Urban Conflict
06 May 2019

The Morphology of Urban Conflict

As the world population grows and increasingly clusters in urban spaces, Professor Ravi Bhavnani and PhD candidate Mirko Reul argue that conflict will be redirected – whether purposefully or unintentionally – to cities.

During the Cold War, civil conflict had a rural bent which research mirrored. Urban environments were traditionally viewed as undermining identifications that provide an impetus for fighting, too well protected as the home bases of elites and even prohibitive to rebel operations. As the world population grows and increasingly clusters in urban spaces, we argue that conflict will be redirected – whether purposefully or unintentionally – to cities. Results from several recent studies provide substantial support for a nascent urban propensity towards conflict – an emerging “urban shift”.

One may attribute the shift to a number of factors. Cities are natural targets because of their political, economic, symbolic and logistical significance, which ensures that they are vital nodes to control in relation to trade, transportation, and communications. Accelerated social and economic changes in cities cause political instability, inequality and unemployment, resulting in alienation, dislocation and the articulation of demands that previously would have been unthinkable. Crime is another major factor contributing to human insecurity in cities. It is contingent on opportunities for predation combined with low risk of incarceration, and is often perceived as having become “the raison d’être of the new wars”. Urban areas with high population densities further heighten opportunities for geographically concentrated groups to organise. It follows that cities frequently become the repositories of organised and unorganised violence by non-state actors as well as the state.

The Lens of Urban Morphology

As armed conflict and violence shift to urban areas where a majority and growing share of the world’s population resides – a trend we expect to be more pronounced in the coming decade – the very nature of conflict is undergoing a transformation. The specific lens of urban morphology employed here accentuates the evolving interactions among the dimensions of structure, identity, control and conflict that alter the circumstances and influence the outcomes of urban conflicts and affect one another in an endogenous manner:

  • Structure. Essential to structure is the physical and demographic landscape. Cities vary in terms of size, scale and shape, reflecting different levels of accessibility or local/global integration, as well as different spatial signatures or “city fingerprints” and residential settlement patterns.
  • Identity. Today’s conflicts are characterised by multiple groups, shifting allegiances, and resulting changes in group boundaries and balances. Identity complexity is further amplified in cities, where individuals navigate multiple dimensions of their identities in close proximity to a myriad of others, and where the distinction between civilian and combatant is increasingly blurred.
  • Control. Complete territorial control is difficult to attain in urban areas. A monopoly of violence is necessary for control, and society effectively becomes a battlefield as rival actors compete for the support and allegiance of civilian populations.
  • Conflict. In urban settings, multiple conflicts and forms of violence – spanning the gamut from homicides and crime to terror, protests, riots, and pogroms, to outright rebellion and warfare – can coexist. This “profile” can shift with changes in the urban landscape or be (re)framed to suit prevailing agendas, making interrelated events of this nature inherently difficult to record, let alone forecast with precision and reliability.

The Future Armed Conflict in Cities

As cities emerge as the dominant sites for civil conflict, international organisations and governments are faced with situations that differ markedly from rural locales. For one, the humanitarian situation for civilians is likely to be dire. The structure of densely populated cities makes collective punishment more probable as armed actors vie for control – inflicting casualties, disrupting rival attempts at governance, and destroying civilian-occupied buildings, enclaves, and infrastructure in the process. The interconnectedness of urban services exacerbates the problem. As the number of independent actors vying for control in an urban area increases, humanitarian access to these areas becomes decidedly more complicated, with emergency service provision often hinging on negotiations with competing factions or de facto recognition of violent political orders.

And even in cities where armed actors revive economic life and public services, it is difficult to distinguish between voluntary civilian support and forced compliance for fear of punishment. Where military authority over relatively unpopulated areas offers few opportunities for dissenters to act collectively, cities facilitate the emergence of micro-political orders, partially controlled by civilian actors. Moving forward, complete military, economic and social control over densely populated urban areas appears less and less feasible, even in the aftermath of civil conflict.

The heterogeneity of factors associated with urban conflict, including complex patterns of causation and interdependence, requires us to move beyond narrow categorisations and conceptualisations. In such systems, a single factor may change, but the intricate links between causal factors make the eradication of violence extremely difficult. In order to study the micro-dynamics of urban conflict, fine-grained data from multiple sources, including geo-coded, social media and survey data, is required, as are methods to explore the interplay between structure, identity, control and conflict – the lens of urban morphology proposed here. 

This article was published in the latest edition of Globe, the Graduate Institute Review. It appears under "Conflict and Peacebuiding in the 21st Century", a dossier produced by the Research Office in collaboration with the Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP) and based on the latest issue of Global Challenges.