Safe Cities

Index 2021

Safe Cities Index 2021

New expectations demand a new coherence

About the report

The Safe Cities Index 2021 is a report from The Economist Intelligence Unit, sponsored by NEC Corporation. The report is based on the fourth iteration of the index, which ranks 60 cities across 76 indicators covering digital, health, infrastructure, personal and environmental security.

The index was devised and constructed by Divya Sharma Nag, Shubhangi Pandey and Pratima Singh. The report was written by Paul Kielstra and edited by Naka Kondo. Findings from the index were supplemented with wide-ranging research and in-depth interviews with experts in the field. Our thanks are due to the following people (listed alphabetically by surname) for their time and insights:

  • Michele Acuto, Professor, Global Urban Politics, Architecture, Building and Planning, University of Melbourne

  • Aziza Akhmouch, Head, Cities, Urban Policies and Sustainable Development Division, OECD

  • Nima Asgari, Director, Asia-Pacific Observatory on Health Systems and Policies

  • Juma Assiago, Co-ordinator, UN-Habitat Safe Cities Programme

  • Tim Chapman, Director, infrastructure design group, Arup

  • Gregory Falco, Assistant Professor, Civil and Systems Engineering, Johns Hopkins University

  • Dr Jaideep Gupte, Fellow and Lead, Cities Cluster, Institute of Development Studies, UK

  • Kimihiro Hino, Associate Professor, Department of Urban Engineering, The University of Tokyo

  • Esteban Léon, Head, City Resilience Global Programme, UN-Habitat

  • Tolullah Oni, Urban Health Physician and Epidemiologist, University of Cambridge

  • Gerald Singham, Chairman, National Crime Prevention Council, Singapore

  • Lauren Sorkin*, Acting Executive Director, Gloal Resilient Cities Network

  • Lawrence Susskind, Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  • Adie Tomer, Fellow, Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative, Brookings Institution

  • John Tory, Mayor, City of Toronto

  • Gino Van Begin, Secretary-General, ICLEI

  • Aurel von Richthofen*, Senior Researcher, Cities Knowledge Graph, Singapore-ETH Centre

  • Sameh Wahba, Global Director, Urban, Disaster, Risk Management, Resilience and Land Global Practice, World Bank

  • Lars Weiss, Lord Mayor, City of Copenhagen

  • Alice Xu, Head, Connected Communities/smart City Programme, City of Toronto

  • Fang Zhao, Professor, Innovation and Strategy, Staffordshire Business School

Executive summary

Covid-19 is the first global pandemic to strike humanity since we became a predominantly urban species. This has enhanced the disease’s opportunities to spread, but also comes at a time when healthcare systems have a greater capacity to respond.

In such circumstances, health is an obvious place to begin a discussion of urban security in 2021. Stopping there, though, would miss most of the picture. As Fang Zhao – professor of innovation and strategy at Staffordshire Business School – puts it, “covid-19 has changed the whole concept of urban safety.” Digital security is now an even higher priority as more work and commerce have moved online; those responsible for infrastructure safety have to adjust to dramatic changes in travel patterns and where residents consume utilities; agencies responsible for personal security need to address a large, lockdown-driven shift in crime patterns; and the priority that urban residents and officials assign to environmental security has risen markedly as covid-19 serves as a stark warning of unexpected crises.

Accordingly, it is an appropriate time for The Economist Intelligence Unit, sponsored by NEC, to bring out its fourth edition of the Safe Cities Index. As before, the index covers 60 major cities worldwide and with 76 indicators related to different aspects of urban safety. These are grouped into five overall pillars: personal, health, infrastructure, digital, and – new this year – environmental security. Our key findings this year include:

The top of the table changes dramatically– with Copenhagen first overall and Toronto second – but the “first division” remains largely the same. In each of the last three iterations, Tokyo, Singapore and Osaka – always in that order – have been our index leaders. This year Copenhagen comes first, with 82.4 points out of 100, and Toronto follows close behind with 82.2. This change reflects not a tectonic shift but more a reordering among cities that have always come close to the top. In all four editions of our index, six cities – Amsterdam, Melbourne, Tokyo, Toronto, Singapore and Sydney – have all figured among the leading ten, with only a few points separating them. Copenhagen likely would be in this group as well, but has been included since only 2019, when it tied for 8th place.

