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Editorial Vol 44 no 2 2019 : War and Cities

By : Paola Somma

In 2002, an issue of Open House International had already addressed the subject of war and the city. Scholars with different backgrounds and experiences reported on a number of cities. They analysed and reflected on the situation before the armed hostilities, both in physical terms and in terms of the conflicts of ethnic and civilian character, and the role of external forces and actors; the war in its different manifestations: a never ending conflict, a succession of battles and precarious truces, bombing, the threat of bombing; and the prospects of reconstruction, with particular reference to the different effects for the various groups and interests.

Today, 17 years later, the ambition of this issue, which renews OHI’s attention to the theme, is not only to provide further empirical investigation but to contribute to the broadening of the discussion, at a moment in which both the number and scale of urban conflicts does unfortunately not seem to have diminished.

Indeed since then, both the number and scope of publications dealing with the war in, and on, cities has continued to expand, with new entries alternating between reports of devastation and reconstruction projects. Quite often these documents include war as one among the many natural, and therefore “inevitable”, disasters we must all be prepared to face and mitigate.

Resilience, that is the ability of a city to resist and react to the various “shocks, stresses and hazards, that may occur”, and adapt to changed circumstances, is the key word of this paradigm, which transforms complex political problems in mere technical challenges.

The supporters of this approach place at the core of their assumptions the fact that as “natural hazards are becoming more intense and frequent… armed conflicts are also becoming increasingly complex” (Unesco and World Bank, Culture in City Reconstruction and Recovery, 2018). Hence they task built environment’ professionals with making cities “less vulnerable to shocks such as violence or full-blown conflict”.

As a consequence, experts in urban management are nowadays asked to prepare safe and defensible urban environments and combine resilience with development. Similar recommendations are addressed to the organizations and institutions involved in the relief of war victims, which should not only provide assistance to the affected communities, but finalize their intervention to the promotion of the economic development of the war-ravaged territories.

The slogan “bridge the humanitarian action and development divide” well captures the desired cooperation of all the actors involved in the rebuilding of “conflict affected” states and cities, whose roles are divided as follows: “humanitarian actors respond to crises, development actors build from them”.

The convergence of humanitarian, security and development concerns has been canonized in 2016 at the United Nations’ first World Humanitarian Summit that resulted in the creation of the Global Alliance for Urban Crises. The Alliance gathers 65 organizations working on “post conflict development and humanitarian action”, and is premised on the idea that bringing together “the two constituencies of urbanists and humanitarians will engender collaborations which meet both short-term humanitarian and longer-term development needs of urban populations and their environments”. As a matter of fact, the adhering organizations commit themselves “to work to enable urban communities to prepare for, cope with and recover from the effects of humanitarian crises, including forced displacement, natural disasters and/or armed conflicts”.

The emphasis on resilience risks to conceal the structural causes that trigger war; from the unequal distribution and control of resources to the role of financial investors and their political allies who foment mutual hostility among different groups of population.

Besides, the combination of the term resilience with that of development, appears as a lexical artifice to make it acceptable that whilst war brings death and woes, for some it still is an extraordinary opportunity for profits. Put in order words, war is a powerful accelerator of “modernization and development “.

Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that, whether they are resilient or not, cities will continue to be battlefields.

General Michael Evans (2016), the former head of the Australian Army think- thank and a Professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University in Melbourne, is convinced that ”the art of war must seek closer interaction with the science of cities”, and that western military must control the narrative of the events if they want to become better prepared to confront the challenges of future conflicts in an urban dominated world.

“In the decades ahead”, he argues, “it is a melancholy possibility that some cities in the developing world may become contested battlespaces… these zones of conflict will require the integration of the military art with the physical morphology and social geography of modern urban planning”. General Evans is aware that “such an interdisciplinary effort may prove to be challenging for scholars who harbour sensitivities towards the employment of military force in populated areas”, but reminds urban scholars that “if they refuse to engage with security officials on the challenge of controlling and ameliorating armed violence in cities, they are only likely to contribute to increased numbers of civilian casualties”.

