A Tale of All Cities: Contemporary Urban Insecurity

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Tue, 2012-12-11 13:27 -- DSDC

Associate Professor Dr. Surachart Bamrungsuk
Department of International Relations
Faculty of Political Science
Chulalongkorn University


Dialogues on Discrepancies by Piyasak Ausup
Safe Place in the Future (?) Dystopia Now Utopia Never
The Jim Thompson Art Center Bangkok
22 November 2012 to 3 March 2013

“Cities could persist, as they have for thousands
of years, only if their advantages offset the disadvantages.”
Brendan O’ Flaherty
City Economics (2005)

๏ Introduction

In the general meaning, a city is an everlasting community space. In the context of social development, we may define a city as a modern communal setting. However, if we define a city in the context of the history of Europe, a city is an urban communal space that has gone through urbanization and has a cathedral or church as a central focus.

The origin of cities is goes back in history to the earliest times and it is difficult to determine what conditions led to the creation of the first cities in the world. However, history considers the origin of the first city to have occurred after the Neolithic revolution. The revolution resulted in the formation of systems of agriculture that transformed the communal life of society. Rather than living as nomads, people settled together to engage in an agrarian way of life. This resulted in increasing numbers of people settling down together in the same areas and depending on one another for agricultural subsistence. A growing agrarian population resulted in increased yields, eventually resulting in an even higher population practicing agriculture. Therefore, agriculture is considered to be the starting point at which people coexist together in an area. This communal living eventually led to the formation of a city. It is also possible that people required a central point where goods could be bartered. For instance, hunters needed to barter their goods for other products to support their daily lives. The exchange of goods required a reliable, authorized locality for such transactions to take place. Thus, such a place grew and expanded into a city where a large number of people could settle.

However the formation of cities occurred, clearly a city is a place of high population density compared to areas that have not gone through urbanization. The coexistence of people in communal areas can be viewed as beneficial in various ways. The city became responsible for the safety of lives and property. Essentially, a city was created with the idea that military forces would be responsible for providing protection against barbarians who attacked from outside the city’s walls. Hence, a city provides people with security from outside intrusion and creates a sense of stability.

๏ City and Modern Warfare

Whether in the ancient, medieval or modern industrial era, the role and function of a city (with or without walls) is to protect residents in the hope of bringing ‘stability’ to different aspects of people’s lives. Thus, it is not surprising to say that cities were established to respond to the instability that humans faced. The walls of a city symbolize protection from ‘instability’ that could develop.

However, in today’s world, the insecurities that cities of past eras faced have drastically changed. The walls which functioned to protect against the forces of siege warfare from an outside enemy may not continue to function as before. The twentieth century brought new developments in war technology such as aircraft that could attack a city from the air or artillery that could shoot from a long distances. This resulted in city dwellers coming in more direct contact with war. Also, there was development of long-range missiles, such as intercontinental nuclear missiles (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles - ICBMs) with the capability of striking targets across the world. The function of a city to protect the lives of residents has thus been lost and cities no longer have the role as a provider of security. In addition, as nuclear weapons can also be used to attack cities, in contemporary war situations cities become almost impossible to protect. This is especially due to methods of attacking cities from the air by using ‘smart weapons’ or ‘smart bombs’ that have Global Positioning System satellite navigation to access targets, which are defined through geographic coordinates. As a result, cities have become increasingly vulnerable in the context of modern warfare. Even though cities have installed air defense system, they are considered to be targets that are difficult to defend from attack.

Lessons learned from the air raids of World War II serve as a reminder of the vulnerability of cities from air strikes. What became known as ‘The Battle of Britain’ consisted of attacks at the start of World War II on major British cities, in particular London. The Allied Air Forces conducted heavy aerial bombardments of major cities in Europe. These attacks were against the main areas and cities of Germany such as The Ruhr, Cologne, Hamburg and Berlin. The most exemplary of the destructive attacks against Germany was the powerful air strike and bombing that demolished the city of Dresden in February 1945, taking 30,000 lives.

Moreover, the situation is not different in the case of Japan when in March 1945 the United States Air Force targeted and attacked cities in Japan with the use of heavy bombing. Not only were the lives of 80,000 people lost, but a quarter of Tokyo was also destroyed. However, the air raid that resulted in the greatest strike was the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6th and 9th August 1945, respectively. All lives in the area were lost with the utter destruction of these cities. The capacity of the weapons of mass destruction had never been experienced to such an extent before.


