- Law, order and conflicts
- What are the greatest factors that make a city fragile? Choose a specific case example to support your argument.
Cities are exceptional places. They concentrate opportunity, are productive, create employment, spur creativity, learning and culture through institutions like universities and museums. But they also concentrate inequality, poverty and risk; and below the surface is often violence, crime and conflict. How does one reconcile these very different facets of cities?
What happens in cities when governance and law and order break down, regimes become oppressive and lose credibility, when institutions become weak or are subject to massive economic shock or even a disaster?
Can cities and regions fail, be destroyed and abandoned? And if that happens, can they ever recover or even build back better? Peace, justice, the rule of law and strong and effective institutions as seen in SDG 16 are as important for cities as countries. In the absence of good governance, strong local institutions, citizen participation and empowerment, it’s relatively easy for urban areas to descend rapidly into social, economic and political conflict and then chaos.
When that happens the economy contracts, property is destroyed, society becomes fractured and conflict ridden, people die or are killed, the environment is often devastated and institutions and people vote with their feet. They leave the city, for a time or sometimes for ever. What worse time to look at this than during regime change?
On 30th April 1975, the world woke to shocking news. Saigon had fallen. After a bloody 20-year war in which over 3 million people were killed and the country devastated, North Vietnamese troops in a swift operation took over the city and hoisted their flag on Independence Palace. The South Vietnamese regime surrendered. With an influx of over 300,000 refugees from other locations and fighting happening all across the city, civic services broke down and anarchy reigned in the city. The prices of properties had dropped by 75% in just two weeks, that of safe passage out of the city by ship tripled and underhand payments to get an exit visa went up by six times. After the main airport of Saigon was shelled and rendered useless, the United States initiated the largest helicopter evacuation in history to bring its military personnel, diplomats and citizens to safety along with tens of thousands of South Vietnamese. Many tens of thousands were left behind.
Post-reunification, Saigon became Ho Chi Minh city, martial law was declared and order slowly restored. But it’s population declined by close to a million people. Eventually, 40 years later the city has recovered its lost population and is now Vietnam’s second largest city and a vibrant commercial centre.
The long history of urbanisation till the industrial revolution, could be seen as a series of long contractions with occasional periods of expansions of cities, their populations and economies. The fascinating thing, is that in spite of the ups and downs of individual cities, most settlement systems i.e. the mix of large cities, small towns and multitudes of villages have across the world been largely stable over time. This is except when entire cultures like the Mayans of Central America imploded.
Within a settlement system, individual cities have expanded and contracted, some were abandoned and others destroyed. But in most locations, people and cultures repopulated these places even after a long downturn. They rebuilt and expanded them in long waves of development and sometimes, decline. Yet, unlike Saigon, very few cities like Xian, Alexandria or Varanasi have been lived in or developed over many centuries or better, a millennium or more.
A critical question when we talk of sustainable cities is how long we can expect them to sustain themselves, or put in another way, what is a decent life expectancy for a city? A 100 years, 500 years , a 1000 or more? As human lives become longer, our cities too need to reflect a long-term orientation. One that goes beyond the short-term perspectives of electoral cycles or the quarter by quarter frenzy of firms. Some experts feel that the minimum time-span that we should plan for with sustainable cities is 50- 100 years. But how many contemporary cities have a 100-year plan or governance foresight that examines risk and shocks over a multi-decadal period.
The SDGs, especially SDG 11 encourages us to do just this. Rome is a classic example, of the value of the long view. It grew rather rapidly over a few hundred years from a small Italian city-state to become the heart of a large and powerful Mediterranean empire; then as the Roman Empire imploded into a vandalised city that was slowly abandoned over the next few hundred years, to become an agricultural landscape in the Middle ages. It then grew back as a centre of Papal power, finally as the capital of unified Italy, becoming a large modern metropolis. Today, it is very difficult to build underground infrastructure in Rome, because most houses and streets are built over 2,500 years of history.
Constantinople, the alter ego of Rome survived and thrived for close to 1,000 years, before it was taken by the Turks in 1453, who then renamed it Istanbul, but they maintained an economic and cultural continuity that makes this a great world city. More recently, Istanbul has seen a resurgence as the largest metropolitan city in the Islamic world. An important question that is asked is whether Istanbul was more resilient or sustainable than Rome?
We must ask a deeper question: What causes cities and regions to be fragile and sometimes to fail, to be abandoned, to be destroyed and often to be forgotten in the sands of time?
There are five classical reasons for this: One, Governance collapses linked to war and social conflict. War has for millennia been one of the most deadly enemies of urban continuity. From the Roman sack and destruction of Carthage; the 13-day siege of Baghdad by Genghis Khan’s army that led to a massacre of over a quarter of a million residents, the destruction of the great libraries of the Abbasids and the end of the golden age of Islam; the destruction and sack of the million city of Vijaynagara in south India: one of the largest and most powerful cities of the 16th century; the torching of Benin by British troops; the utter destruction of Stalingrad; the firebombing of Dresden in Germany and of Tokyo during the Second World War where in one bombing raid 40 sq. kms of the city was destroyed, with a quarter of million houses and over 100,000 people died. And finally, the devastating atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Two, drought and famine, often linked to environmental crisis, overpopulation and collapse. Fatehpur Sikri, was the capital of Mughal emperor Akbar for a short 15 years, before it was abandoned largely because of a shortage of water. More dramatic were the collapse of the Teotihuacan culture in Mexico that built the remarkable Temples of the Sun and the Moon, only to collapse due to a deforestation and drought induced by environmental crisis. The collapse of Mayan urban culture is also linked by some scholars to severe overexploitation of resources.