Income and transparency remain strongly correlated with higher index scores… As discussed in detail in our 2019 report, cities with higher scores in the Human Development Index (HDI) also do better in our Safe Cities results. The statistical correlation is very high. Here our experts warn that cause and effect are not straightforward. Income can help fund safety-increasing investments, but economic growth in turn depends on an environment benefiting from every kind of security. The likely relationship here is a virtuous circle. More straightforward is the likely link between transparency and security: the World Bank’s Control of Corruption scores and ours also correlate tightly independent of HDI results. Clean government is a fundamental requirement for a city to be safe.

…but the results suggests that different global regions may have distinct strengths. Among high income cities, overall scores differ little by broad geographic region. Looking at specific pillars, though, variations appear. In particular, well-off Asia-Pacific cities do better on average when it comes to health security, European ones on personal security and North American ones on digital security. The sample size is too small to generalise about reasons. Nevertheless, these differences suggest that the priority given to various kinds of security may be affected by distinct historical experiences at the regional, national or city level.

  • Digital security
    Leading in digital security are: Sydney, Singapore, Copenhagen, Los Angeles and San Francisco

  • Health security
    Leading in health security are: Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Melbourne and Osaka

  • Infrastructure security
    Leading in infrastructure security are: Hong Kong, Singapore, Copenhagen, Toronto, Tokyo

  • Personal security
    Leading in personal security are: Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Stockholm, Brussels

  • Environmental security
    Leading in environmental security are: Wellington, Toronto, Washington DC, Bogota and Milan

The experience of covid-19 shows the need for a more holistic approach to health security and its closer integration into urban resilience planning. It is still too early to draw detailed conclusions on the implications of covid-19 for health security. The pandemic continues at the time of writing. Even were it over, robust, internationally comparable data on what has happened are still rare. Nonetheless, the need to rethink health system preparedness is already clear. This must have several elements. The first is to look at different kinds of diseases and the wider determinants of disease as an interrelated whole rather than considering them in silos. The second is to think of populations as a whole, which will especially involve providing effective care for currently marginalised groups. The third is to integrate health emergency planning more fully into urban resilience measures that, often, have focused more on dealing with natural disasters and environmental concerns.

Digital security at the city level is too often insufficient for current needs and insecurity will multiply as urban areas increasingly pursue smart city ambitions. The index data show that internet connectivity is becoming ubiquitous, even in our lower-middle-income cities, and could be effectively universal within a decade. Meanwhile, 59 of our 60 cities have started the process of becoming a smart city or expressed the ambition. This makes current levels of digital security worrying. To cite two examples from our figures, only around a quarter of urban governments have public-private digital security partnerships and a similarly small number look at network security in detail in their smart city plans. Such data are representative, not exceptional. Gregory Falco – assistant professor of civil and systems engineering at Johns Hopkins University– notes that “the digital security of cities is generally pretty terrible.” Improvement requires rethinking digital security on several levels: cities must see it as an investment, or at least an essential insurance policy, rather than an unproductive cost; they must understand that the nature of the technology requires a city-wide approach rather than one fragmented by departmental silos; and, finally, digital security – and especially protection of smart city networks – needs to involve providing the level of safety that citizens expect and demand. Indeed, smart cities need to be built around what urban residents want, or they will fail.