Stanley Baldwin, a former British Prime Minister, gave the best explanation for the vulnerability of a city. Baldwin’s words were given as warning to people of the era just before World War II, but they can be considered relevant today as a warning for people living in the contemporary world as well:
“I think it is well also for the man in the street to
realize that there is no power on earth that can
protect him from being bombed. Whatever people
may tell him, the bomber will always get through.”
(Speech in the House of Commons, 10th November 1932)

๏ City and Natural Threat

Apart from war being a condition that brings destruction to cities and its inhabitants, cities have also been immensely affected by natural threats. As a city developments and grows this becomes a significant factor to attract people to migrate to a city. The more developed a city becomes, the higher the density of population and a city is forced to further expand to accommodate more people. Before the nineteenth century, scholars on urban studies proclaimed Baghdad to be the largest city with the highest density of population in the world. At the time it had a population of up to 1.2 million. In the past it was uncommon for a city to have a population of up to a million, although the exceptions were Rome in the ancient era that had a population over a million and Alexandria in first century BC with a population close to the size of Rome.

However in modern times, London in nineteenth century was considered to have the highest population, exceeding more than a million. In addition, the industrial revolution that occurred in Europe resulted in expansion of cities in the form of massive urbanization. This led to the creation of major cities in Europe, a phenomenon that later expanded to other areas of the world. The process of urbanization impelled people to migrate from rural areas into cities, which caused urban areas to expand to accommodating greater population density.

In the case of the United States, the development of urbanization can be clearly discerned. From 1900 to 1990, the rate of growth in urban development increased from 40 percent to 80 percent. Urbanization was not limited to cities of Europe and the United States since in the present time we have been seeing expansion of cities and creation of large metropolises in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

The basic components of a modern city are buildings, housing and system of sanitation. Another significant component is the socioeconomic structure of a city. The socioeconomic structure creates activities for its inhabitants and brings life to a city. In today’s era critical infrastructure systems are crucial to support a city.

On the one hand, these are especially vulnerable to the destruction of warfare as mentioned above. Cities are also, however, susceptible to natural disasters. Nonetheless, this does not imply that communities in rural areas are safe from natural calamities. As cities have large populations and a complex urban structure, the impact of natural disasters is much more severe than for rural areas.

The seven natural disasters that can causes damage to a city are: 1) Earthquakes, 2) Windstorms, 3) Floods, 4) Tsunamis, 5) Volcanoes, 6) Landslides and 7) Extreme temperatures.

From the disasters mentioned above, earthquakes are the most destructive to a city. Apart from earthquakes, floods and windstorms are equally destructive as can be seen in some notable instances of natural disasters that have caused severe devastation to cities and their inhabitants such as:
- Earthquake in Shanxi and Henan province in 1556 that killed as many as 830,000 people and destroyed several cities in the area.
- Earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal in 1755, causing the death of 300,000 people.
- Earthquake in Tokyo, Japan in 1923, also known as "The Great Kanto Earthquake" causing the death of approximately 140,000 people.
- Earthquake in Tang-shan, China in 1976, which took 242,000 lives.
- Flood of Huang Ho River in China in 1887, which caused 900,000 deaths. Repeated floods occurred in 1938 and again in 1939, causing the death of more than 500,000 people.
- A cyclone caused significant damage to Bangladesh in 1970, which caused the death of 300,000 people.
- Hurricane and Tsunami in 2004, causing damage to many cities in the countries located along the shores of the Indian Ocean. The death toll reached 235,000 people.

From what has been mentioned above, we can see that war and natural disasters are sources of insecurity in a city, hence, the two are not very different. That is, the threat of wars, as well as nature, are all capable of ruining cities and inhabitants within a quick span of time. Therefore, natural disasters are as dangerous as wars as they can cause as much destruction.

However, people still desire to live in a city due to the fact that a city is an economic, social and cultural center. More significantly, it is the center of political power. The city’s role as the center of human activity is crucially important. Therefore, no matter what takes place, people still feel the need to continue living in a city without taking into account any future uncertainties that could arise. They hold the belief that a city will continue to protect their lives and property.

๏ City and Contemporary Violence

Another side of insecurity that cities face can be seen from the violence that took place on 11 September 2001 when a city became the target of an attack. The fact that a city was a target of terrorism is not new. In fact, modern terrorism can be a major problem in any city. However, the clearly visible phenomenon in the case of 9/11 was that the city was a “soft target”. Thus, for a city to protect itself from attacks by ‘professional terrorists” is difficult.

Mayor Martin O’Malley from the city of Baltimore, Maryland spoke about the United States and the current situation of cities. He was quoted saying, “ On 9/11 it became clear that American cities were the second front in a new kind of war”. In addition, he spoke of fighters on the new battlefield of the city of New York from his perspective of the incident, saying that, “The 9/11 proved that local law enforcement, firefighter, and emergency medical technicians are the new soldiers in this new war on the home front.”

