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Feral Cities


In the year 2000. the Johannesburg Stock Exchange relocated from downtown Johannesburg to Sandton, roughly twenty kilometres away. The reason for this relocation is increased security issues emerging within the city. This occurrence prompted Dr Richard Norton to reflect on the possibility for cities to retain a degree of importance in national and international systems despite law enforcement failing to operate there. According to Norton these cities could be seen as feral, they exist in a state where the government can no longer maintain the rule of law within the city’s boundaries, yet the city remains functional. To a certain degree, it is the application of concepts such as failed or fragile states to the smaller scale of a metropolis. While these concepts and the challenges associated with them have received significant attention in recent years the same cannot be said for feral cities. This is quite intriguing seeing how half of humanity already resides within urban environments that have become focal points of conflict, crime, poverty, and vulnerability to disasters. Thus, as long as the focus remains on fragile states, feral cities silently emerge as new epicentres of insecurity.

Before getting into the challenges that feral cities pose it is important to address how a city can become feral. As previously mentioned, a city is feral once the government can no longer uphold the rule of law there. However, it is important to clarify that, it is not a case of the government opting to not enforce the rule of law, in a feral city they would simply not be able to. If the city is significant to the state, such as a major harbour or airport, the state may try to negotiate a power-sharing deal with the city's leadership rather than risk military involvement that would harm the city's vital facilities. Additionally, if the state’s monopoly on violence is already slipping, then the ability of the feral city to resist the state’s forces may make negotiations the only option. In developed states, this may not be the case however the cost of running military operations in a population centre would be extremely high and most likely leave behind rubble rather than a reclaimed city. The situation is further complicated as the state’s influence inside a feral city erodes over time as it is replaced by new power structures.

As the state fails to maintain law and order within the city, individuals or groups residing there take over this responsibility and thus criminal gangs, armed resistance groups, vigilantes, clans, factions or even community watches begin to exert varying degrees of control over parts of the city. However, the involvement of such groups attracts a host of issues. Feral cities present an ideal place of refuge for terrorist organisations and armed resistance groups, in particular to those who share ideologies or certain affinities to groups within the local population. Within these cities, such groups can expand by enlisting locals or through collaboration with criminal organisations using the city’s air, sea, or road access for the import and export of both legal and illegal goods. Thus, feral cities offer prime opportunities for terrorists and other armed groups who have not yet built connections to criminal organisations to make them and in turn manufacture a local terror-crime nexus. Here, the chaos of ferality is not wild nor spontaneous, it is controlled.

Beyond acting as a sanctuary to criminals and terrorists, a feral city poses a significant threat to the environment. As the feral city functions out of the state’s control, services including sanitation and waste management unless alternatively sourced cease to operate. This will lead to an accumulation of waste in the form of visible pollution on the streets and a worse scenario, the transmission of diseases by waste on land or in water. These run the risk of manifesting into city-born pandemics, which we don’t need to look too far back into history to see (The 1854 Cholera Outbreak for example). In a feral city, an illness or virus could breed and mutate without detection, and without proper medical supplies spread rapidly and due to the porous nature of a feral city, it could easily spread beyond the confines of the urban environment. Thus, in these conditions, the feral city is essentially a toxic cesspit spewing environmental degradation that threatens not only on a local and national level but also internationally.

Up until this point, the discussion surrounding feral cities may seem a bit abstract, so to illustrate it, let’s take the example of Mogadishu, put forward by counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen. Once crowned as “The White Pearl of the Indian Ocean”, Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu now lays in ruin. The common explanation for this is that the city was destroyed in the nation’s devastating civil war. The Siad Barre regime, in retaliation to the failed coup attempt in 1978 had become increasingly totalitarian. This led to several uprisings which prompted the regime to start bombing rebel-held cities in the late 1980s. By December 1990, fighting had started in the streets of Mogadishu and a month later Siad Barre regime was overthrown by which point various rebel factions were competing for power. Using this explanation it appears that the state collapsed, fighting broke out and then Mogadishu went feral. However, there is an alternative explanation. In the decade after Somali independence, the state’s population increased from 3.4 million in 1970 to 6.3 million in 1980. At the same time, the population was rapidly urbanising, and the population of Mogadishu swelled dramatically. As a result, the city could not handle the influx of people, its infrastructure and systems could not cope. While the authorities remained in control of the city, their inability to provide services of the state such as security, left the population with no choice but to ally themselves with the warlords and factions who were emerging in the city and competing for scarce resources. These eventually tore the city apart, and as the Barre regime was overthrown the state collapsed. So, it could be argued that Mogadishu didn’t go feral because the state collapsed, the state collapsed because Mogadishu went feral.

With the global urban population rapidly increasing, stress on city infrastructure rises with that. This presents a challenge to megacities like Dhaka, Sao Paulo, and New York, as they become under increasing amounts of pressure from their swelling population. Thus, one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century as highlighted by Norton and Kilcullen will be to keep those cities from going feral.

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