A manifesto for the fragile city.

Author:Muggah, Robert
Position::Projecting Migration

After more than a century of steady city expansion in northern countries, the direction of twenty first century population growth is shifting southwards. Over the next five decades, Africans, Arabs, and Asians will migrate in unprecedented numbers to cities, especially to their slums. Many of these urban settlements are insecure, disorganized, and violent. These are fragile cities and such migrations can threaten their inhabitants, countries, and the wider neighborhood. The analytical focus on fragile cities offers a novel scale when compared to fragile and failing states. It is also one that is preoccupying national policymakers, military strategists, and development experts. Drawing on theoretical and empirical contributions from geography, criminology, and sociology, this article identifies four mega-risks shaping urban fragility--the transformation and concentration of violence, turbo-urbanization, youth bulges, and the relentless penetration of new technologies. It also considers successful approaches to reversing city fragility, including twinning fragile cities with healthier and wealthier ones, investing in hotspot policing, interventions addressing at-risk youth, support for inclusive and cohesive urban growth, and the targeted application of new technologies. (1)


The potentially destabilizing effects of urbanization are considered to be among JL the most pressing global challenges of our era. More than half of the world's population currently resides in a city, and the proportion will rise to at least three-quarters over the next three decades. Today there are over 500 cities with populations exceeding 1 million, including at least twenty-eight megacities with at least 10 million inhabitants. In 1950, there were just eighty-three cities with over 1 million people and only two megacities. (2) And it is not just city size, but rather, their growing influence that matters: just 600 cities account for two-thirds of global gross domestic product (GDP). (3) The city, then, is at the center of global geopolitical, economic, and demographic transformation.

But not all cities are prospering equally. While cities like Seoul and Shanghai

are lifting off and serving as centers of national and regional growth, Mosul and Mogadishu are sinking into decay and disarray. Many of these fragile cities are emerging in rapidly urbanizing parts of Africa, Asia, and the Arab world, since the Americas and Europe have already completed their demographic transition. Indeed, the urban population of fragile and lower-income countries has increased by more than 325 percent since the 1970s. (4) Military, development, and humanitarian strategists are preoccupied with these nodes of fragility and their implications for contagion, including spreading violence and displacement. Some security experts are convinced that so-called "feral cities" and their vast slums will serve as future landscapes of national unrest, civil conflict, and urban insurgency. (5)

Animated in part by policy concerns, some scholars and practitioners are critically examining the causes and consequences of fragile cities. This burgeoning epistemic community consists of urbanists, geographers, criminologists, sociologists, and economists who are not just motivated by academic inquiry, but also searching for practical ways of preventing violence and promoting cohesion and inclusivity in the metropolis. (6) Some of them are concerned exclusively with the causes and consequences of fragility in northern cities, while others are exploring insecurity in urban centers and their peripheries of the Global South. What many are finding is that, in spite of their many differences, there are common patterns of risk giving rise to city fragility that transcend temporal, spatial, social, and economic categories.

An emphasis on fragile cities offers a useful scale when compared to fragile or failed states. The first section of this article considers the form and character of the fragile city. Drawing on contributions from a wide array of social science disciplines, the next section considers four key mega-risks influencing urban fragility--the transformation and concentration of violence, turbo-urbanization, an expanding youth population, and new technologies. The final section highlights evidence-based approaches to reversing city fragility, including twinning fragile cities with more stable ones; data-driven, hotspot policing; interventions focused on at-risk youth; inclusive and cohesive municipal development; and the cautious and focused application of new technologies. In this way, the article considers the many opportunities to foster resilience in fragile cities, drawing attention to how local authorities are mobilizing to positive effect.


Twenty-first century security, stability, and sustainable development will be decided in large, medium, and smaller-sized cities. The reason for this is straightforward: Most people are moving to the metropolis. While urbanization has proceeded for thousands of years, the latter half of the twentieth century witnessed a dramatic uptick in patterns of rural-urban migration. (7) For the past hundred years, North American, Western European, and Latin American citizens moved in massive numbers to cities and suburbs. In the 1800s, just one in thirty residents of these regions lived in cities. Today, three in four live there. These regions, by and large, completed their urban transition--the spatial concentration of people organized around non-agricultural activities. Such is the dominance of the city in the West that commentators speak jubilantly of the triumph of cities, calling on mayors to rule the world. (8)

Global urban population growth is not only continuing, it is dramatically shifting and speeding up. Over the next fifty years, Africans, Arabs, and--in particular--Asians will be moving to cities in staggering numbers. More than 90 percent of all population growth will occur in cities and the sprawling slums and shanty-towns of the South, adding another 2.5 billion people to urban settings by 2050. (9) A few countries will drive this urban expansion: Nigeria will add 212 million new city residents, China another 292 million urban dwellers, and India some 404 million inhabitants. (10) And while many citizens are migrating to large cities, intermediate and smaller settlements with less than half a million people are growing at the fastest rate. This spectacular move to southern cities is in direct contrast to past and future population growth rates in most northern cities. It took cities in North America and Western Europe centuries to grow to their current size. Some of them are now shifting into reverse as populations emigrate.

Whether in the North or South, the global turn to the city appears to be, by and large, a successful experiment. Civic planners in the world's largest metropolises are learning how to construct safer, more cohesive, and livable spaces. (12) City life is widely considered to have many advantages over rural living, with urban residents typically living longer, gaining more education, and featuring higher living standards. (13) Across the developed world, urban networks of "smart," "digital," or "intelligent" cities are emerging to confront not just local but international problems. (14) Multinational firms such as Cisco, IBM, and Microsoft are actively pursuing contracts with municipal authorities to construct data fusion centers. (15) This "networked urbanism" is seeking to anticipate and design-out crime, facilitate new kinds of participatory urban governance, strengthen the quality and quantity of service delivery, and build in greener management of the metropolitan commons. (16) Political theorists such as Benjamin Barber are convinced that this move toward empowering cities will inspire and consolidate deliberative democracy and build a more cosmopolitan global commons. (17)

Not all cities are moving in the same direction. To be sure, some of them are doing remarkably well. (18) While a handful of megacities are thriving and alliances of cities are learning from one another, others are falling dangerously behind. (19) In the weakest cities the social contract binding municipal governments to their citizens is falling apart and violence is on the rise. The erosion of these kinds of political settlements in some cities is both a cause and effect of wider transformations in national and municipal governance and spatial organization. In fast-growing cities of the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Arab world, urban governance is divided increasingly between the haves and the have-nots.

The political, social, and economic divide between the wealthy and poor is frequently reproduced spatially in cities. For example, more than 110 million of Latin America's estimated 558 million residents live in slums. Many of these informal settlements are considered no-go areas--or state(s) of exception, as described by Giorgio Agamben. (20) They are at once confronted with limited public policing, basic utilities and services, while simultaneously subjected to extra-judicial controls and interventions by state authorities. Entire neighborhoods and sections of cities display a myriad of risk factors that limit the upward and outward mobility of their residents and expose them to recurrent threats. Residents are literally trapped--physically, psychologically, and symbolically--across generations. It is no surprise that commentators talk apocryphally of a planet of slums and the coming age of urban guerrilla warfare. (21)

The most dangerous of them can be called fragile cities. (22) These are discrete metropolitan units whose governance arrangements exhibit a declining ability and/ or willingness to deliver on the social contract. (23) The advent of the fragile city is not entirely a surprise. Arjun Appadurai anticipated the implosion of global and national politics into urban spaces...

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