Cities Under Siege

[Image: Stephen Graham's Cities Under Siege].

In a 2003 paper for the Naval War College Review, author Richard J. Norton defined the term feral cities. “Imagine a great metropolis covering hundreds of square miles,” Norton begins, as if narrating the start of a film pitch. “Once a vital component in a national economy, this sprawling urban environment is now a vast collection of blighted buildings, an immense petri dish of both ancient and new diseases, a territory where the rule of law has long been replaced by near anarchy in which the only security available is that which is attained through brute power.”

With the city's infrastructure having collapsed long ago—or perhaps having never been built in the first place—there are no works of public sanitation, no sewers, no licensed doctors, no reliable food supply, no electricity. The feral city is a kind of return to medievalism, we might say, back to the future of a dark age for anyone but criminals, gangs, and urban warlords. It is a space of illiterate power—strength unresponsive to rationality or political debate.

From the perspective of a war planner or soldier, the feral city is also spatially impenetrable, a maze resistant to aerial mapping. Indeed, its “buildings, other structures, and subterranean spaces, would offer nearly perfect protection from overhead sensors, whether satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles,” Norton writes.

This is something Russell W. Glenn, formerly of the RAND Corporation—an Air Force think tank based in Southern California—calls “combat in Hell.” In his 1996 report of that name, Glenn pointed out that “urban terrain confronts military commanders with a synergism of difficulties rarely found in other environments,” many of which are technological. For instance, the effects of radio communications and global positioning systems can be radically limited by dense concentrations of architecture, turning what might otherwise be an exotic experience of pedestrian urbanism into a claustrophobic labyrinth inhabited by unseen enemy combatants.

Add to this the fact that military ground operations of the near future are more likely to unfold in places like Sadr City, Iraq—not in paragons of city planning like Vancouver—and you have an environment in which soldiers are as likely to die from tetanus, rabies, and wild dog attacks, Norton suggests, as from actual armed combat.

Put another way, as Mike Davis wrote in Planet of Slums, “the cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood. Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay.”

But feral cities are one thing, cities under siege are something else.

[Images: The Fires by Joe Flood and Planet of Slums by Mike Davis].

In his new book Cities Under Siege, published just two weeks ago, geographer Stephen Graham explores "the extension of military ideas of tracking, identification and targeting into the quotidian spaces and circulations of everyday life," including "dramatic attempts to translate long-standing military dreams of high-tech omniscience and rationality into the governance of urban civil society." This is just part of a "deepening crossover between urbanism and militarism," one that will only become more pronounced, Graham fears, over time.

One particularly fascinating example of this encroachment of "military dreams... into the governance of urban civil society" is actually the subject of a forthcoming book by Joe Flood. The Fires tells the story of "an alluring proposal" offered by the RAND Corporation, back in 1968, "to a city on the brink of economic collapse [New York City]: using RAND's computer models, which had been successfully implemented in high-level military operations, the city could save millions of dollars by establishing more efficient public services." But all did not go as planned:
    Over the next decade—a time New York City firefighters would refer to as "The War Years"—a series of fires swept through the South Bronx, the Lower East Side, Harlem, and Brooklyn, gutting whole neighborhoods, killing more than two thousand people and displacing hundreds of thousands. Conventional wisdom would blame arson, but these fires were the result of something altogether different: the intentional withdrawal of fire protection from the city's poorest neighborhoods—all based on RAND's computer modeling systems.
In any case, Graham's interest is in the city as target, both of military operations and of political demonization. In other words, cities themselves are portrayed "as intrinsically threatening or problematic places," Graham writes, and thus feared as sites of economic poverty, moral failure, sexual transgression, rampant criminality, and worse (something also addressed in detail by Steve Macek's book Urban Nightmares). All cities, we are meant to believe, already exist in a state of marginal ferality. I'm reminded here of Frank Lloyd Wright's oft-repeated remark that "the modern city is a place for banking and prostitution and very little else."

In some of the book's most interesting sections, Graham tracks the growth of urban surveillance and the global "homeland security market." He points out that major urban events—like G8 conferences, the Olympics, and the World Cup, among many others—offer politically unique opportunities for the installation of advanced tracking, surveillance, and facial-recognition technologies. Deployed in the name of temporary security, however, these technologies are often left in place when the event is over: a kind of permanent crisis, in all but name, takes over the city, with remnant, military-grade surveillance technologies gazing down upon the streets (and embedded in the city's telecommunications infrastructure). A moment of exception becomes the norm.

Graham outlines a number of dystopian scenarios here, including one in which "swarms of tiny, armed drones, equipped with advanced sensors and communicating with each other, will thus be deployed to loiter permanently above the streets, deserts, and highways" of cities around the world, moving us toward a future where "militarized techniques of tracking and targeting must permanently colonize the city landscape and the spaces of everyday life."

