Feral Cities

By Norton, Richard J. | Naval War College Review, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

Feral Cities


Norton, Richard J., Naval War College Review


Imagine a great metropolis covering hundreds of square miles. 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blighted buildings, an immense petri dish of both ancient and new diseases, a territory where the rule of law has long been replaced by near anarchy in which the only security available is that which is attained through brute power.1 Such cities have been routinely imagined in apocalyptic movies and in certain science-fiction genres, where they are often portrayed as gigantic versions of T. S. Eliot's Rat's Alley.2 Yet this city would still be globally connected. It would possess at least a modicum of commercial linkages, and some of its inhabitants would have access to the world's most modern communication and computing technologies. It would, in effect, be a feral city.

Admittedly, the very term "feral city" is both provocative and controversial. Yet this description has been chosen advisedly. The feral city may be a phenomenon that never takes place, yet its emergence should not be dismissed as impossible. The phrase also suggests, at least faintly, the nature of what may become one of the more difficult security challenges of the new century.

Over the past decade or so a great deal of scholarly attention has been paid to the phenomenon of failing states. Nor has this pursuit been undertaken solely by the academic community. Government leaders and military commanders as well as directors of nongovernmental organizations and intergovernmental bodies have attempted to deal with faltering, failing, and failed states. Involvement by the United States in such matters has run the gamut from expressions of concern to cautious humanitarian assistance to full-fledged military intervention. In contrast, however, there has been a significant lack of concern for the potential emergence of failed cities. This is somewhat surprising, as the feral city may prove as common a feature of the global landscape of the first decade of the twenty-first century as the faltering, failing, or failed state was in the last decade of the twentieth. While it may be premature to suggest that a truly feral city-with the possible exception of Mogadishu-can be found anywhere on the globe today, indicators point to a day, not so distant, when such examples will be easily found.

This article first seeks to define a feral city. It then describes such a city's attributes and suggests why the issue is worth international attention. A possible methodology to identify cities that have the potential to become feral will then be presented. Finally, the potential impact of feral cities on the U.S. military, and the U.S. Navy specifically, will be discussed.

DEFINITION AND ATTRIBUTES

The putative "feral city" is (or would be) a metropolis with a population of more than a million people in a state the government of which has lost the ability to maintain the rule of law within the city's boundaries yet remains a functioning actor in the greater international system.4

In a feral city social services are all but nonexistent, and the vast majority of the city's occupants have no access to even the most basic health or security assistance. There is no social safety net. Human security is for the most part a matter of individual initiative. Yet a feral city does not descend into complete, random chaos. Some elements, be they criminals, armed resistance groups, clans, tribes, or neighborhood associations, exert various degrees of control over portions of the city. Intercity, city-state, and even international commercial transactions occur, but corruption, avarice, and violence are their hallmarks. A feral city experiences massive levels of disease and creates enough pollution to qualify as an international environmental disaster zone. Most feral cities would suffer from massive urban hypertrophy, covering vast expanses of land. The city's structures range from once-great buildings symbolic of state power to the meanest shantytowns and slums. …

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