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What Happens When Cities Fall Apart?

What Happens When Cities Fall Apart?

Military strategist David Kilcullen was in New York City earlier this week to talk about the future of urban warfare at the World Policy Institute in Manhattan. Gizmodo tagged along to learn more about “future conflicts and future cities,” as Kilcullen describes it, and to see what really happens when urban environments fail — when cities fall apart or disintegrate into ungovernable canyons of semi-derelict buildings ruled by cartels, terrorist groups, and paramilitary gangs.

Kilcullen’s overall thesis is a compelling one: remote desert battlegrounds and impenetrable mountain tribal areas are not, in fact, where we will encounter the violence of tomorrow. For Kilcullen — indeed, for many military theorists writing today — the war in Afghanistan was not the new normal, but a kind of geographic fluke, an anomaly in the otherwise clear trend for conflicts of an increasingly urban nature.

What Happens When Cities Fall Apart?

The very title of Kilcullen’s book — Out of the Mountains — suggests this. War is coming down from the wild edges of the world, driving back toward our lights and buildings from the unstructured void of the desert, and arriving, at full force, in the hearts of our cities, in our markets and streets. The recent siege in Nairobi and the Mumbai attacks, to name only two examples that came up in Kilcullen’s discussion at the World Policy Institute this week, are evidence of the urbanization of violence and war.

But if cities — particularly in the world’s coastal, developing regions — are such a hotbed for future aggression, as Kilcullen and other military theorists suggest, then how can we develop a new understanding of the city that would help us to, in a sense, design away this growing problem? Kilcullen, a former soldier with the Australian military and a survivor of many an ambush during his time in Afghanistan, said repeatedly that there is no military solution here. If we want to war-proof our cities, so to speak, we need more than guns and ammo.

What Happens When Cities Fall Apart?

So violence is coming down out of the mountains, Kilcullen explained, and it is taking root in the spaces of everyday life, in cities and suburbs where both infrastructure and governance have failed. This is the “future environment” or operational theatre that military planners both fear and rigorously prepare for, one populated by feral cities — one of my favourite phrases of all time, coined in 2003 by Richard Norton — dystopian urban wastelands ruled over by loose constellations of gangs.

However, these same military planners are not the ones who should be most closely focused on the darkening horizon: rather, Kilcullen emphasised, we need to push civilian designers and professionals into thinking about “urban environments that are dramatically under stress,” as he phrased it during his talk.

What Happens When Cities Fall Apart?

To this point, Kilcullen’s own professional role — a member of the executive team at Caerus Associates, a “strategy and design firm” working with architects and urban planners from its base in Washington D.C. — is, in and of itself, a vote of confidence in a non-military solution. “We help clients understand and thrive in complex, conflict-afflicted, and disaster-affected environments,” their catchphrase claims.

But, given all this, what did Kilcullen actually say?

What Happens When Cities Fall Apart?

An articulate and precise speaker — his somewhat menacing message, of overpopulated cities trapped in death spirals, tempered only slightly by a soothing and intact Aussie accent — Kilcullen outlined where the cities of the world are going, how violence is following them, and where this conflict comes from in the first place.

There were multiple take-aways.

Crime is Warfare on Another Scale

There has been “a blurring of the distinction between crime and warfare” in urban environments, he pointed out. Armed gangs and paramilitary terrorist groups are blurring together. Look no further than cartel violence in northern Mexico and you can see that a sufficiently organised criminal is no different than a warlord.

We might say that a large enough crime spree is indistinguishable from an insurgency — a revolution against order in the city.

Feral Suburbs

It is not always correct to call these environments “cities,” on the other hand, nor to assume that all of the violence is, in fact, truly “urban” — rather, much of these conflicts are bred in what Kilcullen described as “diffuse” environments, or informal settlements on the “peri-urban” edge of the metropolis.

So, while we might say feral cities or cities gone wild, the problem is actually the violence of the diffuse and the decentered — the disorganized and the anti-urban — unexpectedly popping up in the city core.

Urban Embassies

We need to move beyond the nation-state and think, instead, at the level of cities. Kilcullen here made the intriguing observation that, rather than having an India desk or an Egypt desk, for example, whether at a major newspaper or in the U.S. State Department, we should think much more specifically: assigning groups of analysts to particular conurbations for their unique urban needs. A Mumbai desk, a Nairobi desk.

As but one example, here, Kilcullen mentioned something that journalist Christopher Dickey has also explored elsewhere, with remarkable breadth: which is that the NYPD has established what are, in effect, “New York embassies,” in Kilcullen’s words, in cities abroad. These overseas branches of the New York Police Department form a global circuit of city-to-city intelligence gathering operations; these are important sources of coordination and local expertise, both more subtle and far cheaper than a military operation.

Even beyond this, Kilcullen emphasised the growing political importance of cities, as administrative units, and the urgency with which we need to understand their functioning. His analysis also suggests a new and surprising geopolitical actor in the world: the mayor. The mayor of a mega-city like New York can be far more important on the international stage than even the leader of a nation-state, and the city itself — whether it’s Lagos or Mexico City — can often punch far above the weight of the nation-state it’s found within.

Failure From Above

During the Q&A, Kilcullen briefly mentioned the work of Crisis Mappers, who have developed tools for visually analysing urban form using satellite photos. According to Kilcullen, they are able to do this with an astonishing degree of accuracy, diagnosing what parts of cities seem most prone to failure. Whether this is due to empty lots and abandoned buildings or to infrastructural isolation from the rest of the city, the factors that determine “ferality” in the built environment is a kind of aerial application of the Broken Windows theory.

The implication — conceptually fascinating, but by no means convincing, at least for me — was that we could, in theory, develop a visual algorithm for identifying environments tending toward failure, and thus find a way to intervene before things truly fall apart. Teams of architects with their own dedicated satellites could thus scan the cities of the world from above, algorithmically identifying urban regions prone to collapse, then intervening with a neighbourhood redesign. It sounds great — it’s very high-tech and would make a great comic book — but it seems highly unlikely as the true way forward.

What Happens When Cities Fall Apart?

In the end, then, it was this larger notion of “intervening” that became the elephant in the room. How is it to be done? What is intervention in the first place? How do we de-stress an urban landscape through design?

Again, this is something not achieved by blowing things up with Cruise missiles, Kilcullen made clear, but by reorganising the city, strengthening local lines of communication and governance, and treating urban planning as an alternative to war.

In any case, Kilcullen himself is a better advocate of his ideas, and his book is as great a place as any to start, delving into all of the above points in far greater detail (and including further astonishing tales, such a series of drug raids in Kingston, Jamaica, and their spatial legacy in British colonialism). Better yet, check the Caerus Associates website for a list of any forthcoming public appearances, and perhaps you can catch the author in a city — feral or not — near you some time this autumn.

All photos in this post by David Kilcullen, from his book Out of the Mountains.

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