Cities gone wild

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As the world has undergone the largest wave of urban growth in human history, is the city slipping out of control? Geoff Manaugh paints an emerging picture of metropolitan wildness in which an increasing number of cities become the sites of military conflicts and political, economic and social decay. Could the city be reverting to a medieval model in which illiterate power – criminals, gangs and urban warlords – predominate over rational politics and legitimate government?

In the nearly six years since Richard J Norton popularised the term ‘feral cities’ with his autumn 2003 paper for the Naval War College Review, ‘Feral Cities: The New Strategic Environment’, we have seen Mogadishu, Somalia, become a radiating epicentre of regional sea piracy; we have seen the insurgent city of Fallujah, Iraq, levelled by the US Marine Corps in an operation called ‘Phantom Fury’; we have seen a highly infectious disease, SARS, emerge from the densely populated urban agglomerations of southeast China; we have seen the streets of New Orleans filled with troops from the National Guard after the city was all but destroyed by a hurricane; and we have seen the modern city itself revisited as an unkempt site of wilderness, chaos and abandonment in films like I Am Legend (2007) and cable television specials such as Life After People.

A more amusing example of this trend towards urban wildness comes to us from The Times, which reported in November 2008 that: ‘[m]ost adults think children “are feral and a danger to society”’, and that cities like London have become ‘infested’ with such children, threatening the social fabric itself.

An increasing number of cities, one might say, have gone wild, becoming not centres of vibrant cosmopolitanism, but alarming evidence that the urban world has begun slipping out of control. In agreement with a growing number of contemporary urban theorists and geographers, Professor Stephen Graham suggests that this has become, among other things, a situation of utmost military interest. In his forthcoming book Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, Graham writes that: ‘Western and Israeli militaries and security forces now perceive all urban terrain as a real or imagined conflict zone inhabited by lurking, shadow enemies, and urban inhabitants as targets that need to be continually tracked, scanned, controlled and targeted.

This is something Russell W Glenn of the RAND Corporation – an air force think tank based in southern California – calls ‘combat in Hell’. In a 1996 report, Glenn pointed out that: ‘Urban terrain confronts military commanders with a synergism of difficulties rarely found in other environments, many of which are technological. For instance, the effects of radio communications and global positioning systems can be radically limited by dense concentrations of architecture, turning what might otherwise be an exotic experience of pedestrian urbanism into a claustrophobic labyrinth inhabited by enemy combatants. Add to this the fact that military ground operations of the near future are far more likely to unfold in places like Sadr City, Iraq (and not in paragons of city planning like Vancouver), where soldiers will be confronted with an environment in which, as Norton writes, they might be as likely to die from tetanus, rabies and dog attacks as from actual armed combat.

Cities are not just complex administrative challenges, but military problems; seen from this perspective, the city has become a terrifying and unmappable terrain, filled with informal structures, walls, dead ends and narrow alleyways, an environment that must be rethought entirely if seen through the eyes of a war planner or soldier.

In other words, the city still inhabits its historical role as the place to which one goes to find culture, light, music and education. However, the flipside of this is that the city has always been the very site in which one most intensely finds darkness, confrontation and selferasure. The ‘Satanic mills’ of Blake, so energetically tackled by 19thcentury labour reform and even the public sanitation programmes of early modernity, are still turning.

If there is something new here, though, it is that cities are now where more humans live than ever before, making the species for the first time in its biological history urban, and thus rarely in proximity to something other than itself or its own creations. Indeed, according to the United Nations Population Fund: ‘The world is undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history,’ with the result that, by 2008, ‘more than half of the world’s population [was] living in towns and cities’ for the first time. The idea that the city itself could go wild, or even historically backwards, freed from any recognisable stricture of moral standards or 21st-century civility, thus emerges at a particularly interesting moment, the precise moment at which more of us are urban than ever before. If this is the landscape in which we find ourselves now living, then it is only to be expected that cities will also inspire a particularly robust form of nightmarish speculation, becoming not citadels of personal enlightenment but environments of imminent violence, disease, rape, kidnapping, terrorism and death.

It would seem, then, that as the city has become a focus of intense imaginative labour – studied by architects, sociologists, military planners, Hollywood screenwriters and even sci-fi novelists – it has also become a setting for something altogether less utopian than might once have been hoped for in the halcyon days of Modernist social planning. Indeed, as Mike Davis suggests in his book Planet of Slums: The cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood. Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay.

But what is a feral city? Norton himself has some suggestions: ‘Imagine a great metropolis covering hundreds of square miles,’ he begins.

Once a vital component 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.

With its infrastructure having collapsed long ago – or having never been built in the first place – there are no works of public sanitation, no flood defences, no licensed medical practitioners and no reliable food supply. The feral city is a kind of return to the medieval era, a dark age for anyone but criminals, gangs and urban warlords. It is a time of illiterate power: strength unresponsive to rational politics.