In the process, any real distinction between a "homeland" and its "colonies" is irreparably blurred. Here, he quotes Michel Foucault: "A whole series of colonial models was brought back to the West, and the result was that the West could practice something resembling colonization, or an internal colonialism, on itself." If it works in Baghdad, the assumption goes, then let's try it out in Detroit.

This is just one of many "boomerang effects" from militarized urban experiments overseas, Graham writes.

[Images: Blast walls in Iraq].

But what does this emerging city—this city under siege—actually look like? What is its architecture, its urban design, its local codes? What is its infrastructure?

Graham has many evocative answers for this. The city under siege is a place in which "hard, military-style borders, fences and checkpoints around defended enclaves and 'security zones,' superimposed on the wider and more open city, are proliferating."
    Jersey-barrier blast walls, identity checkpoints, computerized CCTV, biometric surveillance and military styles of access control protect archipelagos of fortified social, economic, political or military centers from an outside deemed unruly, impoverished and dangerous. In the most extreme examples, these encompass green zones, military prisons, ethnic and sectarian neighborhoods and military bases; they are growing around strategic financial districts, embassies, tourist and consumption spaces, airport and port complexes, sports arenas, gated communities and export processing zones.
Cities Under Siege also extensively covers urban warfare, a topic that intensely interests me. From Graham's chapter "War Re-Enters the City":
    Indeed, almost unnoticed within "civil" urban social science, a shadow system of military urban research is rapidly being established, funded by Western military research budgets. As Keith Dickson, a US military theorist of urban warfare, puts it, the increasing perception within Western militaries is that "for Western military forces, asymmetric warfare in urban areas will be the greatest challenge of this century... The city will be the strategic high ground—whoever controls it will dictate the course of future events in the world."
Ralph Peters phrased this perhaps most dramatically when he wrote, back in 1996 for the U.S. Army War College Quarterly, that "the future of warfare lies in the streets, sewers, high-rise buildings, industrial parks, and the sprawl of houses, shacks, and shelters that form the broken cities of our world." The future of warfare, that is, lies in feral cities.

In this context, Graham catalogs the numerous ways in which "aggressive physical restructuring," as well as "violent reorganization of the city," is used, and has been used throughout history, as a means of securing and/or controlling a city's population. At its most extreme, Graham calls this "place annihilation." The architectural redesign of cities can thus be used as a military policing tactic as much as it can be discussed as a topic in academic planning debates. There are clearly echoes of Eyal Weizman in this.

On one level, these latter points are obvious: small infrastructural gestures, like public lighting, can transform alleyways from zones of impending crime to walkways safe for pedestrian use—and, in the process, expand political control and urban police presence into that terrain. But, as someone who does not want to be attacked in an alleyway any time soon, I find it very positive indeed when the cityscape around me becomes both safer by design and better policed. Equally obvious, though, when these sorts of interventions are scaled-up—from public lighting, say, to armed checkpoints in a militarized reorganization of the urban fabric—then something very drastic, and very wrong, is occurring in the city. Instead of a city simply with more cops (or fire departments), you begin a dark transition toward a "city under siege."

I could go on at much greater length about all of this—but suffice it to say that Cities Under Siege covers a huge array of material, from the popularity of SUVs in cities to the blast-wall geographies of Baghdad, from ASBOs in London to drone helicopters in the skies above New York. Raytheon's e-Borders program opens the book, and Graham closes it all with a discussion of "countergeographies."

(Parts of this post, on feral cities, originally appeared in AD: Architectures of the Near Future, edited by Nic Clear).

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Anonymous sportsbabel said...

Over at The Sports Economist is a brief discussion of a paper that presents evidence showing countries that bid to host the Olympics enjoy a permanent increase in international trade.

Using a variety of trade models, we show that hosting a mega-event like the Olympics has a positive impact on national exports. This effect is statistically robust, permanent, and large; trade is around 30% higher for countries that have hosted the Olympics. Interestingly however, we also find that unsuccessful bids to host the Olympics have a similar positive impact on exports. We conclude that the Olympic effect on trade is attributable to the signal a country sends when bidding to host the games, rather than the act of actually holding a mega-event.

In other words, there is a link not only between improved trade and the city under siege, but also between improved trade and the promise of the city under siege.

April 13, 2010 3:33 PM  
Blogger Adam said...

I work a little in this industry, and today there is very little difference between the military and standard homeland security. I would argue though that it is not because governments want to create militarised zones in cities but rather because the technologies have merged. Several cities are already installing complete, permenant security solutions, and it is surely an industry that will only keep growing. This is mostly though almost completely invisible, based around CCTV and private band radio, and certainly won't (normally!) include check points and blast walls!

April 13, 2010 4:06 PM  
Blogger ElBlanco said...

