following three criteria are satisfied. 

First, the central government recognises, at least to some degree, the importance of pursuing a whole-of-society approach to address hate, extremism and polarisation;

Second, the central government acknowledges the potential that cities have to offer in prevention and building peaceful and cohesive communities less prone to hate, extremism and polarisation; and 

Third, the legal and political space exists for local governments to contribute to a whole-of-society approach. 


Strong Cities uses ‘cities’ as a broad term to refer to all variations of local and sub-national units of government with which it engages, from capital cities, states, counties and provinces to rural towns, regional urban centres and smaller municipalities. Linguistically, this Guide uses ‘cities’ to refer collectively to the individuals working for the relevant local government, or the various public services and agencies under its purview – whether administrative officials, technical staff or ‘frontline’ practitioners engaging directly with communities and individuals. For this reason, pronouns are used throughout this  Guide where cities are the subject (e.g., “a city whose awareness of national prevention strategy is limited.”).

Preventing hate, extremism and polarisation

This Guide focuses on supporting cities to address issues of hate, extremism and polarisation, including that which manifests in violence. This framing is intended to capture a wider range of practice than ‘traditional’, often narrowly framed P/CVE-focused efforts. It also reflects a plurality of city-led approaches to tackling these issues, acknowledging differences in the prevailing definitions and understandings of these concepts in different contexts. 

At a basic level, this Guide focuses on enabling cities to contribute to a whole-of-society approach to addressing these challenges. It seeks to catalyse more local government-led efforts to tackle the conditions and enablers of hate, extremism and polarisation in their communities. It also aims to aid the development of more targeted city-led approaches to addressing specific issues, population groups or neighbourhoods that either pose or are targeted by a particular challenge or are otherwise deemed vulnerable. It also focuses on those interventions that aim to support specific individuals with a focus on their disengagement from ‘pathways’ to hate- and extremist-motivated violence. It recognises that prevention is designed to mitigate these challenges but cannot be expected to eliminate them altogether.

The term “prevention” is used throughout this Guide specifically in relation to cities’ efforts to address the issues of hate, extremism and polarisation in a multi-disciplinary, cross-institutional and ultimately whole-of-society way. See Unpacking “prevention” in the Introduction to this Guide for more on the variety of efforts this might typically entail
for a city.

What do we mean by hate, extremism and polarisation?

There is no universal definition for each of these concepts and each city’s approach needs to be tailored to the local legal context and grounded in human rights and the rule of law. Hate, extremism and polarisation are – at their most basic – social challenges that undermine social cohesion, which can lead to violence and have long-term impacts on a city’s socio-economic fabric. Whether it is inter-community intolerance and ‘othering’, feelings of non-belonging, an overall growing divide between a city’s different communities or – at its most explicit – hate- or extremism-motivated violence, these threats have multiple manifestations and multiple causes. 

Strong Cities refers to these issues together in recognition that all three are both drivers and consequences of social, economic and political disparities and marginalisation, instability and violence, and that all three necessarily require a localised response that addresses the contextual grievances that may fuel them.


By Eric Poinsot, Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism Coordinator, City of Strasbourg, France

and Mzwakhe Nqavashe, Portfolio Chairperson: Safety and Security, City of Cape Town, South Africa

Our cities of Strasbourg and Cape Town joined the Strong Cities Network because of a fundamental appreciation that our work to prevent hate, extremism and polarisation is made more effective when we are learning from our peers in cities around the world. Whether it is our domestic counterparts or our regional neighbours, or even cities much further afield, we are united by a common recognition that global and transnational challenges like these often exploit the most local issues in our own neighbourhoods. Whatever the nature of the specific threats in our own communities and despite the significant differences in context, such platforms offer a rich pool of experience, expertise and support from one city to the next. In turn, our own cities share our learnings, offer our perspectives, and build relationships in the hope that no city need face these threats alone.

The City of Strasbourg has long voiced the need for developing a dedicated resource for cities that offers a comprehensive overview of the key aspects of prevention. The need is clear: to support the myriad professional sectors and services that make up the workforce of a local government with a reference guide that provides a basic summary when facing the challenges of hate, extremism and polarisation in their community. With cities all over the world having a daily responsibility for basic service provision and invariably being asked to do more with less, it had to be a guide written not for technical experts but for everyday practitioners and officials who needed to relate tackling these issues to their ‘day job’. Whatever the context and challenges of a city, it had to build a common understanding of why cities are relevant, what they can do, and how prevention can be part of existing and everyday functions rather than a complex, separate and entirely new endeavour. 

When Strong Cities launched its East and Southern Africa Regional Hub last year, Cape Town called for a resource that could serve the needs of cities across the region equally and help cities understand the contribution they can make to issues that too often are treated as national security matters beyond the remit of a local government. It needed to be a guide that was built on the experience of others, that demonstrated core learnings and methodological approaches adopted in cities with very different resources, political conditions and governance frameworks. Local governments are often so stretched with balancing daily competing priorities and serving the objectives of different mayors and local leaders that the first question many have when they get together to talk about hate, extremism and polarisation is “what is my role?” or “why am I relevant?” 

Both our cities have witnessed, and continue to experience, different threats and challenges related to hate, extremism and polarisation. These are often complex issues but ones that reach into the heart of local communities, feed on local tensions and divisions, and require multifaceted, coordinated and proactive responses that aim to prevent. Approaches that fail to recognise this are often reductive and insufficient. 