Three, epidemics and outbreaks of disease. The Black death or Plague reduced the population of mediaeval Florence by about three-quarters. Multiple episodes of the plague over the 13th to 15th century led the rich and aristocracy to flee London. Old Goa, the great Portuguese world-city of the 16th century on India’s western coast that boasted two universities, suffered multiple outbreaks of typhoid and cholera, as pathogens from its cesspools, contaminated the shallows wells that were used from drinking water. The city went through am ethnic cleansing due to the Inquisition and the Plague, was abandoned and then demolished block-by-block.
Four,disasters like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and cyclonic storms. Pompeii, the flourishing Roman town was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, a nearby volcano. The ancient world city of Alexandria on the Egyptian coast, was first devastated by a tsunami and then a massive earthquake. The city of Kobe, one of the largest container ports in the world, was struck by a massive earthquake in 1995, devastating the heart of the city. It never recovered its status.
Five, economic collapses often linked to changing geopolitical and geo-economic boundaries. After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, Venice – the great maritime Republic lost its monopoly of trade to Asia; Calcutta, the first colonial capital of British India and centre of industry and commerce, declined after the capital was moved to Delhi, it slowly descended into genteel poverty and depressed industry, after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. It was overtaken by over a million refugees from Bangladesh in 1971 in the context of extreme violence there.
Cities with their productivity, wealth and growing populations now concentrate more risk and opportunity of contest, conflict and breakdown than ever before. The early 21st century will be marked by the massive growth of dense urban populations within about a 100-odd kilometres of the shorelines of Asia and Africa, adding to existing coastal concentrations in the Americas and in Europe.
What will make this very different from the past, is large concentrations of poor people, living in inadequate conditions (poor housing, little water, no sanitation), many unemployed young men with some form of education and a high degree of digital connectivity. This in part is the fuel that helped a conflagration spread across North Africa and Middle East during Arab Spring. More and more violence is being concentrated in cities than in inter-state conflict. Parallels exist between drug-mafia linked violence in Rio, gang wars in many Mexican cities and mass mobilisations that we have seen in in Cairo and Hong Kong.
This is a perfect recipe for contest and urban conflict, in a world in which easy access to cheap and powerful technology and means of asymmetric warfare is now widespread.
This makes a case for the implementation of the urban SDGs, along with new forms of networked governance, community engagement and peace-keeping. The remarkable thing about many cities, is their long-term resistance or ability to bounce back from war, civil strife, disasters, economic and sometimes even environmental collapse.
Berlin and Leningrad-St.Petersburg are two cities that were devastated in the Second World War with over 300,000 causalities in the First and over 1.1 million in the siege of the Second. Berlin survived that, survived a near forty-year partition by the Berlin wall, but within 15 years after the wall came down was transformed into the capital of one of the most powerful and successful countries in Europe. Leningrad, survived a 29-month siege, was rebuilt and after the Soviet transition in 1990 went back to being St.Petersburg, which at 5 million is Russia’s second largest city. Hiroshima, lost 1,20,000 people in one of the most horrific acts of mass destruction when an atomic bomb was dropped on it, on 6 August 1945. It was rebuilt over the next decade and now has a population of over a million people. Some cities have a remarkable ability to bounce back like London. The medieval city of London was devastated by the Great Fire in 1666, which destroyed much of its houses and built fabric. It was then reconstructed on even a grander scale. Over three-fourths of San Francisco was devastated by 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires, but recovered by the 1930s to become one of the most important metropolises on the western coast of the United States. Some cities have weathered immense economic and geopolitical crises. Vienna started the 20th century as the powerful capital of the 400-year-old Habsburg Empire, following the collapse of that Empire and the loss of Hungary, it became the capital of the rump state of Austria, which was then forcibly merged with Nazi Germany in 1938. Following a long period of stasis during the Cold War, Vienna emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall as one of the more attractive and highest per capita income cities in Europe. Shanghai, the booming commercial capital of early 20th century China, became a ghost of itself in 1949 after the Communist revolution with the flight of capital, citizens and foreigners from the city. The city saw remarkable resurgence in the late 1980s as a symbol of enterprise and the new China. It now has more skyscrapers than Manhattan and is an iconic reminder of the power of urban transformation.
In summary: Peace, justice, the rule of law and strong and effective institutions are as important for cities as countries. They are the bedrock of urban sustainability. There are five classical macro-threats to urban sustainability: governance collapses linked to war and social conflict; drought and famine linked to environmental crises, overpopulation and collapse; outbreaks of disease; natural disasters and economic collapses. Modern cities are exposed to additional forms of fragility: the ability to destroy entire cities with weapons of mass destruction; the rapid expansion of pandemics; Climate Change and global and regional economic crises. Cities can survive and thrive for over a 1,000 years if the conditions are right. We need to prepare,plan and develop institutions for 50-100 years to enable this long-term urban sustainability.
Rapid urbanisation combined with concentrations of poverty, poor living and economic conditions and large numbers of young people, combined with increases in connectivity and aspiration creates a set of 21st-century challenges that amplifies urban fragility and violence. Meeting the urban SDGs is an effective step in both addressing these challenges and those of long-term urban sustainability.