Please pray for my city, Too much hate in my city, Too many heartaches in my city, But I got faith in my city – the blood red lyrics that smack the screen in Spike Lee’s latest cinematic commentary Chiraq (2015) set the tone for the startling statistic at the heart of the film: American deaths in the Iraq war from 2003 to 2011 stand at 4,424, while homicides in Chicago between 2001 and 2015 reached 7,356.  As the gun debate continues to infiltrate American homes, businesses and the White House alike, there’s one thing that’s clear – civil wars and local conflicts are far more frequent and likelier to occur than international or regional ones. The increased adoption of democracy, international organizations and fixed state borders since the Cold War certainly have a role to play in quelling international warfare, as diplomacy replaced destruction, but what is driving the upsurge in domestic instability from Aleppo to Chicago, Borno to London, the outskirts of Bogota to the very heart of Paris?

While Spike Lee’s solution lay in Ancient Greek comedy – Chiraq uses Lysistrata as its inspiration; a story that sees the women of the city withhold sex from their male counterparts as a form of punishment for their warring ways – contemporary civil conflict is no laughing matter. What Lee manages to touch upon, however, is the inextricability of war, and indeed peace, from basic human needs. Bringing Lysistrata out of the realm of Greek mythology and into the real world, the movie cites the 2003 Liberian sex strike inspired by the same play when the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace withheld marital affections, among other nonviolent protests, leading to the end of a 14-year civil war and the election of the country’s first female head of state.

While sex might not be on the top of the list of reasons Syria continues to wage war on itself, a spike in food prices during their longest drought in recent history, leading to an urban influx searching for new work opportunities, might be. Meanwhile, the city of Chicago’s unemployment rate is among the highest in the USA – a whopping 5.6% as recorded in Q4 2015, with the rate jumping to 14.7% among the black community – and a 10% poverty rate, concentrated in predominantly black areas, had CNN announce the Windy City as the most segregated city in America. Widely regarded as the world’s longest internal war, Colombia’s four-sided conflict has seen 5 million citizens displaced, creating one of the world’s largest mega-slums in Ciudad Bolivar – a previously rural district on the outskirts of Bogota, now home to some of the highest levels of violence in the country. Concurrent attacks in Paris have proven to be homegrown, with perpetrators often radicalized in the poverty-stricken and segregated suburbs or banlieues of the City of Light. Boko Haram’s operations are very much centered around Lake Chad – a vital source of water for some 30 million in east Africa – which has shrunk 90% since 1960s due to a combination of global warming and population increases. This has led to a near elimination of the traditional agriculture industry and consequent unemployment, helping conscription efforts by the terrorist organization.

Though every conflict is unique and the origins are often sociopolitical, geography and specifically urbanization and its causes, processes and effects are often major contributors to the atmospheres most susceptible to instability. If we take the dictionary definition of urbanization to mean the process by which rural populations move into cities and when traditionally rural areas begin to resemble and function more like cities, we can identify a few interconnected, broad areas in which the process can lay the foundations for or add another layer to internal or civil conflicts: population, demographics and the integration and employability of different groups, accessibility of housing, landownership and mobility rights, and access to and sustainability of vital resources.

Civil Conflicts Heat Up

While the link between urbanization and global warming is pretty clear– urban sprawl replaces green spaces and unbalances the ecosystem, dense populations use up more resources and produce more emissions and waste – there is a growing case that connects environmental shifts and urban development with the advent of conflict. The ongoing debate about whether or not climate change contributes to sociopolitical stability or lack thereof has academics, analysts and journalists split, with some tracing contemporary conflicts to environmental changes while others consider the impact of such shifts as incidental at best. Though a situation in which conflict breaks out over dwindling natural resources isn’t hard to imagine for even the least scientifically minded, the factors that can exacerbate the conditions leading to urban conflict – or as the White House puts it, ‘threat multipliers’ – need some explaining.

Prior to its bloody civil conflict, nearly five-years strong now and with a death toll of over a quarter of a million, Syria experienced one of the biggest demographic shifts in its history – some 1.5 million farmers moved from the agriculture-dependant rural economies in the north east and into the ever-expanding cities between 2007 and 2010 as a five year drought in the Fertile Crescent decimated their land. Coupled with the presence of Iraqi refugees in Syria’s cities, pressure and tension among the largely disenfranchised populations exploded in urban centres. While the drought alone was not the instigator of violence in Syria, it has certainly sped up unplanned and informal processes of urbanization and could be argued to have brought tensions to a boiling point.

