Martin Coward

Cities under Fire

Urban violence is a popular topic for politicians and the media. They tend, however, to focus on the various criminal violences to the person that supposedly threaten citizens on a day-to-day basis: knife crime, gun crime, rape, etc. Concentration on these threats – however real and tragic their impact may be – tends to obscure a possibly greater threat to contemporary urban life: attacks carried out by terrorists, militias and the most powerful armies on the planet alike. Organised violence against the city has become endemic in the present era. From bombings of prominent buildings and infrastructures to massive strikes on the architecture of regimes taken to be hostile to ‘our’ values via the anti-urban destruction of ethnic-nationalist violence, the city is in a fragile, imperilled position at the present time. In the following text, I want to outline the three most significant types of organised violence that are arrayed against the city as well as the reason why such attacks on the city are especially noteworthy right now.


Widespread and deliberate destruction of the built environment is an attempt to destroy the nature of the city itself. I have referred to this violence as urbicide: the killing of cities. Though not historically specific to the post-Cold War period, its most striking instances might be seen in the Bosnian Serb assaults on Mostar and Sarajevo and the Russian levelling of Grozny. This violence seeks to destroy buildings because they are generative of the specific character of the city. Cities are what Engin_Isin has referred to as ‘difference machines’, places of plurality and diversity. Buildings create the public spaces that are the basis of such pluralism and diversity.

Ethnic nationalists abhor plurality since their political programs are founded on notions of possessing territories as their sole owners. As such the pluralism of the city offends ethnic nationalistic politicians and militias. They seek to eradicate it through the destruction of the buildings that create the public spaces that are the basis of this plurality. Hence, where we find ethnic nationalism, we find urbicide. Urbicide is particularly pernicious because it is a potentially infinite violence against the city. Urbicidal regimes tend towards a total levelling of the urban environment in an attempt to destroy the last remaining traces of public spaces and the diversity they foster. Urbicide thus harbours a tendency towards annihilation that makes its detection and contestation imperative.

Military targeting of cities

In the post-Cold War era the military forces of advanced industrial states such as the US, UK and NATO partners have increasingly been turned on the city. In the wake of WWII experiences such as the bloody street fighting of Stalingrad, military strategy came to view the city as a dangerous terrain in which armies would become bogged down as their technological supremacy was neutralised by close quarters combat and the need to avoid massive civilian casualties. Not withstanding the targeting of cities by nuclear forces, much of the strategy of the Cold war was focussed on controlling open terrains such as the plains of eastern Germany through a combination of air power and mechanised ground forces.

However, in the post-Cold War era the thoughts of military planners have again turned to the city. As the threat of invasion by Warsaw pact troops receded, the threat of insurgents operating out of the cities of the middle east and the wider global south loomed large in the political imaginaries of security specialists in NATO countries. Simultaneously, the notion of network centric warfare that accompanied an increased deployment of information technology in these armed forces drew further attention to the strategic importance of cities. Network centric war focuses on destroying the various nodes of communication and supply that coordinate enemy logistics and command and control. Much of this infrastructure is in cities, thus leading to attacks on urban fabric such as the shock and awe campaign that preceded the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Under these circumstances discourses concerning Military Operations on/in Urban Terrain (MOUT) or Fighting in Built-up Areas (FIBUA) have become more important in military circles. These discussions – whose effects can be seen in FallujahSadr City andGaza – have once again made the city the target of the most powerful armed forces in the world, thus exposing urban fabric (especially in the global south) to a new range of threats.


The third threat is that posed by so-called ‘network’ or ‘al Qaeda style’ terrorism. This violence is typified in the September 11 2001 attack on New York, the March 11 2004 attack on the Madrid rail network and the 7th July 2005 attack on the London underground. Modern terrorism has, of course often struck at the city as the symbolic (or actual) seat of political or economic power. However, ‘al Qaeda’ attacks seem to exemplify a novel dynamic in asymmetric warfare: namely the specific targeting of the infrastructures of globalised life. Attacks on buildings, rail systems and the associated effects on communication infrastructures strike at the metropolitan way of life that has become typical of cities under conditions of globalisation. This way of life is shaped by access to (or exclusion from) infrastructure. These infrastructures are densely clustered in urban spaces. Attacking them is thus necessarily and attack on the city and its metropolitan character. This terrorism has thus become an imminent threat for the world’s cities.

Conclusion – Global Urbanisation

There is an important reason why these violences are of particular note at the present time. In 2007 the United Nations announced that an important milestone had been reached in human history. For the first time over half of the world’s population lived in cities. The UN referred to this event as the advent of the ‘urban millennium’. The urban millennium will have two consequences in relation to violence such as urbicide, MOUT/FIBUA and terrorism. Firstly, as cities occupy more of the earth’s surface and contain more of its population they will, as a matter of simple probability, become the arena of organised violence.

Warfare will be urbanised and urbicide, MOUT/FIBUA and al Qaeda style terrorism tell us much about how this process may unfold. Secondly, the urbanisation witnessed in the contemporary era is characterised by the merging of previously distinct cities into multi-centric urban conglomerates. These vast metropolises are bound together by infrastructures such as roads, trains and communications conduits. These networked infrastructures will be crucial to supporting city life in the urban millennium. Attacks on infrastructure and the built environment will thus strike right at the heart of the predominant way of life in the future. It is for these reasons that we should be alert to the urbanisation of warfare and security and seek, where possible, to contest or mitigate its dynamics.

Martin Coward

Martin Coward is lecturer in International Politics at Newcastle University, UK. He is author of Urbicide: The Politics of Urban Destruction (Routledge, 2008. His current research focuses on the contemporary relationship between the city and

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