Although our index data show little change in various infrastructure security metrics, experts report that covid-19 has brought this field to a fundamental inflection point. Change in infrastructure can be slow, with decisions sometimes having repercussions for centuries. Accordingly, certain indicator results, such as those covering power and rail networks, show little change. This stability does not reflect the current state of this field. Covid-19 has brought a level of uncertainty around the likely demands on urban infrastructure– and therefore how to keep it secure –which Adie Tomer, leader of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative, describes as “nuts compared to just two years ago.” It is unclear the extent to which lockdown-associated developments will diminish, or accelerate, when the pandemic ends. Greater levels of working from home, increased digitalisation of commerce, and growing resident demands for more sustainable urban communities with services within walking or cycling reach all have extensive infrastructure implications. Meanwhile, ongoing urbanisation, especially in Asia and Africa, mean that the next two decades must be ones of rapid infrastructure development in order to meet the basic needs of city residents. This will require a shift to greener infrastructure and better management of existing assets. Our index results, though, show that in these areas the majority of cities will have to raise their game.

Personal security is a matter of social capital and co-creation. Our index figures show, as elsewhere, that personal security pillar scores correlate closely with HDI figures for cities. A closer look yields a less predictable result. A number of cities, in particular Singapore, seem to combine low levels of inputs with excellent results in this field, in particular when it comes to judicial system capacity and crime levels. While most of the examples of this combination are in Asia, they exist elsewhere too, as in Toronto and Stockholm. One way that these various cities can accomplish apparently doing more with less, say our experts, is higher levels of social capital and cohesion. The resultant sense of connectedness, shared values, and community also allows greater co-creation of security with citizens. The latter not only multiplies the efforts of city authorities to improve personal security, but it also helps define security in ways that are more meaningful to residents.

Most cities have strong environmental policies, but now must deliver results. Unlike other pillars, low- and middle-income cities often do well on environmental security. Bogota, for example, comes 4th overall. One explanation is that good environmental policies are widespread. The increased interest in reaching carbon neutrality that has accompanied the pandemic will only strengthen the impetus for still better plans. The challenge, though, remains implementation. Here, even higher income cities are lagging noticeably behind their ambitions. As in other areas, the key to success will be to take an overarching approach to environmental issues rather than a fractured one, and for cities to work with residents rather than seeking to direct them.

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You can benchmark your city to any of the 60 cities in the index by answering 12 questions about safety. Your answers will be compared to the selected city and will allow you to get an idea of how the cities compare.

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Does the city have a smart city plan that explicitly focuses on the cybersecurity of the smart city?

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What percentage of the city’s population has access to the internet?


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How many doctors (per 1,000 population) does the city have?

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What is the average life expectancy of the population in the city?

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What is the covid-19 mortality rate (per 100,000 population) in the city?

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Does the city have a disaster emergency management / city business continuity plan in place and, if so, how adaptive and effective is it?

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Is disaster risk included and accounted for in active state- or city-level urban planning and design?

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What percentage of GDP is spent on social assistance programs?


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How prevalent is violent crime in the city?

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Does the city masterplan outline specific measures for sustainable growth of the urban centre?

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What is the average annual concentration of PM 2.5 in µg/m3?

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What is the percentage of tree cover within the city?


Calculating Scores...


Urban Safety Benchmarking Tool

Comparison Results


out of 24 (full score)



Does the city have a smart city plan that explicitly focuses on the cybersecurity of the smart city

What percentage of the city’s population has access to the internet

How many doctors (per 1,000 population) does the city have

What is the average life expectancy of the population in the city

What is the covid-19 mortality rate (per 100,000 population) in the city

Does the city have a disaster emergency management / city business continuity plan in place and, if so, how adaptive and effective is it

Is disaster risk included and accounted for in active state- or city-level urban planning and design

What percentage of GDP is spent on social assistance programs

How prevalent is violent crime in the city

Does the city masterplan outline specific measures for sustainable growth of the urban centre

What is the average annual concentration of PM 2.5 in µg/m3


What is the percentage of tree cover within the city

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