The interest of military strategists for urban planning is not a novelty. The “command of the cities” has now become a branch of the “command of the geography” and in the United States, many analysts have been calling for a long time for the creation of a dedicated urban warfare school, claiming that “the US army has jungle, mountain and arctic warfare schools, but not an urban one”.

What might surprise is that General Evans’s paper was not published in a journal of the armed forces, but in the International Review of the Red Cross (IRRC, 2016, vol. 98, n.1).

In actual facts, however, the cooperation between militaries, urban planners and humanitarian organizations is openly encouraged by the international institutions involved in the “recovery and reconstruction” programmes.

For example, in November 2017, the conference “Armed conflict in cities: humanitarian implications and response”, jointly organized by the International Institute of Strategic Studies and the International Committee of the Red Cross and supported by the Swiss Federal Government, brought together practitioners and experts from the “communities of architecture, development, humanitarian action, international law, security and urbanism“ (IISS, 2018).

All the participants agreed on the imperative convergence of “warfare, humanitarian action and development”.

This sinister message is well received by the many architects and urban designers who compete for the generous assignments offered by the very same international institutions that often played a pivotal role in the breaking out of conflicts.

In the websites of such professionals the messages that underline their willingness to seize the opportunities offered by the war are not rare. To give an example, Mangera Yvars architects say “ the fact that war has taken place does in many ways provide openings in the city fabric where replenishment and redevelopment can provide improvement above and beyond the prewar baseline condition … conflict, however terrible, also provides hope and opportunity for change beyond the status quo” (MYAA, nd).

A completely different attitude is shared by the authors who contributed to this special issue. All of them currently live or have lived in the places they are talking about, and draw on both theoretical and empirical field based research.

Above all, their papers concern more the people- individuals, families, communities- than the buildings or, to state it more correctly, their narrative is organized in a way that the transformations of the physical fabric can be understood only in connection to what happens to the human beings.

The case studies deal with conflicts that broke out at different historical moments and have involved different types of warring parties.

Some are not yet finished. In Syria, for instance, the regime’s war against the citizens is still ongoing but the gold rush of the reconstruction has already started, whist in Palestine the Israeli’s military occupation and the annihilation of the inhabitants seem destined to never end.

In other cases, the calm is only apparent. This happens in former Yugoslavia, where the western powers have imposed peace agreements after reaching their goal to dismember the national unitary state in order to accelerate the shift to a market economy. However, the many grievances that contributed to the spread of violence have not been fully addressed or resolved.

In Cyprus the fighting has also officially ended, but United Nations peace keepers are still patrolling, since 1974, the buffer zone that divides the two communities, each of which identifies itself with a motherland far away, which contributes to persistent suffering and insecurity.

The oldest conflict taken into consideration took place in Hong Kong, where the traces of the colonial rule mark the ground and impact on the land use plans and urban design projects decades after the end of the British empire.

The two opening papers deal with Syria and provide an accurate and dramatic picture of how urban planning machinery has been and still is systematically used as a war weapon.

Nura Ibold’s investigation starts with the analysis of the political situation that led to the uprising of 2011, with particular attention to the relationship between socio economic deprivation and the growing sectarian divide. Both these phenomena have been exacerbated during the war and now, after seven years of violence and death, and the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, the society is more divided than in the past. Social disruption and fragmentation are manifest on the ground. On the one hand, the extent of destruction is not homogeneous over the country, and even in the most devastated cities there are significant differences between “the loyalist and the rebel” districts.

On the other hand, there is a serious risk that the reconstruction process will reinforce discrimination, privileging area held by the regime, pushing out impoverished communities. Not without reason, the regime’s leaders proudly proclaim to have “reshaped the demographics” and built a “healthier and more homogeneous society”. Very suitably, in her analysis of the different strategies, actions and interests at play, Ibold underlines the ambiguity of international institutions which do not recognize the legitimacy of the regime but seem fearful to miss out on the reconstruction business.

