07 February 2012

Urbicide. A Crime Against Urbanity

 Erin Koenig
On August 25, 1992, the National Library in Sarajevo and its contents were destroyed over three days of incendiary grenade attacks launched by Serb forces. The library, a fusion of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian architectural styles, housed over a million books, one hundred thousand manuscripts and centuries of historical records from the Balkans. For days following the attack, residents described a thick cloud of ash that hung above the city as pieces of charred books and manuscripts floated to the ground. “It was the most apocalyptic thing I’d ever seen,” said Sarajevan Aida Musanovic. The horror had not been directed toward an army or intended just to annex territory; to borrow Musanovic’s words, it rather “sought the cultural eradication of a people and all evidence of that people’s culture and existence”.1
In 2002, the Israeli Defense Force launched Operation Defense Shield, which left 140 multi-family housing blocks completely destroyed – 1,500 significantly damaged – and some 4,000 residents homeless2 in the Jenin refugee camp. The weapon that dominated the operation was not a machine gun, tank or even incendiary bombs – it was rather the D-9 Caterpillar bulldozer.
Three years later, Robert Mugabe initiated a large-scale government campaign to forcibly clear slum areas across Zimbabwe. Described as a crackdown on illicit housing and commercial activities, Operation Murambatsvina3 deployed police across Zimbabwe's urban areas in order to uproot millions of people; among other weapons, the bulldozer played a key offensive role.

These examples – and countless others – serve as disturbing illustrations of an emerging phenomenon. Termed urbicide, this process undermines the city and its inhabitants by disrupting urban rituals and spaces. From unrestrained destruction during times of war to chronic urban blight, urbicide can occur in a variety of forms; what remains consistent is the objective of forcing urban inhabitants into the surrender of not only functional but also symbolic urban spaces. It is a process intended to corrode cities by attacking their foundational places – of worship, education, exchange and commerce – and characteristics – density, cosmopolitanism and heterogeneity.

As cities bisected by walls, architecturally and psychologically, Belfast, Berlin and Jerusalem have a complicated relationship with their urban barriers. Walls are often introduced to inhibit violent clashes amongst the population; however, such responses are urbicidal in that they hinder any possibility for collaborative local democracy. According to Thomas Fraser, Provost of the University of Ulster and Coordinator of the Belfast-Jerusalem Civil Society Partnership4, the closer people are emotionally, culturally and spatially, the more difficult it is to build walls and divide into homogenous communities. Based on the work of the partnership, Fraser makes an obvious yet oft-neglected point in that it becomes more difficult to fight and to hate someone if you are actually able to recognize them. If you literally don’t see the enemy, then it becomes easier to fear them and to hate them.

In cities such as São Paolo, Mexico City and Johannesburg, fortified enclaves have emerged as a popular housing option, which illustrates yet another manner of urbicide: these communities change the shape and operation of the cities in which they are built. Social boundaries become increasingly rigid and, as they are complemented by physical structures, residents of all groups have some sense of exclusion and restriction. Truly public spaces are eroded, left to “the poor, the homeless and street children, who are left vulnerable to violence and abuse by various control groups, including criminals and the security forces”.5

As the majority of the world's population now lives in urban areas, cities have become critical to human interaction. Precisely due to this emerging reality, urban spaces have materialized as an influential variable to human and socio-economic security. To be sure, organized settlements have always been targets to some extent, as urban areas are not only strategic for mass destruction but are also frequently associated with wealth and power.

However, in a world with 3.5 billion urban dwellers, the impact of violence deliberately aimed at cities has become a grave threat. Not only are the potential consequences much broader but urbicide itself can be perpetrated by a variety of factions, including political authorities, insurgent groups, military forces and citizen groups – depending on the political or economic situation of a given society. In fact, it can even be initiated by a single individual – just the threat of a suicide bomb interrupts the use of schools, public markets and places of worship by urban inhabitants.

In any of its incarnations, urbicide opposes interconnected, resilient cities and seeks to disrupt urban citizen networks. Yet, municipalities have so far been compromised in their ability to respond. Despite the fact that cities over 20 million possess larger populations than 75% of the world’s countries, the bombings in New York, London, Madrid, and Baghdad suggest that large cities remain as vulnerable as ever.

Human security must be recognized and addressed by all levels of government, as both State and non-state actors increasingly act out their respective political, religious and ethno-nationalist struggles on an urban stage. Whether cities are targeted by conventional weapons or bulldozers, the intent to damage and destroy both the symbolic and the mundane remains consistent.

A growing body of analysis suggests that urban security can be enhanced through cohesive spaces, which counter social and spatial instability. Therefore, the most effective approach for inoculating cities against urbicidal acts is ground-level policy directed toward building social cohesion and ensuring consistent social and spatial entitlements for urban citizens. Without an expanded interest in cities that acknowledges their unique territorial and architectural character and influence, municipalities will remain defenseless in countering urbicide.
1 Quote taken from Sells, Michael. The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia. Berkeley: University of California Press: 1998: 1, 5.
2 Steven Graham, “Lessons in Urbicide”, New Left Review, No. 19, p. 63 (2003).
3 This title is in Shona, an African language spoken by nearly 80% of Zimbabweans, and translates to ‘Operation Drive Out Trash’ in English although the Government translated it as ‘Operation Restore Order’.
4 Based at the University of Ulster, this initiative was established to address the effects of urban intolerance. It enables cities coming together or moving apart, to learn from each other's mistakes through examining best practices that have evolved in ‘divided cities’.
5 Landeman, K. and Schönteich, M. “Urban Fortresses: Gated Communities as a reaction to crime”. African Security Review. 11(4). 2002: 8.

At the time of writing this essay, Erin Koenig’s research focussed on the nature, transformations and implications of spatial and social relations in cities.  Her work has been published in a variety of periodicals, as well as on behalf of Amnesty International, the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. Erin has served as a consultant with UNESCO’s Human Rights Section in Paris, an international electoral observer in Chiapas and El Salvador, a peace and reconciliation educator in Ireland and worked with the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights, located in Costa Rica.  She is a member of PeaceBuild, attended the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation.

Erin Koenig.  'Urbicide. A Crime Against Urbanity.'  On Site review, no. 22 Fall 2009
©Erin Koenig and On Site review