Illegally constructed buildings about 30 miles north of Cairo. The pace of unlicensed building exploded in the security vacuum following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.
Illegally constructed buildings about 30 miles north of Cairo. The pace of unlicensed building exploded in the security vacuum following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Asmaa Waguih/Reuters

The international community needs to focus on assisting the development of well-planned, stable cities, for both strategic and humanitarian reasons.

The city is the most powerful tool humanity has for social and economic development. High rates of urbanization are associated with many positive outcomes including higher income and lower infant mortality. This positive linkage is being threatened by the joint challenge of rapid urbanization and destabilization in some of the world's most conflict-affected regions. Policy discussions must specifically address the issue of cities and the unique challenges of promoting stability and preventing urban conflict or risk further damage to global development.

Cities such as Tokyo, Shanghai, London and New York are dense but relatively orderly, and benefitted from more planning and economic development as they grew. The developing world has many cities that have become examples of good governance and reduction of armed violence. For instance, Medellín in Colombia has become an international example of recovery from guerrilla and later criminal threats. Cities such as Abu Dhabi and Algiers have also combined good administration and security.

In contrast, there are sprawling and unplanned cities in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South Asia that have become magnets for armed actors due to the abundance of illicit flows, such as drugs and weapons, that help fund conflict. These disruptive actors also take advantage of dense peripheries which governments struggle to reach. If aid donors, international organizations and armed forces don’t prioritize rapidly-growing cities and work together to stabilize them, slow-burning tensions can escalate into violent conflict.

The latest data on global urbanization trends, released in May by the United Nations, underlines the challenge: its map of the fastest-growing cities on Earth is practically a heat map of Sub-Saharan Africa, a region hosting half of the UN’s peacekeeping operations and several of its current humanitarian crises. Its urban population is forecast to grow by 166 percent and surpass the 1 billion mark by 2045. To the east, the key conflict hotspots of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan all expect to more than double their population of urbanites in less than 30 years (Afghanistan’s will almost triple from 8 to 22 million).

The numbers show two things: first, that urban population growth is concentrated where governance and institutional mechanisms are already fragile; second, that urbanization is linked to armed conflict and post-conflict recovery. This is likely to remain the case throughout this century. Currently, cities are not a priority for aid donors, international organisations and armed forces working to prevent conflict and stabilize post-conflict countries. Urban projects account for less than 1 percent of international development aid for poor countries, even in those heavily-affected by armed conflict such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The United Nations has warned that the current level of funding for urban projects is unlikely’ to cover the needs of the additional one billion urban dwellers expected in the world’s 47 ‘least developed countries’ by 2050.

A recent independent review ordered by Secretary-General António Guterres pointed out the UN's 'failure' to acknowledge the “pace, scale and implications of urbanization.” Peacekeeping missions have paid no attention to the implications of urban population growth, in Africa and elsewhere. UN Habitat, the main international body working on urban planning and policies, has been one of the most cash-strapped arms of the United Nations.

Finally, and perhaps more ominously, military force is fast becoming the default mechanism for Western powers to deal with conflict in cities. The U.S. Army has stated that a future deployment to a megacity (areas with 10 million inhabitants or more) is “inevitable”and “currently the Army is ill-prepared to do so.” Other studies have predicted bleak ‘battle spaces’ resulting from poor governance of urban areas, dominated by foot soldiers and street-to-street fighting. One author recently stated that sometimes, unfortunately, “militaries must destroy” cities in order to save them.

All of this points to a dangerous gap in international policies: There is no mechanism for addressing the middle space between peace and war. International security in our “urban century” needs to embrace the social and spatial challenges of cities.

The spillovers from conflicts such the Syrian civil war are overwhelming local authorities and increasing sectarian and political tensions in nearby cities. Around 90 percent of Syrian refugees have fled to urban areas in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. These are areas of strategic interest to the US and its Western strategic partners in the fight against radicalization and terrorism.

In Aleppo (Syria) and Mosul (Iraq), the improvement of relations between local communities of different ethnicities or religious affiliations should have been, and can still be, a focus. These tensions and unrest often precede or accompany the escalation of violence. Strengthening local security actors and institutions such as peacebuilding NGOs, neighborhood councils, violence prevention agencies, and the police, can aid national authorities in providing early warning of political and ethnic tensions. Beirut, in Lebanon, and Mogadishu, in Somalia, face escalating political and ethnic violence related to nearby conflicts, making their chaotic urbanization process even more consequential for global security. Yet, as things stand, an increasing gulf is forming between military forces studying for urban warfare in megacities and international institutions and aid donors looking away from the complexities of local conflict prevention, stabilisation and peacebuilding.

Armed forces, the UN and aid organizations (such as USAID and the UK’s DFID) will sooner or later have to face up to the political and military implications of rapid urban growth. The U.S. and its partners should expand their focus on urban areas from the military domain to a strategic level, using diplomacy, aid and institutional assistance. Getting urbanization to work for the most fragile nations will require a greater understanding of how cities interact with the drivers of conflict and how they recover and build peace. If done right, this process can restore urban areas to their rightful role as engines for growth and progress.

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