Edwar Hanna and Nour Harastani concentrate their attention on the impact of the reconstruction policies on the Syrian citizens. The interpretative key is the legal framework developed and applied by the regime to strengthen its alliance with developers, some segments of the private sector and crony capitalists. Their detailed analysis of the property laws aimed at demarcating zones where take ownership, dispossess and evict inhabitants and prevent displaced people to return is particularly relevant and timely. As a matter of fact, “peace” will bring a surge of private investment and a number of powerful urban development companies, both national and international, are already targeting Syrian cities.

Hanna and Harastani’s paper also examines some of the megaprojects launched before 2011, positing that they have become feasible thanks to the conflict that has cleared the land from the people who were living there. Entire neighbourhoods have been razed and wiped out by the regime’s bulldozers, not during, but after the fighting. This raises disturbing similarities with what happened in Beirut twenty years ago, when the government took advantage of the war to clean up prime real estate areas and transform them into enclaves of privilege and financial investment.

A similar manifestation of “the productive capacity of war” is emerging in Damascus where the reconstruction process is at the same time a political tool that facilitates the authoritarian stabilization and the return to the pre-conflict neo- liberal order and a huge deal for investors.

In this situation the area-based approach adopted in the templates prepared by UN Habitat and the World Bank will very likely help the regime to advance its political agenda. The lack of transparency regarding the selection of neighbourhoods targeted for rehabilitation and the priority for interventions in the loyalist areas, will only strength inequality.

Besides providing information on the actual situation, the two papers on Syria poignantly contribute to the discourse on the gap between the alleged technical nature of urban planning tools and their impact on the people lives.

The vicious intertwining of zoning, demarcation of administrative boundaries and building regulations intentionally aimed at destroying a community is also at the heart of the research developed by Yara Saifi and Maha Samman. The impact of the urban planning machine on the geopolitical map of the Palestinian territories occupied by Israeli is a well studied issue. Countless fieldwork surveys have clearly established how, trough the seizure of land and dispossession, demolition and displacement, the occupants have built a landscape of apartheid.

Saifi and Samman contribute to this conversation by showing how a neighbourhood can be devastated even in absence of its physical destruction. Dahiyat al Bareed was built 60 years ago within the municipality of Jerusalem. Today the territorial re-drawing imposed by the Israeli government, and the shifting of municipal boundaries has had among its nefarious collateral damages the effect of stripping inhabitants of their residency rights, thus presenting them with the dilemma whether to “spontaneously” leave their homes, or staying in them whilst losing their right of residence. Both alternatives do substantial harm to the affected individuals and families who are forced either to hide, or to damage their own homes in an effort to make them appear uninhabited. In addition to worsen living conditions, such attempts at circumventing rules against which people are powerless, undermine the population’s dignity and weaken community cohesion.

The research that Shahd Adnan M. Qzeih and Rafooneh Mokhtarshahi Sani have conducted in the Balata refugee camp, adjacent to the city of Nablus, also deals with the relationship between material living conditions and human dignity. Originally designed to provide temporary shelter for 5000 people, Balata has become the largest and most densely populated Palestinian camp in the West Bank. Since its establishment, in 1950, the environmental conditions have constantly deteriorated. Qzeih and Sani adopt an original approach in documenting the situation as they filter the description of the physical conditions through the perceptual sensory experience of the inhabitants of the camp, where four generations have now been living.

The darkness in the narrow passageways, the constant loud noise, the unpleasant smells, the extreme cold or hot temperature, the absence of any privacy, are all causes of physical discomfort which contribute to make the life miserable and deprive the people trapped in the camp of their human dignity.

Gaza, which suffers from a long blockade and is often defined as the biggest open-air prison in the world, is another laboratory for observing the dire impact of military occupation on human beings. Yousef J. M. Abukashif and Müge Riza focus their research on the multiple constraints - the limited available land, the rapidly growing population, the economic decay - that affect the development of Gaza City.

Through the comparison and analysis of a series of maps, their paper highlights how the pattern of land occupation and the built fabric has been shaped by war, resulting in a situation so desperate that the UN warned that by 2020 Gaza will be “unfit for human habitation”.

