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  • Introduction to Urbicide: The Killing of Cities?
  • David Campbell (bio), Stephen Graham (bio), and Daniel Bertrand Monk (bio)

....It’s difficult you see

To give up baby

These summer scumholes

This goddamned starving life

All the majesty of a city landscape

All the soaring days in our lives

All the concrete dreams

in my mind’s eye

All the joy I see

Thru these architect’s eyes

David Bowie1

2007 marks a milestone in human social organization. For the first time in history, more people will live in cities than in the countryside.2 With this threshold having been reached through enormous growth in the 1990s (when the urban population expanded by 36%), the result is a situation in which the ‘right to the city’ has never been a more contested political, social and geopolitical issue. Moreover, with the majority of urban growth taking place in the so-called developing world, more than 1 billion people now inhabit the slums, bidonvilles, favellas and other forms of pirate urbanism that frame the neoliberal city. Those residents are also disproportionately located in the global South. As Mike Davis notes, residents of slums, while only six percent of the city population of the developed countries, constitute a staggering 78.2 percent of the urbanites in the least-developed countries.”3

As well as the more familiar debates about migration, multiculturalism, and inequality, this unprecedented scale of global urbanization is also directing intellectual attention in the arts, humanities and social sciences to focus on the role of cities as dominant sites of destruction, violence, insurgency and terrorism in the contemporary world. As traditional wars between nation states conducted in open terrain have become objects of relative curiosity, so the informal, ‘asymmetric’ or ‘new’ wars that centre on localized struggles over strategic urban sites have become the norm.4 The scale of global urbanization, combined with post-Cold War geopolitical upheaval, neoliberal economic restructuring, and a proliferation of well armed non-state militia, gangs, and paramilitaries, have forced what Appadurai has called an “implosion of global and national politics into the urban world.”5 This is a tendency that was anticipated by students of Clausewitz (like Delbruck, who first theorized an ermattungsstrategie, or strategy of attrition), as well as modernist theorists of war like Giulio Douhet and J.F.C. Fuller, who suggested that future warfare would target the city because its objective would be the destruction of the “civil will.”6 However, it is also true that few of these thinkers (even Fuller, who was an avid student of Lewis Mumford’s writings) anticipated the way in which warfare in the 21st century would migrate hand in hand with the world’s poor into Davis’ planet of slums. As Misselwitz and Weizman argue, “war has entered the city again – the sphere of the everyday, the private realm of the house.”7

A reappraisal of this phenomenon is long overdue, principally because academic divisions of labor have inhibited critical research that addresses the complex intersection between political violence and the attempted targeting or annihilation of urban places. On the one hand, the fields primarily oriented towards understanding political violence – political science, history and international relations – have, at most, tended to treat the geographical and urban sites of that violence as little but passive backdrops for political processes, or worse, as the self-evident obstacles to the implementation of policy. On the other hand, disciplines directly concerned with understanding urban place – geography, architecture, sociology and urban planning – have yet to develop interpretations that address the complex relation between the city, war, terrorism, and other forms of political violence.8 Instead, they have largely treated the destruction of cities as the intention of warfare per se, in the process unproblematically conflating the aims of conflict with its targets. The insufficiency of these approaches is highlighted by contemporary events. Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s Operation Murambatsvina (what the Zimbabwean police call “restore order” but the critics translate as “clean out the filth”), which has displaced over 700,000 residents of Harare and Bulawayo in retaliation for the shanty dwellers’ perceived disloyalty to the president during the 2005 elections, cannot be reduced to the given alternatives offered...

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