Archis 2004 #4

Wars of the Cities

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The following text is an extract from the full article published in the #4 2004 Archis magazine.


On the one hand, in the West and advanced capitalist cities, there is a growing awareness that even the most basic urban event or malfunction – the wheel falling off a subway train, a subway driver with flu, a person with a large package, a van parked next to a strategic building – could prefigure an instant of urban catastrophe. There is a palpable sense of the wholesale collapse of national borders, potentially exposing cities to a huge range of unspeakably violent attacks and unknowable risks at any instant.


On the other hand, much of the work of governments is now driven by the imperative of ‘security’. Here, attempts are being made to reassert national and urban borders. This is being done to try and keep, or at least be seen to keep, such risks (suicide bombers, weapons of mass destruction, malign computer code, militant asylum seekers, SARS viruses) away from the West’s fragile cities and their vulnerable inhabitants and economies.


The great risk of all these proliferating assaults on cities and urban life in the current period, of course, is that our rapidly urbanising world is being forced to polarise artificially between two fundamentalist positions. Both of them are, in fact, worryingly similar. At their root, both problematise the power of cities to generate hope and wealth for the global and mixed-up diasporas that find their homes there.Whether it be George Bush’s Christian fundamentalism – which uses racist Orientalism to portray all Muslims as inherently terroristic and barbarian – or bin Laden’s Islamic fundamentalism – which suggests that only a ‘pure’ Islamic space can address the needs of Muslims – both of the ideologies fuelling the current urban killing spree are equally dangerous.


For architects and urbanists, therefore, the challenge is to fight for open, pluralistic cities, through practice, research and theory. This work must involve a concerted resistance against widespread and naïve calls for the complete remodelling of cities to face the purported risks of terror. This is a very real, but a very stealthy battle. Already, for example, some suburban US municipalities around Washington DC are bringing in zoning ordinances to ensure that buildings are pushed even further apart than is currently normal in such spaces, to further reduce the likely impact of terrorist attacks.


In addition, many downtowns are being fortressed and saturated with military-style electronic surveillance systems. The global growth of gated communities is gaining further speed because such closed communities tap into the urban zeitgeist of anxiety that has only deepened since 9/11. The post-9/11 ‘state of emergency’ is being used to justify a major crackdown on Arab-Americans and Europeans involving mass incarceration without trial. Finally, a major lobby is growing to try and tempt more and more public money into ever more elaborate urban ‘security initiatives’.


Never before have the challenges of urban practice and those of peace building been so closely interwoven. The task now is to reject the prospect of both holy terror and the national security state equally and determinedly. The ethics of architecture, urban design and planning need to be strengthened as a key part of the broader, globe-spanning political battle for an open, urban, global civil society founded on democracy, tolerance and pluralism. This does not mean, of course, that those planning catastrophic terrorist attacks should not be apprehended with all vigour. What it does mean is that the spatial and technical architectures of democratic and hybrid cities should not be reconfigured to achieve this end.


Stephen Graham is Professor of Human Geography at Durham University. His new book, Cities, War and Terrorism, will be published by Blackwell in September 2004.