Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

A Manifesto for the Fragile City

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

A Manifesto for the Fragile City

Article excerpt

After more than a century of steady city expansion in northern countries, the direction of twenty first century population growth is shifting southwards. Over the next five decades, Africans, Arabs, and Asians will migrate in unprecedented numbers to cities, especially to their slums. Many of these urban settlements are insecure, disorganized, and violent. These are fragile cities and such migrations can threaten their inhabitants, countries, and the wider neighborhood. The analytical focus on fragile cities offers a novel scale when compared to fragile and failing states. It is also one that is preoccupying national policymakers, military strategists, and development experts. Drawing on theoretical and empirical contributions from geography, criminology, and sociology, this article identifies four mega-risks shaping urban fragility--the transformation and concentration of violence, turbo-urbanization, youth bulges, and the relentless penetration of new technologies. It also considers successful approaches to reversing city fragility, including twinning fragile cities with healthier and wealthier ones, investing in hotspot policing, interventions addressing at-risk youth, support for inclusive and cohesive urban growth, and the targeted application of new technologies. (1)


The potentially destabilizing effects of urbanization are considered to be among JL the most pressing global challenges of our era. More than half of the world's population currently resides in a city, and the proportion will rise to at least three-quarters over the next three decades. Today there are over 500 cities with populations exceeding 1 million, including at least twenty-eight megacities with at least 10 million inhabitants. In 1950, there were just eighty-three cities with over 1 million people and only two megacities. (2) And it is not just city size, but rather, their growing influence that matters: just 600 cities account for two-thirds of global gross domestic product (GDP). (3) The city, then, is at the center of global geopolitical, economic, and demographic transformation.

But not all cities are prospering equally. While cities like Seoul and Shanghai

are lifting off and serving as centers of national and regional growth, Mosul and Mogadishu are sinking into decay and disarray. Many of these fragile cities are emerging in rapidly urbanizing parts of Africa, Asia, and the Arab world, since the Americas and Europe have already completed their demographic transition. Indeed, the urban population of fragile and lower-income countries has increased by more than 325 percent since the 1970s. (4) Military, development, and humanitarian strategists are preoccupied with these nodes of fragility and their implications for contagion, including spreading violence and displacement. Some security experts are convinced that so-called "feral cities" and their vast slums will serve as future landscapes of national unrest, civil conflict, and urban insurgency. (5)

Animated in part by policy concerns, some scholars and practitioners are critically examining the causes and consequences of fragile cities. This burgeoning epistemic community consists of urbanists, geographers, criminologists, sociologists, and economists who are not just motivated by academic inquiry, but also searching for practical ways of preventing violence and promoting cohesion and inclusivity in the metropolis. (6) Some of them are concerned exclusively with the causes and consequences of fragility in northern cities, while others are exploring insecurity in urban centers and their peripheries of the Global South. What many are finding is that, in spite of their many differences, there are common patterns of risk giving rise to city fragility that transcend temporal, spatial, social, and economic categories.

An emphasis on fragile cities offers a useful scale when compared to fragile or failed states. The first section of this article considers the form and character of the fragile city. …

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