Cities have so much to offer if we recognise that prevention and not only security are needed. Cities are closer to communities and they often understand local dynamics and vulnerabilities better than central governments. 

This is not to suggest they should work alone; prevention is more effective when there is coordination and alignment between central, local and non-governmental approaches.
But if cities are to realise their potential and be able to contribute positively and sustainably, they need help first identifying how they can use what they already do and the assets they already have.

We are pleased to introduce this much-needed Guide from Strong Cities and hope that your city will find something in here that speaks to the challenges you are facing and the practical steps you need to take to prevent them and keep your community safe. 

We also hope you will feel motivated in due course to share what you learn from your own experiences and keep this community of practice thriving, supporting cities all over the world to address ever-changing needs. 

Eric Poinsot
City of Strasbourg, France

Mzwakhe Nqavashe
City of Cape Town, South Africa


Why cities?

Local governments of all sizes are uniquely placed to understand and engage with and to provide public services to their communities. Not only do they witness how wider tensions and conflicts play out locally, but they also bear the brunt of extremist and hate-motivated violence that disproportionately targets communities and infrastructure in urban areas. Equally, for residents, the main points of engagement with government actors are likely to be when they access services and interact at the local level.

Local resources and administration models vary, but around the world, there are an array of social, public health, youth-related, business-oriented, cultural and educational functions that local governments hold that offer potential for violence prevention and social cohesion. Even for those that do not have dedicated public safety functions, local governments can build trusted relationships to strengthen inclusivity, participation and resilience while breaking down segregation, hate and polarisation in their communities. 

Realising this potential can make an immediate, more sustainable and very practical difference to the peace and security of urban and other local communities the world over.

Despite the numerous benefits that city-led approaches can offer – from early detection and warnings about emerging challenges to trust-building, participatory planning and awareness-raising, not to mention the interventions at all levels that this Guide will cover – cities are still too rarely recognised for what they can bring to addressing these challenges. On issues that often suffer from over-securitisation and top-down policymaking, local leadership and action offer a means to stopping risks from escalating further, addressing root causes, and gaining traction and support from the most marginalised and vulnerable groups. These are all difficult tasks for central governments otherwise acting alone and they are all areas that can benefit from alignment and cooperation between local and national approaches. 

Those who seek to divide communities, stir hate, incite extremism or espouse violence often do so by trying to exploit hyper-local challenges before tapping into wider grievances and building polarising narratives. If we recognise that the challenge is in our neighbourhoods, streets and small towns, then involving local government in the effort to make these places strong, resilient and peaceful is clearly a vital step.

Unpacking “prevention”

Strong Cities considers prevention to incorporate all measures and initiatives that address potential causal factors (or ‘drivers’) contributing to the rise of hate, extremism and polarisation. This includes developing and adopting strategies and policies, designing and implementing various frameworks and mechanisms that ultimately provide key services and delivering activities that aim to address one or some of the potential risks and drivers.

Such measures should be considered complementary to security and criminal justice efforts and are typically led by civilian governmental departments and agencies, such as education, social services and public health and may also involve civil society, youth, the private sector and, in some cases, local police. The specific stakeholders and city departments involved will depend on what services and departments fall under the jurisdiction of any given city, bearing in mind multiple potential contextual differences from one city to the next. It will also depend on what risks are identified, the level of intervention required and the methodological approach decided upon.

Prevention measures typically operate at three levels:

  • Primary (building resilience and social cohesion in and across different communities).
  • Secondary (targeting individuals or segments of the population identified as particularly vulnerable to becoming radicalised to hate- or extremism-motivated violence).
  • Tertiary (targeting individuals who have already committed to violence, including ones in or leaving prison or seeking to disengage from violence). 

For many cities, primary prevention is likely the area they will feel they are able to make the most difference. This is because primary prevention involves addressing the broader structural and societal issues that create an enabling environment for hate and extremism to take root, which cities can do through leveraging existing city service provision mandates, programmes and resources, e.g., ones related to education, housing, psychosocial care, recreation, culture and youth engagement. 

Addressing issues such as systemic discrimination, marginalisation, corruption and intercommunal tensions while also strengthening social cohesion, good governance, accountability, trust, representation and transparency are considered key components of prevention. Promoting and protecting human rights, gender sensitivity and ensuring that measures ‘do no harm’ should be fundamental principles for prevention efforts at any level. Considering the complex and multifaceted nature of how hate, extremism and polarisation affect a community, prevention measures should also aim to be multidisciplinary and whole-of-society in its approach. 

Depending on the risks identified in a city, secondary prevention targeting particular groups or individuals showing behavioural signs of radicalisation to violence may also be possible. In some cases, tertiary prevention, which involves individualised interventions in the most serious cases may be part of a city’s prevention apparatus, or a city may otherwise be required to play a role in tertiary prevention coordinated by other agencies or levels of government. 

A city is unlikely to need to create new infrastructure, develop new policies or hire outside professionals to be able to deliver prevention. Despite the sensitivities and in some cases the specificity of the risks related to hate, extremism and polarisation, cities should not feel obliged to “exceptionalise” prevention and set it apart from the rest of what they do. In fact, prevention is in many cases more impactful, sustainable and participatory when it is considered a routine part of existing services in a way that encourages contribution and cooperation with local communities rather than fear and distrust. Finally, prevention also has to be realistic and work for cities where resources are limited and there are daily competing priorities around basic service provision.

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Strong Cities Network A Guide For Cities


Last updated: 13/09/2023

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