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A Guide For City-Led Response

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First published in 2018 as a Toolkit for Responding to a Terror Attack, the revised and expanded City-Led Response Guide addresses city-led responses to a broader range of threats, attacks, incidents and impacts of hate, polarisation and violent extremism. The Guide incorporates good practices, learnings and experiences shared by mayors, local government representatives and practitioners at Strong Cities Transatlantic Dialogue Initiative activities in Helsinki (Finland) in 2022, and Denver (Colorado, United States) and Oslo (Norway) in 2023; a 2022 workshop in Malé (Maldives) on response communications and psychosocial support; a 2022 workshop in Surabaya (Indonesia) on enhancing national-local coordination on prevention, preparedness and response; and desk research and interviews conducted in developing and updating the 2018 Toolkit. 

Our thanks to Strong Cities member cities and non-member city officials who contributed insights and experiences. This includes, inter alia: former Mayor Allison Silberberg (Alexandria, Virginia, United States), Mayor Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester, United Kingdom), Mayor Nancy Rotering (Highland Park, Illinois, United States), Mayor Maksim Dimitrievski, Nexhat Aqifi and Shaban Demiri (Kumanovo, North Macedonia), Daniel Lawson and Robin Merrett (London, United Kingdom), former Governing Mayor Raymond Johansen (Oslo, Norway) and former Mayor Bill Peduto (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States), among others.

Our thanks also to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) for its research and input. 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 or 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 Guide for City-Led Response offers support for mayors1, other sub-national officials and the local and state governments they lead in formulating a sensitive and effective response2 in the wake of a hate-or violent extremism-motivated attack, incident or crisis. 

In the immediate aftermath of an occurrence or during heightened inter-communal or other tensions, national authorities can often take the lead in emergency responses, reinforcing public safety and launching criminal investigations. However, the impact of the instability that ensues can run deep, causing untold social and other consequences across communities. No matter how resilient they are, communities will require strong local leadership to help them heal and recover.

Sub-national leaders and local officials have critical roles to play in stabilising, reassuring, supporting and tackling social division in the aftermath of an attack and in heightened environments, and there are increasing pressures on local public institutions to establish clear roles and protocols for responding to and mitigating the impacts of such incidents for their constituents. 

With the development of this City-Led Response Guide, we offer officials a framework through which to develop and deliver activities in the wake of such an attack, incident or other crisis in a way that complements, rather than duplicates, national government action. The Guide draws on good practices identified during Strong Cities engagement with member and non-member cities, interviews, desk-based research and other research conducted by ISD in developing the Guide’s first iteration: Responding to a Terror Attack (2018). 

This Guide compiles good practice examples and learnings on key aspects of response, from surveying the issues in a community through to evaluating and sharing learnings from interventions at different levels. Beyond this publication, the content of this Guide will be housed in the Strong Cities Resource Hub as a ‘living’ document with examples, practice spotlights and learnings added and updated online.


The Guide for City-Led Response is intended to provide support to mayors and other sub-national officials, and the cities they lead, in preparing to respond to threats and acts of hate, polarisation and violent extremism, terrorism, heightened environments and times of crisis. This recognises not only the increasingly complex threat picture facing cities, but also that the principles of effective city-led response are applicable to all those environments.

Whether urban or rural, big or small, cities and other local authorities from Christchurch (New Zealand) to Chattanooga (Tennessee, United States), Greater Manchester (United Kingdom) to Mumbai (India), Oslo (Norway) to Ottawa (Canada), and Paris (France) to Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania, United States), cities typically bear the brunt of hate-, violent extremism- and terror-related attacks. They are often the first to respond and, in the long-term, suffer from the fallout of intercommunal tensions, collective trauma of affected communities and economic slowdowns. Such events can generate fear, erode trust in public institutions, and exacerbate historical tensions and injustices. The impact can last for years, with untold impacts on social cohesion and resilience. 

Cities often have expanding populations in dense urban centres and are generally the unit of government closest to local populations. They are therefore uniquely positioned to contribute to whole-of-society efforts to identify, understand and facilitate the prevention of hate, polarisation and violent extremism in their communities and to mount an effective and holistic response during times of crisis. 

However, they can face challenges. These include a lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities both at the local level and in relation to national actors. 

Local governments without explicit mandates, and with national governments active in this space, may not see for themselves a role in response to a crisis that is typically viewed through a national security lens. Yet, it is mayors and other city leaders who need to drive this response, supported and encouraged by national government counterparts and security actors (e.g., through appropriate information-sharing and financial support). 

