Friday, July 30, 2021

Built Environment: "FERAL CITIES"

A very important piece in the literature of urban studies.

From the U.S. Naval War College Review, Volume LVI, number 4, Autumn 2003:

Imagine a great metropolis covering hundreds of square miles. Once a vital com-ponent in a national economy, this sprawling urban environment is now a vast collection of blighted buildings, an immense petri dish of both ancient and new diseases, a territory where the rule of law has long been replaced by near anarchy in which the only security available is that which is attained through brute power.1 Such cities have been routinely imagined in apocalyptic movies and in certain science-fiction genres, where they are often portrayed as gigantic versions of T. S. Eliot’s Rat’s Alley.2 

Yet this city would still be globally connected. It would possess at least a modicum of commercial linkages, and some of its inhabitants would have access to the world’s most modern communication and computing technologies. It would, in effect, be a feral city.

Admittedly, the very term “feral city” is both provocative and controversial.Yet this description has been chosen advisedly. The feral city may be a phenomenon that never takes place, yet its emergence should not be dismissed as impossible. The phrase also suggests, at least faintly, the nature of what may become one of the more difficult security challenges of the new century.

Over the past decade or so a great deal of scholarly attention has been paid to the phenomenon of failing states.3 Nor has this pursuit been undertaken solely by the academic community. Government leaders and military commanders as well as directors of nongovernmental organizations and intergovernmental bodies have attempted to deal with faltering, failing, and failed states. 

Involvement by the United States in such matters has run the gamut from expressions of concern to cautious humanitarian assistance to full-fledged military intervention. In contrast, however, there has been a significant lack of concern for the potential emergenceof failed cities. This is somewhat surprising, as the feral city may prove as common a feature of the global landscape of the first decade of the twenty-first century as the faltering, failing, or failed state was in the last decade of the twentieth.While it may be premature to suggest that a truly feral city—with the possible exception of Mogadishu—can be found anywhere on the globe today, indicators point to a day, not so distant, when such examples will be easily found.

This article first seeks to define a feral city. It then describes such a city’s attributes and suggests why the issue is worth international attention. A possible methodology to identify cities that have the potential to become feral will then be presented. Finally, the potential impact of feral cities on the U.S. military, and the U.S. Navy specifically, will be discussed.


 The putative “feral city” is (or would be) a metropolis with a population of more than a million people in a state the government of which has lost the ability to maintain the rule of law within the city’s boundaries yet remains a functioning actor in the greater international system 

In a feral city social services are all but nonexistent, and the vast majority of the city’s occupants have no access to even the most basic health or security assistance. There is no social safety net. Human security is for the most part a matter of individual initiative. Yet a feral city does not descend into complete, random chaos. Some elements, be they criminals, armed resistance groups, clans, tribes, or neighborhood associations, exert various degrees of control over portions of the city. Intercity, city-state, and even international commercial transactions occur, but corruption, avarice, and violence are their hallmarks. A feral city experiences massive levels of disease and creates enough pollution to qualify as an international environmental disaster zone. Most feral cities would suffer from massive urban hypertrophy, covering vast expanses of land. The city’s structures range from once-great buildings symbolic of state power to the meanest shantytowns and slums. Yet even under these conditions, these cities continue to grow, and the majority of occupants do not voluntarily leave. 

Feral cities would exert an almost magnetic influence on terrorist organizations. Such megalopolises will provide exceptionally safe havens for armed resistance groups, especially those having cultural affinity with at least one sizable segment of the city’s population. The efficacy and portability of the most modern computing and communication systems allow the activities of a worldwide terrorist, criminal, or predatory and corrupt commercial network to be coordinated and directed with equipment easily obtained on the open market and packed into a minivan. The vast size of a feral city, with its buildings, other structures, and subterranean spaces, would offer nearly perfect protection from over-head sensors, whether satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles. 

The city’s population represents for such entities a ready source of recruits and a built-in intelligence network. Collecting human intelligence against them in this environment is likely to be a daunting task. Should the city contain airport or sea-port facilities, such an organization would be able to import and export a variety of items. The feral city environment will actually make it easier for an armed resistance group that does not already have connections with criminal organizations to make them. The linkage between such groups, once thought to be rather unlikely, is now so commonplace as to elicit no comment. 


But is not much of this true of certain troubled urban areas of today and of thepast? It is certainly true that cities have long bred diseases. Criminal gangs have often held sway over vast stretches of urban landscape and slums; “projects” andshantytowns have long been part of the cityscape. Nor is urban pollution any-thing new—London was environmentally toxic in the 1960s. So what is different about “feral cities”? 

The most notable difference is that where the police forces of the state have sometimes opted not to enforce the rule of law in certain urban localities, in a feral city these forces will not be ableto do so. Should the feral city be of special importance—for example, a major seaport or airport—the state might find it easier to negotiate power and profit-sharing arrangements with city power centers to ensure that facilities important to state survival continue to operate. For a weak state government, the ability of the feral city to resist the police forces of the state may make such negotiations the only option. 

In some countries, especially those facing massive development challenges, even the military would beunequal to imposing legal order on a feral city. In other, more developed states it might be possible to use military force to subdue a feral city, but the cost would be extremely high, and the operation would be more likely to leave behind a field of rubble than a reclaimed and functioning population center...