Excellent post. As ever, cogent and thoughtful look at another aspect of the interplay between the built terrain and the people in it. My reading list has grown nicely as a result.

April 13, 2010 4:54 PM  
Anonymous Uthor said...

This has little to do with the article, but Warren Ellis' comic Fell is an interesting look at living in a feral city:

April 13, 2010 5:23 PM  
Blogger pnunns said...

Perhaps this is just a historical accident - coinciding trends rather than causally related ones - but it does seem to be true that the militarization of urban space is related to (most) cities' ongoing deindustrialization.

There are echoes of this is Mike Davis's work - especially _City of Quartz_, which anticipated the current trend of spatial segregation, CCTV, security fences, etc. That book obviously took place against the collapse of LA's industrial economy.

More broadly, the phenomenon of the well-paid factory worker was what brought the working classes into bourgeois respectability in the developed world, and there's no obvious substitute for it in the service sector. In the US, a lot of places like Detroit have gone from being hard-scabble but law-abiding to being generally criminal. In a lot of the developing world, especially sub-Saharan Africa, things are much worse.

As I said, this may just be coincidence. But it seems likely that the militarization of urban space has come about at least in part due to changes in production location and technique. Perhaps some sort of military anti-Keynesianism?

In any case, thanks for the notice about the book - I've gotten a lot out of Stephen Graham's other work and I look forward to reading this.

April 13, 2010 7:52 PM  
Anonymous Laure said...

Excellent post, though reducing RAND to "an Air Force think tank based in Southern California" shows how little you know about that corporation. They do a lot of policy work in all areeas of life -- from education to arts to obesity to healthcare to transportation, and yes, military -- not only for the government but for many national and internatioinal institutions.

April 14, 2010 1:40 AM  
Blogger Adam said...

Reading this fascinating post again, it all sounds curiously dated - almost entirely like the plot of John Carpenter's 1980s film 'Escape from New York'.

I maintain that the future will be a lot less visible than this, and that describing it as a 'military' initiative is neither helpful not accurate.

April 14, 2010 3:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reminds me of the movie Children of Men and the battle scene in the refugee camp at the end of the movie. It was so intense and brutal. When everyone stopped fighting for a moment to marvel at the crying baby, it was beautiful and almost unbearable to watch.

April 14, 2010 5:26 PM  
Blogger Mitch McEwen said...


Thank you so much for this! I actually just went to court this week after being arrested in Union Square for daring to say "No" to the unconstitutional MTA bag check. The DA of course declined to prosecute, but that doesn't make up for being shackled and jailed in a cell for 3 hours.

Anyway, point being that the RNC convention here in NYC in 2004 is a great example of these temporary-permanent surveillance emergences, and New Yorkers passively accept an appalling array of unconstitional "procedures".

On facebook check out the group I started "Just Say No to the MTA Bag Check"

Thanks for this,

April 14, 2010 5:34 PM  
Blogger Em said...

Fascinating discussion.

It might be worth pointing out that those of us who grew up in NYC in the 1970s remember these "dark days" quite well. And while none of us misses the crime, we all lament the present-day loss of extreme artistic vitality that Feral New York presented us with.

As for the crime, however, is it not obvious that much or practically all of it was drug-related and therefore economic? Thus, perhaps the true antidote for the feral city is not troops and Rand Corporation-inspired cabals, but a throwing off of much of the last vestiges of "civil" society (eg, legalization of drugs and prostitution) and the creation of a police force that is expressly devoted to crimes of violence.

What becomes obvious, however, in terms such as "feral city" is that such cities (and their populations) are viewed as innately ungovernable. In other words, the statist/fascist nightmare of a population the refuses to obey orders and respond to the external attempt to impose culture, values and order on people who have found or developed their own.

April 15, 2010 4:40 AM  
Blogger C Meade said...

Thanks for this great write up and consideration of the three books; I'm sure to check them out. Reading, I was strongly reminded of Achille Mbembe's article on "necropolitics," (a google search turns up the following link, which appears to be public: which is likewise derived in part from Foucault, and describes siege and occupation tactics like those Weizman treats.

April 18, 2010 4:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having read several of your military/security posts, I must admit to being confused by your simultaneous voyeurism and righteous indignation concerning urban warfare.

As noted above, your characterization of RAND is simply wrong.

At a certain point, walls and check points either work, or they don’t. I’m not sure what you have written provides any insight or alternatives regarding these issues.

April 26, 2010 6:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"RAND Corporation (Research ANd Development[2]) is a nonprofit global policy think tank first formed to offer research and analysis to the United States armed forces by Douglas Aircraft Company"... So RAND absolutey IS an Airforce thinktank, among many other things. Tavistock created RAND, along with SRI and many other 'think tanks'. Granted RAND is more than an Airforce think tank, but it IS that too. Great article by Mr. Graham IMHO.

July 02, 2012 11:00 PM  

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