Throughout their engagements with Strong Cities, mayors and city officials routinely identify how to respond to crises as a priority issue. The relevance of this issue to sub-national authorities more broadly is heightened given the nature of news reporting and social media, which makes it inevitable that a destabilising force in one city will also have impacts far beyond the city’s boundaries, with local events having global impact. As such, enabling cities to respond effectively to such events in a way that builds unity and strengthens resilience has emerged as a Strong Cities priority. 

This Guide draws on international and regional good practices, approaches and lessons learned identified in the course of our work with our more than 230 city members and other relevant stakeholders, including representatives from non-member cities, national governments and international and regional organisations. This includes a workshop in Cape Town (South Africa) on preventing and responding to hate- and extremist-motivated violence, training on communications and psychosocial support in the aftermath of a terror attack or act of violent extremism in Malé (Maldives), and workshops that address city-led response in Helsinki (Finland), Denver (Colorado, United States) and Oslo (Norway) under the Strong Cities Transatlantic Dialogue Initiative

The Role of Local Authorities

Mayors, and other sub-national leaders and authorities, are on the frontlines of confronting the most challenging global issues of our time. The threat picture is complex and evolving: from terrorism to rising hate, polarisation and violent extremism – threats that are increasingly fueled or exacerbated by increasing, often unchecked, mis/disinformation and conspiracy narratives – to supporting communities through pandemics and the social impacts of rising migration and internal displacement, cities face a myriad of challenges.

Historically, cities have been outranked and left aside by national authorities in the immediate aftermath of attacks and crises. More recently, however, there is growing recognition of the key role that these local actors must play in prevention and response. Nevertheless, roles and mandates are often unclear. Thus, agreeing on a division of labor between and across the various levels of government in times of peace and calm is critical. 

City leaders today must take responsibility for many areas. These include inter alia coordinating local actors, liaising with media, addressing the psychosocial needs of survivors and others impacted by the incident, preventing reactionary or escalated violence, and rallying communities to build resilience and strengthen social cohesion against hate and violent extremism. This is particularly relevant in an increasingly polarised climate in which such attacks or crises can be used to influence electoral outcomes and democratic institutions. 

Engaging on the ground through local actors that have trusted relationships with impacted communities can help address valid concerns and ensure that individuals do not resort to responses that might be intolerant or undemocratic.

Guide Overview

This Guide seeks to fill a gap in resources for sub-national leaders and local authorities who may find themselves on the frontline following an attack or other incident/crisis. While many manuals and guides exist for post-incident crisis management and crisis communications, they typically target national actors and focus on strategic communications and coordination, without addressing local responses that both benefit and engage key stakeholders such as local media, survivors and families, social services, community-based organisations, faith leaders and the wider community. As a result, tools and methods to communicate with these stakeholders remain vague. Moreover, crisis management guidance generally draws on Western case studies, which may not be relevant for a global audience. Lastly, numerous resources have been developed over the past years on soft target or critical infrastructure protection, leaving a gap in the long-term impact and collective trauma of affected communities. 

Strong Cities approaches these issues with a fresh perspective, reflective of its global membership of cities: it offers a blueprint for city leaders and local authorities who look to reassure and support citizens and inspire trust during times of perceived insecurity, instability and trauma. 

The Guide is structured as follows:

Chapter 1: Mayoral Leadership in Response provides an overview of key considerations to guide sub-national leaders in the immediate aftermath of an attack or incident. 

Chapter 2: Community Engagement sets out how local authorities can leverage existing networks to determine the impact of an attack, identify the most appropriate survivor support mechanisms, and promote social cohesion for the community writ large. 

Chapter 3: Public Communications provides guidance on developing outreach plans that can deescalate rising tensions and strengthen a city’s sense of identity, morale and cohesion following an attack or incident. Authorities and the media have a duty to inform the public with relevant and useful information and to ensure vulnerable or hard to reach communities are well informed.

Chapter 4: Psychosocial Support guides cities on how to ensure their communities have access to appropriate psychosocial support, both in the immediate and long-term, and includes specific guidance for setting up a local psychosocial support working group, and for supporting children and vulnerable communities.

Chapter 5: Post-Incident Support provides guidance on how to support survivors, families and the impacted communities, including addressing grievances and counter-reactions, access to information and justice, long-term engagement and memorials. 

Chapter 6: Preparing to Respond guides cities on what they can do to be prepared should an incident occur, from developing plans, to surveying stakeholders, building partnerships and learning from experience. 

The importance of effective city-led response should not be underestimated. The responsibility to engage multiple actors, while also reassuring and supporting communities, and setting an example of strength and unity, may be daunting, but is vital if cities are to remain resilient. Informed by mayors, city representatives, policy-makers and practitioners, this Guide is intended to serve as a roadmap for local authorities in developing their own strategy for effective city-led response.

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