Moreover, apart from a series of attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, we have seen many other similar incidents: the bombing of a nightclub in Bali (The Bali Bombing) in 2002, the explosion at the railway station in Madrid (The Madrid Bombing) in 2004, and the bombings in subways in London (The London Bombing) in 2007. These incidents clearly indicate the government’s inability to control all the targeted places in a city. This is because these locales are part of a larger system, such as transportation systems, for example the railway station, ferry station and airport. An important urban security issue is that these targets are all “soft targets”. To make such targets a “hard target” is difficult. Through his experience managing a city, the mayor of the city of Baltimore, O’Malley, has concluded, “Some (urban) targets are inherently difficult to harden.”

Therefore, the mission of the city administration, especially of major cities due to the current situation is finding possible ways to prevent attacks on targeted areas of their own city. Every major city has a number of targeted areas that are difficult to protect or safeguard. Thus, due to the nature of violence in the contemporary world, it is not easy to develop a city into becoming a hard target.

Seen from another perspective, instability is also a result of increase in criminal activity. In the contemporary world, where crime has become transnational organized crime, police officers, who are responsible for maintaining order, are forced to face enormous challenges. Therefore, security has been declared as a major issue in the contemporary era. Perhaps, we can describe the challenges as ‘criminal threat to security” which is bound to occur in big cities around the world.

Such a phenomenon made the Secretary General of Interpol, Ronald Noble come out and speak on the problem, saying that, “No one country can effectively fight transnational organized crime within or outside its border.” (2003). Therefore, an effort to form a city that is stable and safe from issues of crime requires increased cooperation between countries.

However, on the other hand, there are the possible consequences of the abovementioned problems which cause concerns. For a city to be strong enough to battle against terrorists and criminals, a sense of “fear” must not be created. At the same time, the situation must not lead to “a paranoid securitizing reflex” which would cause the population to use all capacities to remain safe. Ultimately such an effect would undermine democracy and civil rights. In addition, such an approach in tackling terrorism and organized crime would eventually lead to “a war on everything” and diminish the rule of law in society.

Therefore, it is crucial to be heedful that while creating a strong city to fight against terrorism and organized crime, this effort must not lead to the creation of “feelings of insecurity”. This is because we might find that our sense of insecurity is in itself a greater threat than the actions of our opponents.

๏ A City of Dreadful Delight!

We must admit that the truth cannot be denied. Modern cities create insecurities in many areas and the more development a city goes through, the more the problem of insecurity arises. Scholar in Urban Studies, David M. Wood gave his perspective regarding the problem, saying that, “Both new forms of insecurity and new forms of urbanism were emerging” (2010)

The development of cities in today’s world is also associated with development of capitalism and globalization, which have shaped cities to be more complicated. Examples of this can be found in many large cities that have formed around the world. This is because cities expand rapidly, moving into areas that may not be suitable or prone to inundation or landslides, etc. Moreover, rapid expansion may result in construction that is incontrollable and not conforming to standards. Therefore, when faced with disasters caused by nature or by human’s actions, we are unable to defend ourselves.

Due to the vulnerable nature of a city, especially in cases of large-scale terrorism like 9/11, the role of the city to protect against terrorism has been questioned. Whether cities can continue to hold this role in the modern world is questionable. The city’s prominent role in the past has been what the scholar, Brendan O’Flaherty wrote in his book, City Economics (2005): “Cities then, economize on protection, and so protection against marauding barbarian armies is one reason why people have come together to live in cities...” However, if in the present world it is almost impossible to protect oneself since cities are susceptible to threatening forces, then what must people who have to live in a city do?

However fragile and unstable a city may be, people are still required to live in cities because they can provide everything needed for one’s life. More significantly, a city is a symbol of progress and modernity or at least people still believe in the old German saying from the Middle Ages, “Stadtluf macht frei” (“City air makes you free”)

What about you, do you believe a city makes you a free citizen...?
Or for you, is a city associated with evil and sin and therefore a city is nothing more than what the people of the Victorian era had thought to be “a city of dreadful delight”?
Or for you, is a city a symbol of exploitation done by capitalism which must be overthrown...
If this is the case, are you not one of those who wants to destroy the city...whether by planting a bomb or by flying an aircraft to crash against a building? There is no difference, since the city must be destroyed!



Note: First Published in 'Safe Place in the Future (?) Dystopia Now Utopia Never' Program by Jim Thompson Art Center, More detail > http://www.thejimthompsonartcenter.org/web/main.php?m=exhibitions&id=29