For Norton, feral cities are cities that have failed to deliver on the basic promise of urbanity, failed to live up to the expectations of civilisation itself. The residents have banded together in physical space, only to find that the true enemy from which they must be protected is each other. One might say that this is Nietzsche against Hobbes: that is, these cities have reneged on their promise of a beneficent Leviathan. This new development is as much a problem of philosophy as it is of political theory, and it is rapidly becoming a problem of architecture and urban design. For instance, a feral city’s ‘buildings, other structures, and subterranean spaces, would offer nearly perfect protection from overhead sensors, whether satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles’. The feral city, that is, is a maze resistant to aerial mapping, its roofscape accessible to surveillance by attack helicopters and Google Earth while its street life remains invisible to organisational oversight. In both legal and visual terms, the feral city is a kind of blind spot: it is, in a literal sense, self-camouflaged.

Unfortunately, and perhaps even because of this, urban ferality also remains understudied. Norton continues: Over the past decade or so, a great deal of scholarly attention has been paid to the phenomenon of failing states. In contrast, however, there has been a significant lack of concern for the potential emergence of failed cities.

I would suggest, however, that Norton himself is not immune to this diagnosis; his paper is oddly thin on specifics, describing an environment that sounds rather more like 1980s Brixton and less like the urban ‘Hell’ of the RAND Corporation. That is, urban ferality would seem to call for a descriptive intensity that Norton’s paper ultimately fails to deliver.

At the very least, feral cities are an imaginative resource for writers, film-makers, visual artists and theoreticians – not to mention architects – but Norton’s own verbal shaping of these environments somehow fails to inspire true dread. His feral city, in which, he writes, ‘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, sounds like London during the Thatcher years: dangerous and at risk of infrastructural collapse, but nowhere near the horrific imaginings of contemporary science-fiction novels or even Hollywood thrillers.

These latter genres seem oddly more willing than Norton to imagine the true depravity of an unsupervised urban environment, and this narrative shortcoming is particularly interesting when one recalls that Norton’s paper was published by the Naval War College Review. Is the military underimagining its own future battlefield? The less than impressive record of the US occupation of Iraq offers its own suggestive answer to this query. What does it mean, then, that films like 28 Days Later (2002) and Escape From New York (1981), novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2007) and even early first-person shooter video games such as Doom are better than the military at representing the depravities of a landscape gone wild? Should combat theoreticians turn away from their own war college reviews and pick up stacks of comic books, novels and DVDs instead?

I would thus like to propose a research project on the feral city, one that would pass through different historical eras (from the feral towns and plague villages of Europe, after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and the Black Death, to the fire-bombed urban cores of the Second World War), cultural genres (from films like Assault on Precinct 13 (2005) to novels such as Sol Yurick’s The Warriors (2003), and from comic series like Warren Ellis’s Feral City to video games such as Warhammer 40,000), and spatial scales (feral neighbourhoods – even feral buildings – within otherwise functioning cities). It is only when fully considering the range of ferality, so to speak, that we can appreciate how interesting the topic really is and how important it is that these environments given over to chaos can be more accurately examined and described. In its most collaborative form, this could take the shape of an organised research studio dedicated to a study of the wild metropolis, synthesising sci-fi with site visits, anthropological studies of failed cities with cinematic views of those regions’ darkest alleyways.

So where do feral cities stand today? How might we best describe them, or represent them architecturally, in order to study how they came to be created? What does the space of a feral city actually look like? How can it be most effectively mapped? For instance, what is the spatial experience of the feral city for those who live there, and what might an oral history of feral city dwellers tell us about urban life in the 21st century?

Within any study of ferality, however, there is a continuum of urban wildness that must be explored in far more rigorous detail; after all, if riots, disease and gang warfare are at one end of the feral spectrum, then the unthreatening informality and libertarian quasi-urbanism of summer-camp grounds are at the other. Neither of these examples is a centrally administered space of habitation, but at what point does lack of central authority lead to genuine ferality? Further, if a warlord or organised gang is in charge of a certain neighborhood, is that neighborhood truly feral or is it simply subject to a new form of rogue microsovereignty?

This brings us to the unquestioned cultural assumptions that haunt these very questions: whether we are referring to the slums of São Paolo or to the waterfront arms markets of Mogadishu, it is distinctly possible that we use the word ‘feral’ simply to gloss over the fact that we do not understand how those cities function. Again, this rapidly becomes an architectural concern: we are confronting new types of urban organisation, and new strategies for the inhabitation of the built environment.

Once these questions have been answered, however, will urban planners, city councils and architects be any better at intervening in, and ameliorating, feral cities for their residents? Or would the results of such a study simply be appropriated by the military to organise more effective invasions tomorrow? These are genuine and important research questions and they require a different form of analysis than that presented by Richard J Norton or his intellectual colleagues at the RAND Corporation. The goal of this research would be to produce a working taxonomy, or descriptive catalogue, of cities gone wild, cutting across genres and historical eras. From Sodom and Gomorrah to the Los Angeles riots, from London’s various and ever shifting Murder Miles to the film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), by way of Baghdad and Grozny, the feral city is ubiquitous in both history and cultural imagination. Where else might feral cities be discovered – and what spatial or strategic lessons does their existence entail?

As the foreseeable human future becomes more and more thoroughly urbanised, we still have much to learn about how, as a species, we organise ourselves spatially, what potential futures our settled landscapes might hold, and how our relationships to strangers living in close proximity might change under extreme environmental pressures. The limit case of all of this is the feral city.

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