Concurrently, in the winter of 2010, Egypt’s most vulnerable populations had to face ever-increasing food prices, when the price of wheat in particular doubled due to a series of unfortunate climate-change events – droughts in Russia, Ukraine and China and heavy rain fall in Canada and Australia contributed to a global wheat shortage, devastating to Egypt, the world’s biggest importer of wheat and where bread makes up 30% of the average Egyptian’s daily food intake. Add to the skyrocketing food prices a petrol shortage bringing a city of 20 million to a halt and decades of political and social stagnation, and it wasn’t long before a revolution erupted, with many across the world remembering vividly the waving of bread in Tahrir Square; a symbol of the ongoing struggle for the most basic means of survival.

Months later, in the newly established South Sudan, civil war would erupt as several factions fought for power in the world’s youngest country. Having experienced an average temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius since 1980 – two and half times greater than the global average – it is expected that agriculture, forestry and livestock will suffer, and considering that 2.5 million South Sudanese citizens are already classified as food insecure by the UN, many expect the conflict to worsen. Meanwhile, with decreased rainfall, it is estimated that by drying impacts already recorded in the Upper Nile, Jonglei and Eastern Equatoria will likely reach into West and North Bahr al-Ghazal, Warrap, Unity, Al Buhairat (Lakes) and Central Equatoria by 2025, meaning the UN declared level-3 emergency in South Sudan could be exacerbated by water scarcity.

While none of these urban conflicts were instigated by environmental pressures alone, it’s clear that climate change and dwindling natural resources add another dimension of instability, mistrust and desperation to conflict, as a direct result of urbanization.


London youth face off with the police during the 2011 riots

A Tale of Two, Three or Four Cities

“Egyptians and Tunisians took revenge for Khaled Said and Bouazizi by peacefully toppling their murdering regimes, not stealing DVD players,” tweeted one Egyptian journalist as unprecedented scenes of violence, rioting and looting in London took over international TV screens in the summer of 2011. Widespread conflict between youth and police forces in the quaint capital of culture was far from expected, but when police opened fire and killed an unarmed, 29-year old black man, a peaceful protest quickly turned violent in the North London district of Tottenham – an area with the most significant Afro-Carribean population in the capital, as well as the highest recorded rate of unemployment. Rioting and looting quickly spread as youth across London used social networks and Blackberry Messenger to mobilize, with significant outbreaks specifically in low-income neighbourhoods. Though the ethnic makeup of the following arrests was diverse, the upheaval which lead to hundreds of millions in damages, five associated deaths, tens of injuries and the torching of public buses, can be directly attributed to the perceived unjustness of police profiling of youth and minorities, and high level of discontentment in the most disadvantaged of districts.

Chicago is perhaps the realest and most concerning example of racial inequalities resulting in continuous urban warfare. Over 30% of Chicago’s black population are considered to be living in poverty, concentrated in the city’s South and West sides. In contrast, the average income for white residents has grown 33% between 1990 – 2012, and young, wealthy professionals are increasingly moving to the North Side and certain neighbourhoods west of downtown. This clear, physical segregation is the key contributor to the creation of unliveable, unstable ghettos and consequent turf wars, aided by gentrification and the tearing down of government housing projects, leaving vulnerable black and Latino families displaced. Poorly planned and unequal urban development, thus, is a direct cause of urban conflict, and reports of systematic racial profiling by police, employers landlords alike has left black youth in particular disenfranchised, angry and prone to violence and organized crime. In the first 10 days of 2016 alone, 125 Chicagoans were shot and 20 homicides were recorded: 82% of victims were black and the remaining were Hispanic.

With globalization growing hand in hand with urbanization, it’s no surprise that many of today’s cities experience a cosmopolitanism in their population makeup. While different races, ethnicities, languages, religions and classes contribute greatly to the culture and vibrancy of a city, they also provide plenty of points of contention when the different populations are not well integrated. Frustrations regarding the lack of equal opportunities and perceived or actual segregation are amplified in urbanized environments. In fact, when government and security apparatus are actively involved in domestic conflict, it is often cities that they target as a center of operation.

While ethnoreligious tensions and land rights are main drivers of the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine, spatio-politics are increasing in relevance as instigators of day-to-day violence in Jerusalem. The built environment and city planning rooted in segregation has been considered by many scholars as a tool in the Israeli offensive to confine and limit the mobility of Palestinians; the architecture of occupation so to speak. Israel’s security apparatus in the early 2000s spoke distinctly of dismantling the ‘infrastructure of terror’ when launching attacks on the cities and camps in West Bank, recognizing that a failure in the Palestinian urban environment is a success for themselves. After the international outcry that followed Israel’s 2002 offensive, the state sought to formalize its urban warfare tactics by upgrading a mock-up Arab city built in the desert to be used for military drills and emergency simulations. They called that city Chicago.