Stress and trauma have a lasting impact on the population. This happens in many places overwhelmed by the war, where survivors struggle to adapt to the new environment in an alternation of resignation and resistance. Quite often a sort of prolonged frozen conflict is apparent in situations where the territorial disputes are still far from being resolved and a strong resentment persists despite the absence of visible violence.

Such is the case of Cyprus, where Aysu Arsoy and Hacer Basarir have studied Varosha, a tourist ased suburb of Famagusta whose inhabitants, after the division of the island in 1974, have been evacuated and never allowed to return. The border established back then is still controlled by the United Nations troops, and after more than four decades of abandonment most buildings are decaying and Varosha is labelled as a ghost town. Still its urban landscape is an archive from which the inhabitants of the two conflicting communities draw to build two divergent narratives. It is not surprising to observe controversial perceptions among social groups when they recall stories of the past and their living spaces. However, the research’s findings suggest that this attitude deepens the cleavage and weakens the prospects of the re-unification of the island.

In the last group of papers the authors look at the ways in which meaning and significance of architecture are transformed by the war.

Dijana Alic explores how during the long siege of Sarajevo the physical transformations challenged long established relationships between the built fabric and the inhabitants, introducing new modes of thinking and interpreting the city. Focusing on Baš?aršija, the oldest part of the town, the research contributes to the debate on the notion of “thirdspace” introduced by Edward Soja. Alic elaborates on this and argues that through direct experience, responsive thinking and personal interpretations of the city, the citizens of besieged Sarajevo gave new importance to the specifics of place in understanding the human condition. On the one hand, the continuation of daily life has been central to survival and “the home”, the domestic space that provides physical shelter and holds the family’s memories has been the core of the people’s resistance. On the other, reconfiguring the built fabric and reshaping the landscape of war appeared to inhabitants as the only possible concrete way to refuse the inevitability of war, a way to prevent the physical destruction from bringing with it also the deletion of the memory of a normal life.

Cyprus is the subject of the research done by Sevil Ayd?nl?k and H?fsiye Pulhan, whose aim is to surface the complex relationships between nationalism and educational institutions. Education was segregated during the period of British colonial rule, and the authors show how in different historical moments school buildings were intentionally used to exacerbate the hostility between the local communities. During the last years of the British occupation, which ended in 1960, the adoption by some Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot architects of an architectural language inspired by the International style raised hopes of the possible shift towards a unified education model. After 1974, however, the political authorities that govern the two sides of the island imposed two different educational systems, whose intentional opposition is magnified by their architectural language and forms.

The long lasting legacy of the British colonial occupation is also the subject of the paper by Jing Xiao and Charlie Q. L. Xue. The two carefully examine the vicissitudes of Victoria Barracks, a physical remnant of the British empire in a strategic site in Hong Kong, trough the lenses of what is defined contested heritage. More specifically their aim is to document how the disappearance of a military landscape of cultural significance is entangled with the laissez faire strategy of urban planning. The paper highlights how corporate interests and authoritarian planning institutions are cooperating to transform the site in a financial investment opportunity erasing its historical significance.

Taken as a whole, the papers selected for this special issue not only provide interesting empirical investigations on the many deliberate attempts to kill cities and their inhabitants but combine an empathic approach with scientific rigour thus contributing to the broadening of the discussion going beyond the case study logic. They are an important reminder to us - scholars, academics, professionals of the built environment - to reject the widespread approach that considers cities ravaged by war as opportunities, dots on a map waiting for investment and flagship projects.


EVANS M. (2016) Future War in Cities: Urbanization's challenge to strategic studies in the 21st century, International Review of the Red Cross 98 (1) 37-51.

MYAA (without date) Post conflict reconstruction available at accessed on 15th February 2019

The INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR STRATEGIC STUDIES (2018) Armed conflict in cities: humanitarian implications and responses, available at Humanitarian implications of armed conflict in cities Humanitarian implications of armed conflict in cities accessed on 15th February 2019

The WORLD BANK, UNESCO (2018) Culture in City Reconstruction and Recovery. Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group.

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